Friday, June 19, 2009

Of Race, Ethnicity and Religion

If you want to read some really great posts today -about racism and prejudices -check out these two bloggers -Suldog and The Surly Writer -with their joint post about those things. It's really a great read, a tremendous eye-opener too about these issues. The name of the post is "Juneteenth." And, if you've never read either of these bloggers stuff before, I highly recommend that you snoop around on both sites and you'll find some really great stuff, for sure!

After reading both their posts on the topic of racism, I decided to pull out an article I wrote five years ago this spring for the little, now defunct, monthly newsletter publication I used to write for from time to time.

This piece addresses the type of prejudice that was really a huge issue in this area from the beginnings of this village and through the 50s, even stretching a good bit into the 60s here too.

After this piece was published, many folks from around the area came to me and told me how they too had been raised to feel inferior or superior to others in the area based simply on what country their ancestors had come from and what church they belonged to. Some of my friends and I have had numerous discussions too about the similiarities and differences of our childhood and the prejudices that existed and how much we feel now that we missed by not being allowed to play freely with others in the village.
Traitorous Taste-buds
By Jennifer Hill Ertmer
Published June 2004 – West Branch Review

I grew up in a very segregated society, not in the south, but right here in the middle of Pennsylvania, in the little coal-mining community I still call home – Grassflat.

No, it wasn’t segregated based on what most people think about when you use that term – not on race, but rather based on one’s ethnicity and religion.

When I was a young’un, one’s ethnic background and religious choices were of utmost importance to where I was allowed to go, who I was permitted to have for friends and playmates.

I grew up living with my mother’s parents whose origins were Swedish and they belonged to the Lutheran Church here with deep-set Swedish roots. Along the street where I lived, most of the other families were of similar ethnicity and the majority also belonged to the same church, thus making those children acceptable playmates and friends - at least according to my Grandmother’s stern standards anyway.

What my grandmother didn’t know was that her tomboy granddaughter occasionally ventured a little further from home and every now and again, even dared to play with other kids who were Slovak and, perish the thought, Catholic as well.

The exceptions to Grandma’s strict rules were the Bunyak’s just up the street from us, and the Little family who lived next door, or now and then, the Kuzilla family who lived across from my great-uncle down the street. These three families I think may have been the only Slovak/Catholics who met with Grandma’s approval.

By the same token, many of the other kids in town my age, but who lived in the Dobry Town or Pleasant Hill areas of Grassflat, probably had the same rules and regulations imposed on them that they were not to associate with those Swedish Lutherans either

It was a stupid concept when you think about it later in life, and one that is typical of the ignorance people frequently exhibit in society. It is a classical case, I suppose you could say, of “institutionalized racism/prejudice.”

Although I knew pretty much the boundaries set by Grandma of who I could associate with, where I could go, etc., it took a birthday party when I was perhaps 8 or 9 years old to galvanize my own incentive to break free of this particular cultural stigma.

That party, given by Mrs. Kuzilla for her daughter Veronica, who was three years younger than I, was quite an affair. Unlike most birthday parties I was accustomed to at which the fare usually was cake, ice cream and something to drink, Mrs. Kuzilla had fixed what would be considered a major feast. It was at that party that my taste buds first met up with a dish that was to become a life-long favorite – pigs in a blanket, or “halupki”!

I came home full of stories to tell my Mom and Grandma about all the food there. But this entrée had definitely had a very, very lasting impression on me and I begged for months, even years, after for Mom or Grandma to please make “piggies.”

I finally figured out this dish was considered too Slovak or Polish for either Mom or Grandma to consider cooking, and the less said about it the better. But the experience started my taste buds on the road to degradation. As I got older, I had more opportunity to experiment with other foods and, hopefully, got a lot wiser about other “differences” too.

It was after one of my jaunts a little further from home than was actually permitted, and playing with a girl my age whose ethnicity was Slovak and who was also Catholic (to add insult to injury), and I was invited into her home, where her mother offered me some type of Slovak pastries she had just made that were absolutely to die for, when I realized one thing for sure. I had to keep that discovery to myself. I dared not reveal I had been consorting with the enemy, as perceived by my Grandma, and worse yet, had even dined with them!

To this day, I still remember the sweet goodies made by Vicky Little’s mom, Helen (Bunyak) Little, but I have no clue as to what they were called. All I know is they were deep-fried and absolutely fantastic.So much so that now my mouth is watering just from the memory and I think I will surf an International website once more in hopes of finding a recipe that looks even remotely like these great morsels were!

Yep! That's how things were when I was a kid and for me, it was a whole lot easier than it was 30 years earlier here for my Mom as back then, in her day, many of the kids in town didn't speak English when they started school and for a lot of them, their parents never learned English or were able to communicate then with others around here.

Is comparing how I grew up with ethnic and religious barriers and prejudices the same as racism? Not completely, but there is still the fact that any prejudices are a hindrance to all of us and prevent us all from seeing the beauty of being a multi-cultural society.

Just some additional food for thought perhaps on what prejudice and bias of any type do to all of us.

Peace -Today! Please.


Suldog said...

Thank you so much for the shout-out! Very nice take on it, yourself, Jeni. Very nice.

masgblog said...

Thank you for welcoming me back, Jeni. I feel a bit numb, but glad...:)

Now I have to play catch-up on my favourite blogs.

Palm Springs Savant said...

Its so foreign to me to see and hear racism in our age. I grew up in a family where that wasn't tolerated so I assumed other familes were the same. Scary that is it still out there.

Travis said...

I've worked hard my entire life to practice tolerance and respect. I think part of the process is to recognize and understand that we all have prejudices. The key is not to discriminate or practice hurtful or hateful behaviors based on those prejudices.

It's so hard to celebrate our diversity because of fear. But we must continue to try.

Maggie May said...

That post reminded me so much about my own childhood.
I don't think it was to do with racism like things are today. I think it was just that people were scared of any one different.
When I was little, Protestants were the norm and Catholics were viewed with suspicion. Of course we children didn't know that & I had some friends in a Catholic family & they taught us about Holy Communion & we used to play games concerning this, with ashtrays & bread.
My Mum was horrified at the time as she said that Communion was not for children. However, she didn't stop me going round.
There were no ethnic minorities at that time where we lived, not until the late fifties and sixties! In the south there were black communities and although I didn't have contact with them at the time, I never met any true racism.
Later on, we mingled with all ethnic minorities and all backgrounds & religions & I am pleased that my family didn't bring me up to be racist.
Suldog is a great writer! Thanks for bringing this topic up.
As my granddaughters are of duel nationality & mixed race, I am aware of possible problems but so far have not experienced any!
My Dad used to buy The National Geographic magazine, & I think that was what first got me interested in people from other countries. I am grateful for that!

Anonymous said...

I have read the two posts you reccomend and found them both very interesting.
I can never understand why one person could ever imagine himself to be superior to another-it is totally alien to me. Different, yes, but less than I, never.
How much of the blame can be put down to ignorance, cultural fears,and or religeous fervour I don't is too short for all of us to be wasting breath on bigotry and hate.

The Shack said...

This is just one example of how America has been referred to as a "melting pot", but that is only when your look at it on the largest scale. Sure you can find people of every ethnicity, nationality and religion in this country but when you look closer you find they are often separated into "enclaves" of some kind. I grew up near Youngstown and there was the "Italian section", "Polish section" etc where people of like backgrounds pretty much settled together. I dated a Lutheran girl and my father said "why can't you find a nice Catholic girl?". For more on ow I feel on this subject check out

... Paige said...

Very good post! a lot of folks only think of racism as a black, white or hispanic thang. It is much deeper then that and encompases way more the skin color.

Michelle H. said...

Hello Jeni! Sorry it took me a few days to stop by and thank you for mentioning me in your post. I'm so glad people are sharing their own experiences on the subject.