When I was a very young boy, my mother drove my two brothers and me from our semi-rural home in Portage, Michigan to downtown Kalamazoo to visit a public dental clinic for free fluoride treatments. A trip to the big city was an infrequent and exciting proposition, and I watched out the back seat window, taking in the unfamiliar sights with curiosity and lots of questions.
“Look Mom!” I remember saying as I stared and pointed at some men standing on the sidewalk, men unlike any I had ever seen. They saw me point and stared back.
“Those are Negroes,” my mother replied as we slowly passed. “They should be working, not standing around.”
Those might not be the exact words she uttered, and she might have said even more, since forgotten. But unlike most childhood memories, I’ve never forgotten that moment when I first saw black people and heard my mother’s disdainful and judgmental words.
Our French Canadian and Irish-American Catholic family came with the usual set of prejudices and narrow-minded thinking. We were descended from people on both sides who had lost bitter wars and found themselves on the wrong side of history. What my parents didn’t openly say about others was, often as not, expressed more directly by grandparents and aunts and uncles at occasional family reunions. We kids unknowingly absorbed everything we saw and heard, whether it was something said within our family against someone else, or when our own family fell victim to prejudicial treatment from others.
My parents and their parents, I came to understand as I reached adulthood, were provincial and narrow-minded. Unlike myself.
Only in my adult years did I come to realize that I, too, carried my fair share of prejudices around the world with me, even as my own success as a journalist afforded me advantages and privileges and a far more worldly existence and set of experiences. The fact that I’ve lived and worked in various countries and culture, have always been comfortable with urban diversity, speak a second language, all that actually masked the prejudices I had inherited and never quite faced or overcame.
I merely kept my prejudices under control, but they were still there and they still influenced who I was and how I viewed others. I remember some years ago, when the gay marriage debate first took root, that it seemed like a very strange proposition even to people like myself, that is, open-minded progressive people. Civil unions made sense to protect private property, medical decisions, inheritance, and other civil rights, but wasn’t marriage about a man and a woman? Fortunately, the gay marriage issue unfolded far from Texas and I was given time to watch, listen and learn.
My older brother Ken and I actually were at Cambridge City Hall the night gays were first allowed to be married in Massachusetts. This time Rivard brothers could look on to an unfamiliar tableau with far more understanding and appreciation than that long ago day in Kalamazoo.
My thinking evolved with the debate, of course, mostly because I’ve become a better listener as I’ve grown older and because gays and lesbian happen to be a much bigger part of daily life for me and everyone else than they were when keeping a low profile was their only option in life. It now strikes me as foolish and more than a bit naive that I saw myself at the center of reasonable thinking when the issue first arose in the public conversation. I’m not alone there. Just about everyone I know who expresses a clearly prejudicial viewpoint, no matter how well-intended and without malice, does so out of ignorance or fear or both and the belief that their thinking is “normal”. What scares us the most is usually what we understand the least.
My mother missed a crucial teaching moment that morning in Kalamazoo in the mid-1950s. She could have imparted some invaluable insights to three impressionable young boys. Instead of just taking care of our teeth that day, she could have helped her sons tends their hearts and souls. Instead, we were left to stare at the strange men, who didn’t look like us and who had a name: Negroes. We were regular people who didn’t need a defining name, right? Or so we thought and would continue to think for years.
Not many years later, the country entered the Civil Rights era and the advent of television in every household brought history right into our home as it was being made. We boys began to learn for the first time about racial inequality, particularly in the South, that somehow didn’t square with what we were learning in school about the American Civil War, a President named Abraham Lincoln, and the end of slavery.
I’ve had to hit the reset button many times in my adult life to better tend my relationships with blacks, with gays, with the obese and with others. Two things have always helped me along: People who are smarter, more compassionate, and set a more embracing example than I, and the laws of the land staying ahead of society and its most backward impulses.
Thursday morning, the San Antonio City Council will take a big step forward, albeit an awkward one, when it approves an anti-discrimination ordinance extending greater public protections to gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens and veterans as well. Too bad it won’t be unanimous.
The Council members who oppose the initiative carried by District One City Councilman Diego Bernal will find themselves on the wrong side of history and maybe even the wrong side of their own conscious realizations, if not today, then one future day when their thinking and attitudes evolve and mature.
Despite an embarrassing and hateful disinformation campaign mounted by the opposition, this ordinance will not trespass on the rights of a single straight person. The only threat to be found in public bathrooms will continue to come from people, mostly straights, who use the facilities and don’t bother to wash their hands afterwards.
On a more serious note (germs actually are serious business), I wish Council members intending to vote “No” would consider their own lives and the moments when they have been the victims of prejudice and ignorance. That should resonate with the four possible “No’ votes:
- An Asian-American immigrant now living he American Dream.
- A black woman who knows better than me what it means to enjoy some, but not all, of the rights due every citizen under the law.
- An inner city Mexican-American woman who went on to attend law school and become an attorney and officeholder, undoubtedly only a few generations, like me, removed from immigrant family members who worked hard yet realized little in the way of equal rights or any material reward.
- A white American man who should know that nothing in his life will change for the worse if he gives people, unlike him, people who may very well make him feel personally uncomfortable — which is okay to acknowledge — the same legal protections we white American males take for granted.
The opposition, as so often the case, centers in no small part around organized religion, which also is at the center of much of history’s strife and misunderstanding. This isn’t meant as indictment against organized religion, but let’s be honest: most churches tend to appeal to people who look alike, think alike and are easily led astray by their shepherds, through ignorance and misunderstanding to fear people who don’t look or think like they do. Look at how most organized religions are struggling to deal with gender equality, or better put, struggling not to deal with gender equality.
I’m not sure a “Yes” vote will do much for the political careers of Bernal, Mayor Julián Castro or the majority who join them in passing the ordinance. It just happens to be the right thing to do in this instance. But the “No” voters on Council should think about history and the evolution of social views. Not much attention is paid today to the white officeholders who supported landmark Civil Rights legislation. Their names now are mostly confined to books, and fewer and fewer of us actually read history. But no one forgets those who stood in the way of black people gaining their full rights under the law. Many of those “No” voters back then have since expressed remorse and wished they could do it differently if given another chance.
Today would be a good day for everyone who serves on City Council to get it right the first time. Vote yes, get comfortable with your decision, and welcome history as it records another day in the life of a changing city.