We each have our own cultural history. Here is part of mine. My mother’s family members were immigrants to the United States. My grandparents and eldest aunt came over first; then my mother and three of her siblings were born here. English was my mom’s second language, which she started learning in school.
She was very proud of her English and critical of her friends who never got rid of their family accents. She never taught me her native language and today I regret that. I envy those who still have that language connection to their cultural heritage.
This was western Pennsylvania. The country my family came from is Poland, but our background is actually not Polish but a mix of Czech, Yugoslavian, Iranian/Persian, and French! My mom was been born in 1933. And I grew up in the sixties. My parents at that time were not very tolerant people. I remember them making disparaging remarks about other immigrant groups, other races, and other religions. Why did I not adopt all those prejudiced attitudes of my parents towards other groups of people?
I think it’s partly because when several other minority families (African Americans, South and Latin Americans, Asians) moved into my neighborhood, my parents could not afford to move away as they wanted to. Living as neighbors with people my parents had previously disliked and feared helped break down many barriers. My parents (and I) came to respect and care for many families in our neighborhood, who, it turned out, were not so very different from us.
That was a past time in western Pennsylvania and this is 2009 in Philadelphia where I live. The minorities have changed, but the dynamics remain similar. We are still studying, working, and living alongside some folks who are different from us. There are differences in skin color, language, religion, food, and country of origin. In addition to our personal cultural history, each of us has had certain experiences, teachers or books that have shaped our tolerance for people different from ourselves.
It’s time to share our stories with each other and with our children. I’m hoping that parents will take some time to reflect on their own levels of tolerance and think about what your children are learning from your words, attitudes, actions, and family stories. And if it seems too complicated as you’re teaching your children how to get along with their diverse classmates and neighbors, just check in with any elementary students. They’ll tell you the simple truth. We should all treat others respectfully, the way we each want to be treated.