My teen years were spent in Pueblo, Colorado. We had moved there from southeastern Kansas when I was nine, which was mostly white. A few black people lived in Parsons, but there were no other minorities. Some of our neighbors were black and a teenage girl sometimes babysat me and my siblings. We loved Eleanor. I was ignorant about racial prejudice at that time and it served me well for a long time.
The dominant ethnicities of Pueblo were white, Mexican and Italian. At first we lived in rural Pueblo County and I was first introduced to these other cultures. Strange as they seemed to me, I adjusted well and had a wonderful Italian friend. I often went to her house for lunch where her immigrant mother made us fried egg sandwiches.
We moved to town when I was in sixth grade. Again, it was a mixture of ethnic backgrounds. In junior high and high school, I didn’t discriminate against the non-white kids who served on student council, were cheerleaders and athletes. We were students and that was enough for me.
For the most part my parents weren’t prejudiced, except my dad didn’t like Italians. He thought of them as the mafia. I ignored this and even had a crush on a half-Italian young man who attended my church in my teen years.
So it was to my great surprise when I graduated from high school and moved from home to get married at the ripe old age of nineteen, I learned that extreme prejudice existed in America. My husband listened to the radio and read the newspaper and I followed his example. Even at that, I didn’t understand why Watts burned, civil rights were talked about, or why segregation reigned in the South. And I certainly didn’t understand the significance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. Naivety ruled my life.
I’ve reflected on this often. Part of the problem was the isolated world I lived in. At that point in my life, I loved church and enjoyed school most of the time. No one talked about current events. I didn’t read the newspaper. The headlines always scared me. So, yes, I was ignorant.
It’s been painful to make the leap from thinking the world was pretty much okay to understanding how much hate and violence exist. It was safer to be ignorant. I didn’t have to think. I didn’t have to feel. I didn’t have to leave my cocoon.
And yet, awareness has made me more human. Compassion for the pain of others means I can work for justice and help make this world a better place.