Sunday, January 20, 2013
Racism Through a Child's Eyes
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King day, and I want to share three memories from my years growing up in southeastern New Mexico. This is how my child's mind dealt with issues of race, using what I saw and heard all around me.
Colored people. In the 1960s, "colored people" was the polite term for those we now call African-Americans. When I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, I heard the term and formed a mental image of brightly colored blue, green, and red people, like the colors in my crayon box. I never saw any people who looked like that, however. One day, I asked my mother what color colored people were. She looked at me strangely, as if I had asked an odd question. "They're just negroes," she said. Well, that was a letdown. I had seen negroes before, and they were just sort of brown.
Speaking Spanish. The town where I grew up is about 100 miles north of the Mexican border, so naturally a lot of my schoolmates were of Mexican heritage. Many of them spoke Spanish at home and on the playground. My teachers would always scold them and tell them not to speak Spanish at school. They were probably trying to keep them from excluding the rest of us from their conversations, or maybe indoctrinate them into some common culture. In my child's mind, however, I thought that Spanish must be a language made up of dirty words. Why else would our teachers be so stern when they scolded my friends?
Mythical Meskins. During my early years in grade school, the older kids would tell us about the mythical creatures they called "Meskins". These were mean people who hid in bushes, and they would jump out as you passed by and cut you with their knives. Many of my playmates had dark hair and skin, and they had surnames like Garcia, Hernandez, and Reyes. In my mind, these were two separate and completely unrelated observations. It never occurred to me to make any connection between the playmates I saw every day and the mean people hiding in bushes, whom I never did encounter. When I was old enough to realize that "Meskins" was a racial stereotype of Mexican-Americans, I was also old enough to know how hateful it was. I had been right all along -- my friends and playmates were nothing like the imaginary predators that I had been told about, and I feel very fortunate that my friendships were never poisoned by the hateful stories the older kids told.