This piece was published today, September 17, 2017 in the Pasadena Star News.
Stephen Sondheim has given the world many unforgettable lyrics in musical theater. One that has been coming to mind lately is from “Into the Woods,” in his song “Children Will Listen.”
“Careful the things you say, children will listen,” the lyrics go. “Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be. Careful before you say, ‘Listen to me.’ Children will listen.”
Our nation has Nazis and KKK members demonstrating in support of their ideals of racism and their notion that the white race is superior to all others.
As a child, I listened to my parents, who were not Nazis or Klan members, use words that were hurtful to African Americans and Mexican Americans. Racial epithets and slurs were easily thrown around the dining room table. I bore the brunt of their ideas, but I did not adopt them.
One day when I was about 8 years old, I was eavesdropping on my mother and her friend as they talked at the kitchen table. Mom’s friend said she saw a white woman and an African American man (she used the N-word) driving together in a car. She shared it with my mom as if she had seen a man from Mars. They seemed to enjoy repeating the N-word, to punctuate their incredulity. I got bored and went out to play.
I grew up in a small town in Ohio where the majority of people were white. There were a few African American kids in our junior high, but not in our grade school. The same was true for Mexican Americans. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t substantially like me in all aspects of life — we were all white, middle class and practiced some form of Christianity. Though we never went to church because we were, in Mom’s words, “unaffiliated.”
When I started high school, the pressure was on to get a boyfriend and, eventually, get married and have kids. That was the extent of the ambitions my parents had for me. I was very awkward, shy and skinny, with big buck teeth. In spite of all that, a boy called and asked me for a date. I didn’t know him, but I knew who he was because he was a football player. In my high school, football players were members of the celebrity class, and he was well known and admired.
The hitch was that he was Mexican American. Knowing that my parents wouldn’t approve, I nonetheless accepted the date. Then I had to tell my mother. She gushed with pride when I told her I was going on a date, but I knew I had to tell her about his ethnic background before he showed up at the door. She told Dad, and he became enraged.
Dad wasn’t warm and cuddly to begin with, so I expected a bad reaction, but I didn’t expect that he would threaten to throw me out of the house if I went on a date with a Mexican American (he used viler words to describe a boy he had never met).
I was 16, with no extended family or close friends to turn to. I knew my father was serious about his threat. I come from a family where ties are cut due to disagreements and are never repaired. I would be out on my butt.
I broke the date and learned a lesson. Just as in Sondheim’s song, I looked to my parents for which way to turn, but I didn’t want to turn in their direction. I finished high school and saved enough money to go to college. There I met a variety of people who were different from me. My Jewish roommate and I still keep in touch, 47 years later. I married a Jewish man.
My parents visited my husband and me often over the years. During one visit a basketball game was on television, and my mother made a vile remark about one of the African American players. Memories of my foiled date so long ago bubbled back up, along with my distaste for my parents’ bigoted views of people they knew nothing about.
“Mom,” I said, “in my house we do not speak of our fellow human beings that way.”
Boy, did that feel good. I knew there was no way to change my parents’ minds or hearts, but observing their racism as a child, when I was looking to them to decide “which way to turn, to learn what to be,” I learned the answer well:
Go in the opposite direction.
Kathleen Vallee Stein