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Wednesday, February 21, 2007


A Tribute to Black History Month:

What do prejudice, bias and discrimination have to do with selective vision? What is it that many people do not see although something has always been there that has not become part of awareness? It’s an unexplored world of the mind.

Our brain is the ultimate in computers and it is we who program it with our thoughts, our words and our emotions, which often create blocks in our mind that, limit us. One of the most prevalent deterrents to moving away from prejudice, bias and discrimination is religion. Religion has done almost nothing to move their followers to a state of having an open mind. In fact, the religions encourage separateness, better than, competition, and war.

I was born in Texas during the time of segregation. I experienced the Afro-Americans having to sit in the back of the bus and if it became crowded with white people, then the blacks had to stand up. I never dined in a restaurant where Afro-Americans ate. We lived in separate sections of town, went to separate schools and churches. It was a world of acceptance for me because I had been taught that it was natural even though something inside of me wondered why we couldn’t attend the same church if God loved everyone.

My awakening has a number of threads, which became an unraveling. When I was 23, I began working for the Foreign Service branch of the U.S. State Department. I first had a 3-month training course in Washington D.C. and experienced my first interaction with Afro-Americans. It was a new experience to see them in a different environment and I do not remember having any particular adverse reaction. My first tour of duty was with the embassy in Paris where I saw blue-black Africans married to French women and when I visited London, I heard them speaking the King’s English. I was changing my mind by what I observed and experienced. Later when I transferred to the embassy in Tokyo, I worked with a lovely Afro-American man. I knew that these people had brilliant intelligence and the capacity to do great things.

However, there can be subtle prejudices that we may not be aware of for years until an opportunity comes. I married a career military man while in Tokyo and we were stationed in southern California. One Christmas season when my children were quite small, my husband and I decided to take a train to Texas. We changed trains in Los Angeles and the car we were assigned to was filled to the brim with Afro-Americans on their way south to spend the holidays with their relatives.

I caught myself holding my breath every time one would walk pass me and I wondered why because they were neatly dressed, clean and didn’t smell. Then I remembered an experience I had when I was living and working in Houston. Each morning I would catch the bus, which traveled, through the black (even though segregation was no more) part of the city. The aroma was overwhelming to me and I began holding my breath. It was that experience that had become entrenched in my brain and when I experienced being in a crowded train car, it was triggered. Once I came to that realization I was able to put that prejudice to rest. However, my great learning did not stop there.

A few years later my husband was transferred to Hawaii and we moved there. One of my friends was a Japanese woman who had met and married her American military husband while he was stationed there. One day Peggy and I had an interesting conversation about her experiences of growing up during WWII in Osaka and the occupation by American troops. She made one statement that surprised me. “We could smell the Americans before we could see them.” When I pressed her for an explanation, she replied that the odors of different foods, the leather, tents and clothing were alien to the odors the Japanese were use to.

The final segment to my emergence from prejudice and a greater understanding came when my husband and I were traveling from Massachusetts to Texas one late November. We were driving through Birmingham, Alabama and came to one part of the city that was predominantly Afro-American when the same odor hit me that I had experience years back in Houston, Texas. I had a grand ah-ha when the realization came that these people cooked on wood stoves and their diet was different from many people because it included their ethnic foods! It really had nothing to do with color or cleanliness. It was all due to their ethnic preference for certain foods and their mode of cooking.

It was a great unraveling to finally come to this awareness that taught me to look beyond the outer appearances. The world today is filled with prejudices and discrimination built upon what has been taught from birth and the full awareness was never allowed to blossom. One religion discriminates against another and belief systems become entrenched. Like a snake, it is time to shed the old skin of prejudice and bigotry for a new skin of awareness and acceptance.