The Race: Caucasian in Oregon, Part 14

1 Whitney1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you?

An analysis of my DNA by Ancestry.com shows that my ancestors came from Western Europe, Ireland, Scandinavia and Spain, which makes me about as Caucasian as one can be.  I find my ethnicity interesting from a historical perspective. On a personal level, I believe who we are as individuals is much more important than our ethnicity.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in Southern Oregon – northwestern United States – surrounded by national forests. I was raised in a small, rural town in Northern California. My first move was to University of California, Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60s. From there I moved to Liberia, West Africa where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years. I returned to the US, taught briefly in an all-black school elementary school in Philadelphia, and then moved to Atlanta where I traveled throughout the Southern United States recruiting for Peace Corps. Finally I returned to California.

Growing up in a small town with conservative parents gave me moderately conservative – though not prejudiced – values. Berkeley radicalized my view of the world and introduced me to cultural diversity. The kid from Diamond Springs found himself sitting on the floor of the administration building, protesting University policies on student activism, singing “We Shall Overcome” with Joan Baez. Liberia further changed my perspective on race and ethnicity. First, race was not a significant issue; it simply faded away for me. Second, working closely with tribal people introduced me to a world outside western culture. I learned how dramatically our view of the world is impacted by the culture we are raised in. Finally, I became acutely aware of the negatives aspects of ethnocentrism. Americo-Liberians, ancestors of freed slaves from America, ruled Liberia and considered tribal people inferior, while the tribal people gave their primary loyalty to their tribe and considered people from other tribes inferior. A combination of Americo-Liberian politics and tribalism would lead to Liberia’s Civil Wars and the deaths of some 200,000 people. I’ve written on the tragedy of Liberia.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

It wasn’t. One elderly black woman and two Mexican-American families lived in Diamond Springs. The Mexican-American kids were among my best friends and I spent a lot of time in their homes. The student makeup of the high school and community college I attended weren’t significantly different.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language.

The only real bigotry I personally experienced was when I was recruiting for Peace Corps at black colleges in the South in the 60s. Racial tensions still ran high. Black students disliked me for the color of my skin, not for what I believed in or had done. I regarded the experience as educational. I think it would be valuable for everyone to experience (briefly) what it feels like to be on the receiving end of prejudice.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

Over the years I have developed my friendships mainly around my work, regardless of ethnicity. Everyone’s ‘people group’ has a degree of ethnocentrism built in. We could all use vaccination against stereotypical and prejudicial thinking, with booster shots along the way. Tribalism is alive and well.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

A young man who worked for me in Liberia has been one of my closest friends ever since. Sam came from a small village where he was born in a mud hut. I helped pay for his high school expenses in Liberia. Later he would go on to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree from Brandeis University, a Master of Public Health from Loma Linda University, and an MD (Doctor of Medicine) in Liberia. We still talk frequently and he refers to himself as my son. My work as an environmental and public health advocate frequently involved developing close working relationships with people from various ethnic groups. Beyond that, my five closest friends, including my wife, are white.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest?  Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Shared interests, not racial affinity, drive my friendships. Among my closest friends are people who have fought beside me in environmental and public health battles, and joined me on the long distance backpacking and bicycling adventures I’ve led. I will say that the majority of the people I am close to share my values, including tolerance.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

If I had young children, I definitely would. Now I keep myself active in things that interest me. I might add that my blogging happily brings me into contact with a very diverse population from around the world.

9) Optional. Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?

When I married Peggy, her children were already in high school with broad cultural experiences under their belt, having lived in Panama, Germany and the Philippines. Both our children and their spouses have been great at introducing their children to cross-cultural opportunities.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I confess to being something of a loner, the perfect wallflower. My siblings were older and with a challenging home environment, I spent a lot of time by myself when I was a child. I learned to like it. When other kids were off playing baseball, I was happily off in the woods with my dogs doing an inventory of the local skunk population. I once took off on my bicycle and spent six months by myself doing a 10,000 mile tour of the US and Canada. I would still rather stay home and read a good book than go to a social function. The only time I felt deeply out of place was my freshman year in high school when I spent a year refusing to look at girls, any girl, in the eye. I totally lacked confidence, something that stemmed from the conditions at home. I definitely was not part of the in-crowd. And I wanted to be. It was miserable. It took several years to recover. But I’ve spent most of my life doing things that required social interaction and acceptance: running organizations, organizing campaigns, working as a lobbyist, etc. These responsibilities have opened many doors, but the sense of being an outsider has never totally left me.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

The world is something of a mess, right? We need the talents and abilities of everyone working together to make it better. Every time we limit a person’s potential because of race, creed, sex, sexual preference, age, or whatever, we all lose. I think we are taught prejudice and it is deeply embedded in all societies. I also think we naturally fear that which we don’t understand and in many ways we haven’t shed the tribal instincts we inherited. Our minds are hardwired to think in stereotypes. The more our world shrinks and the more our survival depends upon working together, the more important it becomes to shed racial stereotype and judgments.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

We all need to search our souls on occasion to uncover our prejudices and to explore how they impact our judgment. Going out of our way to help people feel they belong is an act of kindness. But it is also pragmatic. Prejudice begets prejudice. While this exercise has focused on the ethnic side of prejudice, not judging or limiting people because of their sex, faith, sexual preference, age or religious beliefs is of equal importance. Making assumptions about someone because of these characteristics can be as harmful to our society as making assumptions about someone because of their ethnicity. For example, I may be ‘retired’ and a grandparent, but neither defines who I am or what I am capable of. Finally, we need to evaluate the institutions we are part of as well as ourselves. For example, does our church teach that women must defer to men, or that gay people are sinners, or that people of other religions or nonreligious people are somehow inferior? Or does it teach that we are all equal in the eyes of God? Exclusivity is an open door to prejudice. Likewise, what do we learn in our places of employment, schools, and the groups we belong to? We have an obligation to promote tolerance in our organizations and groups as much as we need to broaden our own views.

Curt at Wandering Through Time And Place

54 thoughts on “The Race: Caucasian in Oregon, Part 14

  1. Reblogged this on Wandering through Time and Place and commented:
    Okay, this is a slightly strange title for a blog by me, so it deserves some background. I’ve reblogged this from A Holistic Journey. The feisty Wayfarer loves to take on social issues and is one of my favorite bloggers. Lately she has been taking on the issue of race by asking her followers from around the world to respond to a series of questions. Today is my turn. HW starts by asking us to define our race– thus her title. You will learn a little more about me, but more importantly, I share my views on this important issue that never seems to go away.

  2. Dear Curt:

    I started to write down the quotes I wanted to include in my comment as favorites, until I realized I filled up a whole page and that wouldn’t do, so I’ll just say I enjoyed your responses so much. You are so articulate and human. What a breath of fresh air. Why don’t you run for President or at least for Congress? We need a leader like you, although it sounds like you’ve led your share of crusades. I am glad to know you are out there, helping to make this world a nicer, more accepting place. Thank you.

    Fondly,
    Elizabeth

    • Thanks so much Elizabeth. I really appreciated Diana giving me the opportunity/challenge of addressing the issue of race. It’s a tough one– and one we will be continuing to work on for a long, long time. As for President, um, no thanks. 🙂 –Curt

  3. Dear Diana Ho, thank you very much for publishing the answers given by Curt Meckemson. Same as Elizabeth I would have liked to write down a lot of the quotes. What I think did speak to me a lot, was Curt’s attitude to tolerance. I think tolerance is what we all need to learn to practice more in our every day lives.
    Here are two quotes I found especially significant:
    “The more our world shrinks and the more our survival depends upon working together, the more important it becomes to shed racial stereotype and judgments.”
    And: ” We have an obligation to promote tolerance in our organizations and groups as much as we need to broaden our own views.”
    Aunty Uta

    • Hi Aunty… First I have to apologize to Diana. As I told her I was juggling a lot of balls this morning and one slipped… and since “a” is not close to “o” on the keyboard, I can’t even blame my finger. Anyhow, you selected two of the quotes I feel most strongly about. Any evening newscast demonstrates how desperately we need to promote tolerance. And it has to start with each of us as individuals and expand outward to family, friends and organizations. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. –Curt

  4. “We all need to search our souls on occasion to uncover our prejudices and to explore how they impact our judgment”
    This is certainly the ideal.
    Unfortunately those old historical hurts and prejudices both within and between nations are so powerful it is unlikely the world will change over time in spite of the best intentions of a few and the pretended interest of our world leaders.
    There will always be a rising power to force their values on the rest of the world. We see this on the media news each day in operation and history illustrates this too.

    • I certainly recognize the challenge and agree with you on how incredibly difficult it is to achieve change. Greed combined with all of the world’s isms makes it almost impossible, but not totally impossible. I, for one, believe we need to keep striving, regardless how naive my hopes may seem. I do not believe that giving up is an option. Thanks so much for your thoughts. –Curt

  5. I thanked myself for having entered this post about a very imp issue in society today. Belonging to a nation full of diversity of all sorts, in itself, I am still not prepared to acknowledge that the prejudices exist and need to be worked upon. Thank you Curt for an insightful account of your part of journey! Diana, that’s a pretty long list of challenging Q’s, I must say; but by the end of response to last question, the thoughts get distilled to the level where the matter becomes crystal clear! Though, feel, I would probably get overwhelmed at, say, around Q.4, I will give it a try to work on this assignment…

    • What awesome feedback. I have been holding back on most of the responses to let Curt go ahead of me. But I wanted to jump in before you expended energy on this project: it is closed to new submissions. I am helping to edit the last few. THANK you for the interest! I really appreciate your time and support. Please let me know you saw this!

      Diana

      • You mean you’re going to run through the questions even though I’m booked? Certainly feel free to post it on your blog. =) Your readers will enjoy the opportunity to know you better, I’m sure.

    • I found just going through the process of answering the questions to be quite valuable. I considered it homework myself… (grin) By the way, out of curiosity, which country do you live in? –Curt

  6. I want to thank you, Curt, for sharing your story! I not only identify closely with yoyur responses, but also your non-traditional path through life. I found the story of sponsoring and inspiring a Liberian particularly wonderful. Without a family of my own, maybe I should take someone under my wing, too. It’s something that has been on my mind for a while. I am also impressed that you have done some really epic cycling and backpacking adventures. Do you do much of that these days?

    • And thank you. I sometimes think that serving as a mentor is one of the best roles we play. I know I was lucky as a kid to have some great ones, people who impacted my whole life. As for backpacking, my wife Peggy and I just spent three glorious days exploring the Red Butte Wilderness that our house looks out on. It rained and was cold but we laughed our way through the whole trip and saw some of the most impressive old growth trees I have ever seen. I’ll be blogging about the experience in a few days on wandering-through-time-and-place.me. –Curt

    • Mark, what an awesome venture to consider. “maybe I should take someone under my wing, too.” Getting chills, that you were inspired – and by one of my good friends, at that. You would offer so much.

  7. “I think it would be valuable for everyone to experience (briefly) what it feels like to be on the receiving end of prejudice.”
    Right on.
    As always, great post and great reflection.

    • It was an eye opener for me Evelyne. You can understand what it is like in theory but miss it totally on a gut level. It makes you angry. And it should. The very real danger here is it can create a reverse prejudice. –Curt

  8. I too was glad to hear this, Curt:

    “it would be valuable for everyone to experience (briefly) what it feels like to be on the receiving end of prejudice.” You bring us an amazing life from across the ocean and back. I love how you progressively expanded your perspectives, Berkeley to Liberia. The difference you made in Sam’s life goes beyond words. To ThiNk what his life might’ve been apart from your intervention and support. I was really touched by the honesty with which you spoke of your childhood. The truth serves only to brighten the picture of the man you grew into beautifully. I must add that your closing word on the Church begs some clarification and discussion beyond the scope of this post. As a post unto itself. =) The God I believe in has a right to say what He will. But everyone is leveled at the foot of the cross. He Himself, in fact, lowered himself as a servant to all. And the role of women is one thing but a value judgmt something else (a difference some Bible teachers have not handled correctly). Well, we are all faulty. That is the point, isn’t it?

    I am thrilled to share in your journey and appreciate that our paths can cross on this post.

    Diana

    • Likewise, D. It has been a privilege getting to know you. Your humanity shines through in every blog. And thanks for the opportunity to share my views in this forum you so generously provided. I also want to thank each of the other bloggers for their contributions and insights. I know how much work was involved. –Curt

  9. Thanks for sharing your story, Curt. I enjoyed it a lot and found it especially interesting when you say it would be valuable to everyone to experience “what it feels like to be on the receiving end of prejudice”. As an Asian (Chinese) Australian who lives in Melbourne, I’ve had my fair share of being discriminated against. For instance, I’ve had whites call me “chink” (derogative term describing people of Chinese descent) on the streets. It’s not nice to be called that, and it’s not nice to experience prejudice. I don’t wish this upon anyone…yet the only way others can truly understand what it feels like to be put down based on ethnicity is to experience something like this themselves – it’s a scary and hurtful thing, shocking.

  10. Greetings from one Oregon writer to another! Great post! I recently engaged in an ancestry.com binge and it was absolutely fascinating uncovering so much about my family that was unknown up to that point. I have never understood people who have no interest in learning about their ancestry and heritage. I find it so important to understanding who we are at our core.

    Loving the eclectic feel of your blog and looking forward to reading more! 🙂

    • Hi Christina, I sure appreciate the follow and hearty support. You responded to Curt’s guest post. I, as the hostess, welcome you to this awesome community of thinkers. I appreciate the feedback and will bow out for Curt to respond. =)

      Xx
      Diana

    • I am so glad you chimed in, Christina. And boy do I agree. Tracing my ancestry has been a fascinating process. I was bemoaning the fact this morning to one of my sixth cousins (we share a great-great-great-great-great Grandfather) that I don’t have more time to devote to genealogy. I have learned a lot about myself and have had so much fun doing so. It is like this great treasure hunt. Thanks for checking out my blog. I will return the favor. –Curt

      • It can be SO time consuming! Rewarding but man… I could easily get lost for hours upon hours, look up and be shocked at how much time had passed! So rewarding!

        I found your blog as well as “Holistic Wayfayer” and look forward to reading more from both of you! 🙂

      • Thanks, Christina. =) And I’m jealous of you and Curt. Tracing Korean lineage is very difficult. Perhaps not if I can make it over to Korea and unearth records. But not feasible where I am in life, literally and otherwise.

        Xxx
        HW

      • I have found it MUCH easier tracing my mother’s side of the family. They came across on the second ship to land in Plymouth and then came across on the Oregon trail. I was able to trace this line to the 900s in the UK!

        However… My father’s side of the family is all from Germany and Poland and sadly, the majority of the documentation for his lineage was destroyed during the World Wars, particularly after WWII during communist rule. So disheartening!! 😦

      • WOW, Christina. You bring up the small matter of war, an obstacle in the recovering of our tree. My mother, whose story I told in the recent The Measure of a Woman, grew up with no photo of her father. Her family found all the photos and precious keepsakes destroyed or stolen when they returned home after the Communist invasion.

  11. I’m just catching up a bit here as usual – getting back to Curt’s piece. I like this:

    “We all need to search our souls on occasion to uncover our prejudices and to explore how they impact our judgment.”

    And:
    “Prejudice begets prejudice.”

    I’m a big fan of exploring biases in judgement (the scientific training?) and using that to moderate our responses. And yes to breaking vicious cycles.

    • There’s a song I remember for the 60s (I think it was from Simon and Garfunkel) that refers to prejudice saying “You have to be carefully taught.” We aren’t born prejudice. We learn it from our parents, friends, organizations, media, etc. It doesn’t even have to be words; it can be body language. Thus the cycle. And it is ever so difficult to break. A little rational though can certainly help. Thanks for your thoughts Bronwyn. –Curt

  12. oh.. i had missed this post previously and i’m glad i caught up! Curt thanks for sharing your story. i think its awesome you worked in liberia. i had a coworker who was from liberia and she had difficulty and reservation in sharing her experiences living there during civil war. Reading about how blacks discriminated against you when you were recruiting for the Peace Corps is telling as well. thanks for sharing about your history and experiences.

  13. These are the words of yours ringing in my ears right now:

    ‘We need the talents and abilities of everyone working together to make it better. Every time we limit a person’s potential because of race, creed, sex, sexual preference, age, or whatever, we all lose.’

    potent and powerful… thank you for this!

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