There are so very many things that could be said today. So very many things could have been said in the previous days, and have been. We wrote our fair share during these days, but deleted them. They wouldn’t have helped. But neither did our tears, our outrage, our thoughts whirling with love, hate, frustration. So NOW, we are ready to talk-not rant or rave- just talk.
We taught a class at Bakersfield College and one topic we covered was the Dust Bowl and Jerry Stanley’s book, Children of the Dust Bowl. The students weren’t interested all that much, it was so long ago and no one seemed to care much– until we started talking about the discrimination the “Okies” were subjected to, right in our own city, county. Then there was disbelief that their parents, grandparents, would even begin to allow such a thing or possibly be part of the problem in discriminating against some poor white people forced from their homes by the act of nature called the dust bowl. When faced with the truth of hate towards the Okies, the injustices and mistreatment of these people who were forced to come to Kern County looking for work, a way to feed and care for their families, they started to look at us with amazement as the facts became real. Then we heard such things as, “That would never happen now! We wouldn’t discriminate like that NOW!” We knew they needed to realize that yes, we do. As humans, we eat our own when they are different. Be they handicapped, different skin color, different language, differences in economy…Yes, we discriminate.
As they swallowed this and started to digest it, recognizing the reality of it, they began to say (for the most part) they were glad they weren’t being discriminated against and they would never do that to others–not in this day and age of 2012. So we gave them an assignment. They needed to write only a one page essay about a time in their individual life when they were the one that was different. More importantly, they were to describe how it felt being the one targeted. Now these were white, Latino, African American, Asian students of different backgrounds, cultures, religions, come together to get an education. There were 26 students in all. They looked at us like we were crazy but the assignment was due next class session. It turned out we opened some old and deep wounds with that assignment. Here are a few examples.
One quiet girl offered that when in second grade, she had been made to feel different because she had red hair. No big deal, huh? Shrug it off. But she couldn’t. She started cutting her hair short, wearing a baseball cap every day so she could hide it. It still hurt to be excluded because of her red hair and the pain was still real as she wrote the essay. She was now 19 years old and had tried to color her hair over and over to avoid ever being ridiculed again. She said she wanted to hide, was so ashamed she had contemplated suicide at times. She asked if that was discrimination. We told her yes, it was, and she was a beautiful girl and we found her red hair fascinatingly gorgeous!
A young man wrote that he loved working with metal sculptures and had been derided for loving art, called names, shunned because he’d rather work sculpting metal than play football, or go out for a sport. He was continually called a faggot, trash-canned, laughed at. He said his dad had talked to him repeatedly about doing “manly” things instead of his art. He knew he was different and he hated it–so yes, he knew about discrimination. He still resented it.
Another young woman said she was going to confess. We held our breath before we dove into that essay. She had been in foster care since she was 6 years of age. Her clothes were always hand-me-downs, she had not gotten the “good” or caring foster parents she deserved, but a high school teacher told her she was talented and should try college and here she was, scared to death, abused by the system meant to help her, and her question at the end of the essay was did we think she was too dumb to be in our class. NO was our answer, and admiration for her surviving a terribly rough life and carrying on. How did she feel about being “different”? Mostly defeated, but more–alone and unseen.
Those are three examples. But what came across loudly, clearly, was that discrimination kills the spirit, isolates, foments defeat, creates a desperate anger and resentment from not being seen or heard for who they were, inside! Their minds, their spirits, their true being regardless of color, circumstances, advantages or disadvantages–never seen or heard. And for the reader, each of these students was of a different race/ethnicity. The girl with the red hair was white and still not recognized for her true self.
The students brought buckets of tears to our eyes and heart. Sadness for their pain, joy for them to become aware that they are like each other with the same human hearts, minds, need to be heard and loved, accepted on their merit. They, laughing with relief at this sudden revelation and obvious love they were sharing in this diverse classroom, confronted us with how we had been discriminated against in our lifetime. It was a golden opportunity to drive a deeper truth home and without hesitation, we told them we grew up under the classification of “poor white trash” as a kid but even though we held that label, at least we weren’t black in the south where we lived during that time. We watched their faces, then explained. Humanity cannot claim superiority over other persons unless they can say “at least I’m not like those people!” We were poor white trash, but we weren’t black so we were better. We watched some faces light up with the new knowledge. We saw others puzzling over it. We brought it back to the okies, full circle. Sure, your parents or grandparents may have been the poorest citizens of Kern County, but at least they weren’t dumb okies. Now they were superior to some others, no longer at the bottom. Faces showed understanding, some eyes became glassy with tears, others began to turn red with embarrassment. Point taken.
White people, all people, eat their own so they can be superior. Former friends, because we’ve lost a few over this issue, would say there really isn’t discrimination or racism anymore–not now. It’s just lazy people who want to whine, sap the system, and on and on… No, it is the need to feel superior that makes them make those judgments of others they see as different. Our students, when discussing how they felt being shunned, ignored, ridiculed, shoved out to the edges, began to look at each other differently. Since we have retired, sometimes we have gotten messages from them that the class on the okies meant more to them than anything else we studied. And we are pleased. Today we feel we know where some of our students are–marching and protesting for justice and equality for black people who are the okies they came to understand in a class at the college and they can identify with not being treated fairly, justly, through no fault of their own. At least we pray they have not forgotten their own pain so they can identify with this need to be heard and understood and not abused and discriminated against.
As we told them then, we would remind them now–people hurting, being unjustly harmed, killed, abused bleed just like they do, cry just like they do, and need to be seen and heard–just like they did and do. No one is better than another by virtue of what they have, what their race, religion, sexual orientation is. Humans need to realize they don’t have to be superior to another for worth or value. It is time–long past time– to recognize this and fight for it!
We left them with this thought and we will leave it here tonight for you, the reader–there is no one you cannot learn from–NO ONE. Respect and remember that and LEARN. Keep marching for Justice and Peace. HUMANITY IS ONE IN THIS!
Also, you should know that this is a TRUE recounting. This is not fiction. Remember what you felt when you were targeted. Think of it when you want to say we don’t discriminate. We are not racist. Because yes, we do and yes we are. Remember your pain, multiply it by years, and let’s make it right!