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I was raised to be racist

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Before you judge, keep reading.

No one is born prejudiced, or racist. Since it is not a gene passed down in our lineage from generation to generation, it is my hope that my experience might shed some light on our current societal racial tensions and divide.

I was raised in a prejudiced home, with an Italian Catholic step father, and a white Catholic, Jewish by descent, mother.

My entire life growing up in the Midwest, in our small modest home located in a lower middle income predominately white neighborhood, I often heard my stepfather refer to black people as “shines”. His son would visit and I can recall conversations where the N word was used. I could not tell you any of the actual conversations, but as it goes with any traumatic or profound event in our lives, I remember the thoughts and the feelings I had at the time.

I hated the way my step dad and his son talked about people of color. I felt sick in my stomach every time I heard them talk this way. Every part of my being knew it was unfair, wrong, biased, hateful and despicable. I would have a physiological response of anxiety and I could feel my whole body tense up. I wanted to be anywhere other than where they were.

As I became a teenager, these words, attitudes and behaviors continued. But as it goes with teens, I went along my busy self involved life, pursued things and people that were of interest to me, and went on my merry way feeling helpless that I could not change their attitudes, words or biases.

When I got to be a young adult, this behavior continued to bother me – along with some other dysfunctions in the family dynamic- and I realized I did not want to continue living near my hometown. At age eighteen, I went to college two hours away, and then two years later moved completely out of state to finish my college education. I never moved back. I knew I would not want to ever marry, have children and subject them to these conversations, ugly prejudices and racist comments.

There is also something else you should know about my step dad- he’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. This egregious behavior is something he learned.

Prejudice and racism are learned behaviors. I am glad that I had the good sense to set a boundary, and to say no to raising up another generation who would have learned these attitudes and behaviors, or have to be retrained that nothing about those words, behaviors or attitudes was ok.

There is more to this story, as is often the case.

I am now in my 50’s and four months ago I had a conversation with my 80 year old step father about this issue. I asked him some questions, and he shared his story.

Back in the old days, he was an Italian kid hanging out with a bunch of other Italian kids in the old immigrant neighborhood. A couple of blocks away lived black kids, and these two groups decided that they hated each other…

Each kid committed horrible violent acts against each other. The cycle of violent act/ retaliation continued over and over. Just writing this brings tears to my eyes. Where were the parents? Where were people who could have stood up and said, wait….this is not ok.

Where were the community leaders to say let’s come to the table together. Let’s ask each other questions and really get to know one another. Let’s do this differently. Let’s stop thinking badly about one another based on something so ridiculous as the difference in color of our skin or our ethnicity.

Do we discriminate against people with different eye color? Do we say only the people with hazel eyes will get equal treatment? Only those with blue eyes can have access to certain jobs, houses or education? Can you imagine a world where we look at each other’s eyes and say, oh you have green eyes- back to the end of the line. Sounds ridiculous right?

That is how nonsensical this is to me. And yet here we are. I feel angry, sad, bewildered, disillusioned, and heartbroken that as a society, this is where we STILL find ourselves.

Look at a child. What do you notice?

They are curious. They want to play. They want to be loved and accepted.

They have much to teach us adults.

What experiences have you had that caused you to judge people you don’t even know yet? ( Unconscious bias). If you experienced a traumatic event with a person of another race or ethnicity, please do not globalize your experience. That one person caused you harm, not their entire race.

It is not too late. Begin to challenge your thoughts and attitudes about your experiences or the experiences of others.

Be willing to face your fears, insecurities and messaging that somehow you are entitled to privileges that others are not, including the privilege of just walking freely down the street.

Discern the factual information of WHAT has happened in your life, from the CONCLUSIONS you have drawn based on your life experiences, messaging and modeling from others. It is the latter we need to pay attention to. We cannot change our life events, however we can shift our thoughts about how we think about them.

Question people when you hear their biases, prejudices or racist comments.

Not with hatred, but with care and respect, ask them more about their story. I am not saying this is easy, but I am saying in many instances it can be worthwhile to hear someone else’s story. By listening, you may be able to show them the compassion that was not shown to them previously. You may also strike up a conversation that gets them thinking…

When we show up patient and compassionate, we can ask questions that may just in fact cause someone to question their story- their history- to see if their conclusions are really accurate.( E.g., all _____ are bad because of ____, is one narrative that gets perpetuated through generations if left unchecked.)

We all have a brain that when we ask a question, and that question is answered, we’ll stop looking for answers, even when the question has been answered horribly wrong.

Be curious how you, or someone else, got to a place of forming negative conclusions about someone they don’t even know. They likely have an experience of having this generational sin and bias passed down, or they have globalized one person or event to transcend to an entire people group.

Think about who you are and what you want: Because generally, people want the same things.

To be known

To be loved

To be accepted

To be safe

To be cared for and appreciated

To have opportunities and access to education, jobs, careers and decent housing

To have these things apply to their children and grandchildren

Now think of someone you know that is very different from you.

They want the same.

What if we consciously and intentionally moved toward being united by our common humanity? What if we focused on what we have in common, while being curious and embracing the differences in our race, ethnicity or culture? We all play a role in providing a different landscape, in creating a different and safe community where people can experience life abundantly, and one where we are compassionately united by our humanity. If we take the time to be curious and step a bit out of our comfort zone, we will likely find that we have more in common with people that are different from us than we knew.

Let’s be curious about our differences rather than indignant, hateful and awful.

We all have a story. Please, take the time to do a deeper dive into yours and weed out the parts that are causing you to have unconscious bias. Today seek out someone who is different than you and just say hi. Start a different conversation. Let’s change the human landscape one intentional, beautiful, curious conversation at a time.

I’ll go first. I want to know you more…



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