Growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in small town America was close to idyllic. There was never a time you were afraid as a young child. There were always children outside, walking to school, biking across town and playing hide and seek around the neighborhood. We did not worry.
The town, with its tree-lined streets of cookie-cutter suburbia, was basically white. There was one African-American family in our grammar school, we all knew them. I don’t know how they felt, but I don’t remember anyone treating them differently because of their skin. In fact I was pretty good friends with Joe growing up and my brother knew Hattie very well. We didn’t see their skin color.
The rest of the families were for the most part white and Christian. There were a handful, or at least it always felt that way, of Jewish families and even fewer “mixed marriages.” Our family fit into that last category with a Jewish mom and a Catholic dad. Dad was Italian, which from a tradition and family aspect, was very similar to Mom’s Jewish family. My friends all thought I had the best of both worlds as they dreamed of gifts for both Christmas and Hanukkah. It wasn’t as if we received more, just over a longer period of time!
And it was, at times, the best of both worlds. It was also, at times, a way to be treated differently. We didn’t belong to a Church or a Synagogue. We didn’t have a community of people like us to be with. There were times when you felt left out, and different. I learned at an early age that many people didn’t understand Judaism and therefore, made fun of or disparaged the religion or the people. There were comments made over my lifetime from “friends” that were hurtful, although I don’t believe their intent was to hurt. They didn’t know better. They didn’t realize that the term “Jew down” to describe haggling with someone over a price was discriminatory, racist and hurtful. They learned it from their parents.
I learned at a young age that you should embrace everyone for who they are not what they are. I watched my mom do that. I watched her and listened. She never said general stereotypical comments about people, she spoke of individuals. She knew what it was like to be discriminated against. She would yell when my father, born and raised in Newark, New Jersey where racial tensions existed, would make general horrid comments. I learned.
I learned not to always tell people I was Jewish. I learned to watch and listen to see if people really embraced others for their character and not their religion, their skin color or over time, their sexual orientation. As I grew older I was blessed with nieces and nephews, two of whom have special needs. This was when my learning went to a new height. People are actually afraid of people with disabilities. I have watched people move away from my niece as if they may catch what she has. I have had people speak to me instead of her because they do not think she understands. I have watched people take their children away when they see one of my nieces. I have watched them be bullied and I have watched their siblings defend. Defend. Why should someone need to be defended for being different? I will ask this question for the rest of my life.
One of the most poignant moments for me was in my car many years ago with my one niece, she happens to have Down Syndrome. She asked me, “Aunt Suzy, why do people see my Down Syndrome before they see me?” I almost stopped the car I was so stunned by the question. My answer came so naturally and quickly. “The same reason people see skin color before they see the person. The same reason people see weight before they see the person. Because people are shallow and focus on what is outside before they focus on what is inside. And people are afraid of what they don’t understand.” We both sat in silence. I had tears running down my face and she finally looked at me and asked why I was crying. I wasn’t sure. I told her I was sad that she was treated this way. I told her I was sad that I was treated differently for either being Jewish or mostly because I was heavy. I had people make fun of me, people who were supposed to be my friends.
She looked at me and told me how beautiful I was and I smiled. Her gentle beautiful heart. How can anyone dislike or be afraid of this gentle beautiful heart. She taught me such a lesson that day. She wasn’t angry, she didn’t want to yell at people for how they treated her. She wanted them to see her for who she was not what she had. Isn’t that what we all want? To be loved and accepted for who we are?
Today, we are all saddened by the violence in this world. I am seeing posts all over social media focused on “black lives matter,” “police lives matter,” and “all lives matter.” Let’s understand. Yes, all lives matter, that should be easy. However it is not. There is a systemic issue in our country and it has to do with anyone who has not fit into a certain mold. There is white privilege in this country. Whites have never been “not allowed” to enter a building, a bus, a restaurant or anywhere else for that matter. Whites are not followed, profiled, or turned away because they are white. That is what Black Lives Matters mean, not to diminish another life but to equally treat blacks. As a woman in business, you see and experience “male privilege” all of the time. Golf outings were not created so that women could attend. Going to strip clubs on business trips is not something the women who are there are generally going to attend. Yet, business and relationships are cared for at these events. Men are not called bitches when they are tough. They are considered aggressive and a “go get ’em” guy that someone would want on their team. I’m a bitch if I’m tough. I’m emotional. Trust me, there is privilege in business for men, especially if they are white. There is privilege in this country if you are heterosexual versus homosexual. In most states, you cannot be married. Therefore the 40 year relationships that I know cannot receive each other’s pension, should one pass away. And many cannot visit their partner in the hospital as family. Why? Why do we care who loves whom? Why don’t we just care that there is more love than hate?
I do understand discrimination and I understand privilege. People are not born with a choice to be black, white, abled, disabled, etc. So those of us who through our systems receive privileges need to step up and change the system. We need to fight so that everyone receives the same opportunity.
I go back to my nieces comments. “Why do people see my Down Syndrome before they see me?”