Race and Ethnicity in the U.S
Published 22 Feb 2017
I was born in 1978 at Stuyvesant, New York to a second generation German-American parents that came to America during their early thirties. My parents decided to head to America to explore new opportunities and “expand their horizon”, as my mom puts it. My parents belong to the baby boomer generation. The German-Americans of this generation, especially the ones that moved to America when they became adults, still have the Aryan supremacy mentality within them. My parents are quite the opposite.
My parents have always been open-minded and accepting of other races. Instead of using “tolerance of other races,” I learned from them that acceptance of other races should be the perspective that people should acquire and adopt. Tolerance is a “nice” way of conveying the idea of putting up with people of another race but the term acceptance is the contrary. It means that an individual takes the time to get to know a person of a different race and even move past any flaws-since everyone has one. This is the only way a person can truly accept another person.
I grew up in Jamaica in the borough of Queens in New York City. My neighborhood mostly consists of Latinos. I learned at a young age that people are physically different yet we are all the same, in more ways than one. This is because we are bounded by a common set of values despite having different cultures. It is evident that people basically want the same things in life: get a good job, raise a family and live a good life. Hence, most parents in my neighborhood made sure that their children attended and finished school. And family get-togethers are not uncommon where I lived. I am used to loud noise that is composed of laughing, dancing, singing and kids shouting.
I attended elementary and middle school in Brooklyn. Later on, I transferred to a high-school in Queens because their curriculum is more science-based. At a young age I already knew that I wanted to be a nurse. My school represents what America is, a melting pot of people. My parents made sure that my schools are made up of non-white kids. This is because they know the importance of diversity. My parents also participated in rallies during the civil rights movement. Thus, they want to raise a kid who is not ignorant of other races.
In addition, they know that sending me to diverse schools will expose me to different cultures and enable me to have a chance to interact with people from different races. I learned early on not to generalize people of a different race without getting to know them. Even bad encounters that I had with a certain race, does not make me look at that race any differently. Race does not define people. Upbringing, environment, and family are the factors that contribute to a person’s attitude and mannerism. Culture plays a part as well.
However, I have noticed that most immigrant children downplay their culture because they want to assimilate. My parents are a firm believer in the saying, “If you don’t know where you’ve been then you don’t know where you’re going.” I have always understood that saying to mean that if you do not know your past- where your family came from, the struggles they had to face- then you only know a tiny part of your existence.
Nonetheless, I have never experienced discrimination even though the schools that I attended only have a handful of white people. This is because I know how to get along with people. Being in a diverse school since I was in pre-school, I know what to say and how to act properly. Also, the fact that my school curriculum aims to bring awareness about different cultures has helped me become knowledgeable and conscious.
My education and experience made me realize that diversity enriches society as a whole. However, some people who do not have personal experiences with a different race tend to subscribe to prevalent stereotypes. I have met people from small-town suburbs who have never seen a black, an Asian or Latino person up close. Other races definitely intrigued them. Their curiosity unraveling is interesting to watch but I the things that come out of their mouth are just disappointing to hear at times. I know someone in college- I went to a state funded university in Pittsburgh- who asked his Asian friend if it is true that most Asians live in huts. My friend’s view has been sadly shaped by the media.
In addition, his family has played a role in fostering cultural insensitivity and utter lack of awareness. When his mom would visit him in our dorms back in college, she would talk to some of his Asian friends in our floor. The statements and comments that came out of her mouth just showed why my friend has a sheer lack of cultural knowledge. One afternoon, I was roaming our dorm floor while munching on a snack I just bought and I overhead my friend’s mom asked one of his Asian friends, who lived beside him, if his people celebrated birthdays and if they have cars where he is from. And the information spurting out of her mouth seems to clearly come from watching too many television shows that are not shown either in Discovery or History Channel.
Similarly, I have a roommate who would cross the road if she sees a group of African-American men in the same sidewalk as us late at night. Living with her during freshman year have made me realize that her parents assumed that all African-American men cause trouble and they were a “burden to society because they impregnate their women who end up depending on the welfare system.” Little did her parents know that most of the people on welfare system are actually white. Thus, parents can easily pass their prejudiced views on to their children.
On the same note, one of my sorority sisters feels awkward whenever she is with me and I am talking or hanging out with a different race. Also, whenever I asked her to come to school events,-where a big group of a specific ethnicity as well as other various ethnic groups will be attending-she would consistently decline the invitation and made up an excuse that she is busy. But I know that she really did not have anything to do. One night I confronted her about it, she said that it is uncomfortable for her because she thinks that only a few white people will go to a black party or an Asian or Latin event on campus.
I realized that she assumed that people of a particular race do not spend time with those who are not like them. I also found out that she cannot relate to another race because she has not taken the time to get to know a person from a particular race. But once she talked to some of my friends from various ethnic organizations, her uneasiness disappeared.
In hindsight, I am glad that my parents have given me the opportunity to study in diverse schools. At a young age, children are exposed to difference just by being in public places. Children take in daily interactions of people. If they mostly see negative interactions between people of two, different races then their perception and mentality are greatly influenced. I am also thankful that my schools have done its job of properly educating its students.
However, not everyone has the same opportunity available or provided to them.
I think that schools should set up a camp every summer to expose suburban children who attend private schools to children from inner-city schools. Education and interaction at camp should enable them to bond and learn from each other. Exchange programs or sports competition could also facilitate better understanding and hopefully improve race relations. Also, more subjects regarding culture and various societies should be included in school curriculums. Right now, the educational system has not kept up to reflect what American is really like.
I know that there are areas in the country that have neighborhoods specifically designated to a certain race or ethnicity. Thus, for children who grow up in these neighborhoods, school is really the first place that they are exposed to people of different races on a day to day basis for a long period of time. It really does not help children to attend private, all white schools and live in predominantly white areas because the experience that I just mentioned is robbed from them. And when these children are out in the real world, it is inevitable for them not to encounter people of different races. If they only know people who are like them, how are parents preparing them to deal with those who are not like them? Obviously, placing these children in environments that do not allow them to get to know others who are not like them will result in discomfort and ignorance on the part of these children once they are out in the real world.
Equally important is the fact that the media is responsible for most of the negative stereotypes that people have. I really do not consider programs that have one black actor or actress to represent diversity in America. Like I mentioned before, that does not represent America. Other races are still excluded from the mainstream culture. By not representing them on TV, we as a society neglects to include them in our dialogue.
Also, unfamiliarity results in ignorance and fear. It can also sometimes translate into hate. Thus, awareness, education and interaction are the three essential elements-which should be combined together- that the media and our educational system should focus on to lessen and hopefully alleviate racism in the future. Presently, it is a sad reality to know that racism and discrimination still exists in America. In some cities, it is very subtle while it can be blatantly obvious in small, rural areas.
Indeed, education is really different from personal experience. Personal experience is where you can apply your knowledge. Experience tests what you know and alters you completely because you are actively participating in the process. Thus, it is not enough to merely know that racism exists and that it is bad. People should really put into practice what they know. And as Martin Luther King, Jr mentioned, a person should be judged by the “content of his character, and not on the color of his skin.” One day, I wish that everywhere in America this statement will ring true.
I am privileged to have interviewed Patricia. We know each other through our common set of friends. This paper enabled me to really get to know her more. It allowed me to know how she thinks and what she believes in.
I agree with her that a person’s perception of different races is shaped by those around him or her. Thus, prejudiced is learned. But it is true that the media contributes to negative stereotypes that some people hold on to when passing judgments on others they barely know. I honestly think that stereotypes reflect and convey a very limited thinking that a person has. Also, just because a person of a certain race acts a particular way does not mean that every person of that race will necessarily behave the same manner.
In addition, the friends a person chooses to associate with and the environment a person normally hangs out influences his or her perception of other races. As the saying goes, “Birds of the same feathers flock together.” Therefore, people who are biased will most likely be around people who are also biased. Also, an environment that advocates the supremacy of a particular race will just feed on to this outlook.
However, I think that times have changed. Presently, it is cool to be black in our mainstream culture. This is evident from how teenage boys and girls dresses and the popular music that is being played on the radio these days.
Also, the idea that a tanned complexion looks prettier demonstrates the fact that being white is not what is cool anymore. People, mainly girls, do not want to be seen as pale or pasty looking. Therefore, products to meet this demand have increased over the years. On the other hand, Asians are still deemed to be the “smart ones” in school while Latinos and blacks-especially- are all great dancers.
However, being around different races has enabled me to know that the latter statement is not necessarily true. Also, by interacting with people of different races, it made me realize that you cannot place people in certain categories. People in general will constantly surprise you. I tend to assume how people that I just met will be like. But time and time again, I am proven wrong the more I get to know them.
Consequently, I also agree with Patricia’s statement that the educational system has a long way to go and it desperately needs to be improved. I think the ideas that she has suggested such as the cultural summer camp, sports competition and exchange program will expose children to other races and hopefully foster understanding between them. Like Patricia, I also view America as a cultural melting pot. I think that America is different because we are the only country in the world that represents almost everyone in the entire globe. Thus, it is of vital importance to improve race relations and eliminate bias. This is because daily life will require each one of us to socially interact with a person from a different race-more often than not- throughout the day.
Lastly, what she said about awareness, education and interaction as the three main focuses that schools and the media should concentrate to reduce bias is really true. One without the others will not bring forth the necessary and lasting change that is badly needed in America. Awareness and education will equip a person with appropriate facts but without actually applying this knowledge, then what a person knows will be useless in the long-run.
Patricia, Smith. Personal interview. 14 March 2008.