Early Encounters: Respect vs. Ethnocentrism

“Look over there, Elizabeth. Do you see those men?”

“Yes, Daddy. Why are they there? Who are they?” asked a pale-skinned, blue eyed girl of 7 years old, as she gazed toward the group of men congregated near the railroad tracks.

“They’re day laborers. And, I want you to pay close attention to me right now. They are out here, every day, hoping for someone to hire them to work hard, doing manual labor. They’re out here because they love their families and want to provide for them, and they work harder than a lot of people in fancy suits and business clothes.” Then, after a pensive pause, he continued with the tone he only took when giving serious instructions: “Don’t you dare ever look down on them. Some people do because they weren’t born here or have different colored skin. But, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they work hard because they love their families. So, don’t you ever look down on them, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

Those were the beseeching words of my father who spoke so sincerely, that his almost stern tone conveyed the importance of the matter.

I didn’t know it then, but that moment was my first real experience with the concept of racism, more properly labeled as “ethnocentrism,” and the start of an awareness of different ethnic groups. The respectful words and perspective of ethnic equality which my father impressed upon me that hot, Southern California afternoon, have been emblazoned into my memory ever since.
Now I rejoin you, nearly two decades later, and many experiences later. Since then, my zip codes have had me in California, Alaska, and Texas. I can now differentiate my triad of experiences through the lenses of diversity, and cultural/ethnic perspectives and expectations. For brevity’s sake, we can focus solely through the lens of diversity, using it as a springboard into the powerful impact you can create, should you be blessed enough to live within a diverse population.

Growing up in Southern California (SoCal, per the natives’ colloquialisms) boasted a wealth of ethnic diversity, of which I was blithely oblivious for many years, much like the blessing of my father’s wise words. Not only could one easily find over a dozen different ethnicities in a small radius, there was a very good chance of finding it in your very own neighborhood. Surely, this could promote racism, to have so many differing groups crammed into the same space. Then again, it could promote acceptance, collaboration, and understanding by virtue of people’s general need for social interaction, and the close knit quarters of crowded SoCal cities.

So, what makes the difference? You do. I do. Our parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and other relations do. Growing up, ethnic diversity was as common to me as the sun rising and setting, and I was simply happy to have friends. However, what made respect inextricably tied to ethnic diversity was the socialization I received from the aforementioned individuals, along with neighbors and other passersby. It was a daily blessing for my parents to welcome my friends of any culture into our home, and vice versa. It was a jarring blessing to find out (in my teens) that certain extended relatives weren’t present at my earlier birthday parties because they sneered and didn’t want to be around, “the little brown kids,” who were my brother’s and my friends. I had positive and negative experiences connected to diversity, and these experiences offered me a choice: what experiences would I create for others? If you have never before been formally offered that same choice, I offer it to you now. Your daily actions and interactions spring forth from who you believe you are, and who you believe others are. Your daily actions and interactions create experiences for others.

It is an arduous, uphill battle to change another person’s opinion of who s/he is, and who others are to him/her. Likely, you cannot force change through argument. But, you can instead persuade on a daily basis, as you create experiences for that individual. Consider the next seven days to be your personal opportunity to pay close attention to the experiences which you create for others. In the midst of your busy week, be mindful of whether you choose to create a positive, negative, or plainly apathetic experience. Though it often takes work and intentionality, you can choose to create an experience that unarguably leaves the other person feeling respected and valued. And know that as you create positive experiences, there just might be a set of young, impressionable eyes nearby, through which a child imbibes his or her first lesson in human rights and equality from you.

If you are lucky enough to be surrounded by diversity, (and I assert that most of us are), then I must implore you, as my father implored me, “What matters is not skin color or region of birth, but character and work ethic. So, respect people accordingly, creating positive experiences for them, because I don’t want you to ever look down on them, do you hear me?”*

*My father’s words here were paraphrased, to better reflect the full intent of his words, which took me years to understand.

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