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