December 11, 2019-
In the film, “King of the Gypsies”, the late Sterling Hayden plays the titular role, and remarks, upon encountering a different group of Roma: “Whose Gypsies are these?” It struck me as a curious thing for anyone to say-as I never have taken to the idea of one human being owning another-or others. Indeed, it was a few years ago that I relinquished use of the possessive pronoun “my”, when referencing any person by name, saving its use solely for clarifying a specific relationship.
I guess this is part of a larger movement in my mind- to get past thoughts of “Us and Them”. Growing up in a small town north of Boston, I was first aware of belonging to two large families, then to the Roman Catholic church, then to a town named Saugus, whose residents, for the most part, were of families whose forebears came from Europe. My education, as to how to regard people who looked different from us, was simple: We were to address them as “Sir”, “Ma’am” or by honorific (Mr._____, Mrs._____). Other kids were always called by their first names. The pejorative for African-Americans (My folks called them coloured people, in the 1950’s) was forbidden in our house. Needless to say, nobody with half a brain would ever have called Mrs. Robinson, who ran the junior high cafeteria, anything other than ” Miss Matron, Ma’am”. Mr. and Mrs. Woo, who had a laundry in Cliftondale Square, on the southeast side of town, were likewise accorded full respect, and the Chang family were pillars of the community.
So there was an early perception, in my head, that anyone who used racial or ethnic slurs was just plain ignorant. To be sure, lots of people moved into Saugus from other places, and brought their less than enlightened ideas about race and ethnicity into the social fabric. I never bought into any of it, and remember feeling sad when four little girls were blown to bits, in Birmingham, and when Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, were gunned down. It was as hard for me, as losing the Kennedy brothers.
Nonetheless, there was work for me to do on myself, as so many “harmless” stereotypes and inflections had made their way into my consciousness. My Black fellow soldiers, being as diverse a group as any similar collection of Whites, disabused me of a lot of preconceived notions that growing up in a mostly white community had imparted. To be sure, I have never been physically assaulted by anyone of African ancestry. I can’t say the same about my fellow Euro-Americans.
Gradually, I outgrew stereotypes about other groups of people, all residual from what I had observed in others, over the period of my childhood and adolescence. My inclusive views finally came full circle, when the humanity of those who spouted unfortunate views of exclusion and bigotry became apparent, without my having to adopt their way of thinking. Some people just need more patience than others.
So, it is with a fair degree of incredulity, that I hear one group or another say: “The People won’t stand for this!” To paraphrase Mr. Hayden’s character, ” To which people do you refer?” All humans are people-and while appealing to their humanity is hard, sometimes exasperating, work, I feel I can do no less.