November 20, 2009

Bringing up kids in today's world

Our neighbor Lorraine Collins always has an interesting perspective on a wide range of topics. Here's another that may catch your interest -- and perhaps spur a comment or two. Her commentaries appear regularly in the Black Hills Pioneer, and she graciously allows us to share them with on-line readers here.

Two of my grandchildren go to a public elementary school in Norfolk, VA a few blocks from their home. I visited this school a couple of years ago during lunch hour when the cafeteria lunch room was a noisy chaos of energetic youngsters. What impressed me then and impresses me now is that the children paid no attention at all to race. Black children, Asian children, white children all seemed to associate with each other on some selection basis other than the color of their skin. In fact, 60% of the children in that elementary school are black, so my Swedish-English grandchildren are in the minority. They don’t seem to realize this and pay no attention at all to what color the person next to them may be.

This makes me wonder when it is that race becomes such a big deal in our relationships, and when and how we learn to mistrust, fear or hate somebody of a different race from ours. The famous song from “South Pacific” says “you have to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight to hate everybody your relatives hate.” Maybe that’s true but I like to think it is less true now that it was when the song was written.

Growing up in a small town in South Dakota, I lived in a monochromatic society, where almost everybody was the same color. My high school class had one Native American boy and one Japanese American girl. Otherwise we all looked the same. The biggest difference was whether a kid was a Catholic or a Protestant and I’m not sure we always knew that. Among my parents’ friends there was one Jewish couple but that’s as exotic as we got. Nevertheless, racism existed casually in our language and in some songs we sang or expressions we used, none of which I can repeat here, and we just never thought about it as being offensive.

I know only one person my age, a woman who has been my friend for over half a century, who is absolutely colorblind when it comes to race. She never seems to think in terms of what color somebody is and she was genuinely puzzled when her parents were outraged when she announced at a young age that she was in love with a black man she had met in Europe and wanted to marry him. She was banished from the family. That was at a time when interracial marriage was against the law in several states, and long before the laws that desegregated our society.

By the time I graduated from college and got to New York I had finally met a few people of other races but we all tended to move in our own orbits. It wasn’t until I visited my friend and her husband in a ghetto in Philadelphia that I was immersed in a community composed entirely of people of a different race from me. When I served as godmother to her baby boy, she, I, and the Episcopal priest were the only white people in the room. That scene was and still is impossible to imagine anywhere in South Dakota other than perhaps in some small communities on an Indian reservation.

But if we are going to prepare our children and grandchildren to live and work in a society as diverse as the one most people now live in, we should probably do our best to encourage them to experience multi-racial, multi-cultural communities. Chances are, if they leave their high plains home, they’ll be living in one.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at

No comments: