Fear can be, and is, crippling. It can keep us from trying new things, from being adventurous, from meeting new people, and even from making friends with those we not only don’t understand but more or less have generally stayed away from on “general principles.”
It’s hard to believe, in this year of 2019, that some people are still hesitant to mingle with those of different races or even different religions. When I was a teenager, and a Catholic, my parents—for whatever reason they felt justified to have such a rule—forbid me to mingle with those who were not Catholic, as if in
some strange way, their “non-Catholicness” would rub off on me. If that were true — that another’s religion could rub off on me, I would have been Jewish, since practically all my school friends were Jewish.
I can still remember many of their last names: Berman, Lansberg, Edelson, Goldberg, Schwartz and on and on. It never occurred to me until I was much older that they might have thought I was Jewish because of my maiden name.
I have a girlfriend from my teenage years who married a Catholic man with the last name of Solomon. I can only imagine what my father would have thought if I were the one who brought him home instead of it being my friend. Other than my schoolmates and other assorted friends of mine not being Catholic, I would dare say that my parents — mostly my father — had no idea why they wouldn’t make good friends for me.
But their opinions on what kind of friend or husband would be best for me — religion-wise — was one thing; how they actually treated those who were not of the Catholic faith is something else again. Now before I tell you of two particular incidences, I need to tell you that my mother was generally and mainly a kind and helpful woman, while my father was not noticeably kind and helpful, although he was especially considerate of his customers—and it wasn’t at all unusual for him to go out of his way to be accommodating to them.
One day, during our outside play break, when I was in elementary school, one of my friends—Simon Edelson— split his pants right down the back seam. Because we were friends, and he knew I lived just a few houses from his own house, he asked me if he could please go home with me at lunchtime so he could ask my mother if she would sew up his pants so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his own mother. At that time, I had no reason to imagine why my mother wouldn’t say yes.
Well, I brought him home with the expectancy that my mother would do that little thing, since she was well able to do it, being a seamstress who made many of her three daughter’s clothes, and I was more than a little surprised when she said to him, “Just go home and ask your mother to do it; I can guarantee that she will not kill you.”
I never knew why she said she wouldn’t do it, and I later wondered if maybe my mother was a little afraid that Simon’s mother would either yell at her for interfering or show displeasure at the way she might have sewed up those pants. It never would have occurred to me that it was because he was Jewish, but after what happened in that other episode, it gave me cause to wonder…
But before I tell about that other episode, let me remind readers that segregation was still alive in many people’s minds, even though it wasn’t being practiced. Black students were still scarce, but somehow the one and only black student in my drama club happened to be a good friend of mine. He enjoyed cooking and baking and one day he baked me a pumpkin pie — still my favorite — and brought it to school for me, since we never saw each other outside of school. He gave it to me in the hall, right where our school lockers were, and because I thought it was a lovely thing to do, I didn’t go out of my way to receive it in a secret kind of way. I openly took it, thanked him for it and put it in my locker. It wasn’t more than five or ten minutes after I was in our next class that I received word to go to the Principal’s office.
Since I didn’t have a clue as to what I had done wrong, I asked the principal why she had asked me there. Her response was, “You know perfectly well why I asked you here.” Since I really didn’t have a clue, I told her I did not know. She then laid it out for me, saying that she can’t have me being seen with a colored boy as if we were friends. That it doesn’t look good for me or for the school. While I could understand her ignorance since I was living in a home with parents who apparently had a hard time accepting the differences in people (my father was raised in Savanna, Georgia, and an open, accepting heart was not something he grew up with, and my mother had been subject to his attitudes and beliefs, being somewhat timid on her own and intimidated when around him), I could not accept her demand that I stay away from my drama-buddy friend. But I gave her the best response I could to placate her — something akin to “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”
Now back to that other episode. I was 18 and had just started nursing school (my pre-plan for becoming a Maryknoll missionary); although my father had not given me permission to become a nun, I was allowed to become a nurse. I was enrolled at a teaching hospital, where doctors were doing their internships.
It was Christmastime, and this one particular intern that I became friends with was far away from home (he was from the Philipines), he had never seen snow before, and he was feeling lonely, so I invited him home for a little Christmas cheer (I was still living with my parents, but I felt that the Christmas season would soften them up for one little hour). I was thinking he would get to enjoy our decorations and tree, listen to some Christmas carols, have some eggnog and cookies, and then I’d walk him back to the bus to go back to the hospital. (We all used buses back in those days, which was very common.)
When I walked in, my mother had a look of surprise on her face, but quickly phased into her mother-mode and asked him to come in and take a seat in our living room. I could see that a look of uncertainty came over Bien’s face, but he sat down on our couch anyway. I was just about to sit down next to him when my mother suggested we both sit on the floor and play Scrabble. That seemed a bit strange to me, under the circumstances, but we said okay, and while Bien settled onto the floor, I went and got the Scrabble game. We set it up and started to play, and my mother came back into the room with the eggnog and cookies.
We probably played for all of ten minutes when Bien said he just didn’t feel comfortable. So I made some kind of excuse to my mother about his needing to get back sooner than he thought and told her I’d walk him to the bus, which I did. When I got back, I was shocked at what my mother told me. She told me that she was thankful that we didn’t show up five minutes earlier because my grandmother had just left, and if she saw me with a Filipino, she would have had a heart attack.
And that wasn’t bad enough. She also told me that if my father had been there, I would never hear the end of it. He would not have kept a straight face like my mother or been gracious enough to let us both sit on the floor (which was my mother’s subtle way of not having us be too close to each other on the couch).
Thank goodness Bien understood prejudice as ignorance of not accepting people for who they are but judging them rather by their religion, their color, or their nationality or such, and thereby missing out on a lot. Thank goodness he also understood that while I had to accept my parents’ rules or restrictions, I could never accept their prejudices.
Okay, so now that readers have a sense of how easy it is to grow up with prejudices foisted upon them, perhaps they will go easier on those who keep those false feelings of fear going. After all, prejudice is a kind of fear, and fear is nothing more than a state of mind.
Maramis Choufani is the Managing Editor of the Las Vegas Tribune. She writes a weekly column in this newspaper. To contact Maramis, email
her at firstname.lastname@example.org.