Swastikas not required
By Linda Prussen-Razzano
Bigotry comes in many forms; a fact my family knows well.
When my father's parents finally made their way to New York in the late 1930s, they were searching for stability and hope beyond the burdensome toiling of the farm. With three young boys to support, my grandmother grew vegetables in the yard, performed all the household labors by hand, and cooked everything from scratch.
My father and my uncles had very few clothes between them and lived in the world of imagination because toys were treasures the family could not afford. My grandfather found himself turned away time and again because of who he was; people refused to help him, refused to house him, tried to take advantage of him. Desperate for honest work, he obtained a position at a cemetery in West Hempstead, Long Island.
Digging graves and tending the grounds was mindless labor for my intelligent grandfather, but it put food on the table. Still, the stress was noticeable to everyone; my grandfather was completely gray by the time he was twenty-nine.
Before settling in Hempstead, Long Island, my mother's parents both lived in Long Lake, New York, near the Adirondack Mountains. The Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in upstate New York at that time. When they discovered that my grandfather was daring to court my grandmother, they made several death threats; one night, they laid in wait for him. Thankfully, friends warned him and he managed to escape their trap. It mattered not that he was a deeply religious, educated man who adored my grandmother to distraction. It mattered not that my grandfather was a strong bull of a man who knew what it meant to give a hard's day work for his pay. They hated him for what he was, and were going to kill him for it.
My mother and father were forced to move out of their home in Roosevelt, Long Island, because my brothers, youngsters in the first and second grade, were being beaten on their way to school. They were, as their attackers pointed out, the wrong color. Five months pregnant with me, my mother packed the entire house and helped my father move to Merrick in just a few short weeks, unwilling to bare another assault on her children.
In my own life, I have experienced my share of hatred and prejudice. In middle school I was shunned because of my religion. In college, my roommate and I were the minority in our six-person suite. My other suite-mates despised us on sight, and openly let us know their disdain from the very first day. Despite a college education, I still find others occasionally attempting to treat me like an inferior; someone to be humored or disregarded.
All because of who I am.
Am I angry?
No, I am disheartened.
Without attempting to discover the person inside, my family and I were judged solely on seemingly superficial things. Labels, words...the names we were given classified us into a category that others did not like. We had ceased to be people; these names stripped us of our humanity. Because we were no longer seen as human, it was easy for others to attempt to bring us harm.
What were we, my family and I, that we were treated with such malice? My father's parents were white, Anglo-Saxon Lutherans from the farms of Moorausmoor, Germany. My mother's father was a white Irish Catholic and my grandmother, a Protestant. My brothers are white American Christians, and I am a white American woman.
Surprised? No more surprised than I, I imagine, when, during a salon appointment, I browsed through copies of some African-American oriented publications and found that, according to several letter writers, my religion, my ethnic background, and my color were the primary cause of so much misery in the black community. As part of the white facet of the human race, I was being vilified in words, with labels - a sweeping broad stroke that painted all whites with the same condemning and menacing brush.
To these writers, I was "whitey," or part of the "dominating European culture" or an "Anglo." I ceased to be a person; I had been dehumanized. And, what is even more sad, these very same letters writers probably didn't care that they had done it.
Ironic, is it not, that someone who understands and wholeheartedly supports their passionate affirmation for respect and equality is being branded as the propagating agent of their woes?
Am I angry over this portrayal?
No, I am disheartened.
It seems we still have miles and miles to go in recognizing each person for the individual they are, black and white. Considering the other notorious groups who also use these bating, hateful tactics, those letter writers (no matter how just they believe their cause or how noble their fight) may eventually find themselves lumped in with some very poor company, indeed.
Because bigotry, you see, comes in many, many forms. Burning crosses and swastikas are not required.
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