SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2007        Personal Memory Ethnographies

John Prater

My Dinner with Robert

    My family and I had lived in a small Illinois town of 30,000 people, and my parents come from smaller all white towns, of less than 5,000 people. When I was young, in my town, there were only white people. We moved to Phoenix in 1979, when I was 10 yrs. old. Moving to Phoenix opened up the opportunity to meet people of many different cultures and backgrounds. Now I see that those white towns chose to be all white, and harshly judged people of a different color. My parents were trying to improve their lives by moving out of small town Illinois to Phoenix. We first lived in a rented house, then a large apartment complex. I made many, many friends in the apartments.

One of my friends was Robert, and all the kids liked Robert. He was smart, funny and a lot of fun to be around. One day after Robert and I had played at my home, I think I was telling my parents about my day over dinner. I asked if Robert could eat with us.  They told me in no uncertain terms that Robert was not allowed to come inside their home again because he is an African American. At that moment their prejudice collided with my ignorance of its existence. I reacted with anger and left the apartment.

I couldn’t really understand what had just happened. I only knew I didn’t want to be in my apartment if that’s the way my parents were going to treat my friend. I already knew Robert was different from me, I wasn’t mentally challenged, but the revelation for me was that I was different from my parents in a way I never realized. It was difficult for me to deal with this idea. For years I tried to change my parent’s minds by talking to them about the prejudices they held, but they refused to change their view.

Loving, caring, down to earth, this was the only way I had ever thought of my parents. There was no love in racism and prejudice, no caring either. If we were just regular “down to earth people”, then why would we judge others so harshly? These views certainly didn’t go along with what Jesus taught, and we were Christian. These views didn’t go along with what they taught in school either. The public school system in Illinois is more liberal than the small towns in Illinois, and the schools taught us to respect other people’s rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, “One nation under God”, and that “All men are created equal”.

    My name is Robert, and I am an African American. I have had many episodes in my life of being discriminated against by white people through prejudice and downright racism, aimed at me and my family because I and my family are dark skinned people living in a predominantly white skinned society.

    One memory I have is of my friend John, who lived in the same large apartment complex in Phoenix. I already knew of prejudice and hate, and that I was different from the majority of people around me. John and I became friends, my family even had him over for dinner, but I never ate dinner at his home. I think his parents were very prejudiced against African Americans, and John was forced to obey his parents inside their home.

    One day after I played at his home, John came out and was very upset. He didn’t say much to me, but I never went into his home again. I knew the reason; I have had to deal with this before. John must have been angry, confused, and embarrassed about his parents’ views toward black people. Racism had finally affected him personally for the very first time.

    John and I were still friends for a while, and then my family had to move away again. I still remember John. I remember his anger toward his parents, and I remember his confusion, but I can’t forget the feeling of prejudice aimed at me because of the color of my skin. It hurt me to be singled out from all of the other kids, when I was just another kid on the block. The only difference was my skin color.

    In 1965 my mother was 17 and my father was 20 yrs old. They had lived in small, all white towns their entire lives. The world around them was changing. My parents grew up in the period at the end of legal segregation in America. In 1964 that all changed with the civil rights movement and the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Civil Rights, voting rights acts, and interracial marriage laws were changing the United States. In 1964 The Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress. In 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress. In 1967, in the Loving v. Virginia case, the Supreme Court made illegal the laws banning interracial marriage illegal. In 1967-68, riots occurred in Detroit, Newark and other major cities, some in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis in April 1968. In 1969, then President Richard Nixon initiated the "Philadelphia Order", the most forceful plan to date to guarantee fair hiring practices in construction jobs, using the city’s craft trades as a test case. In 1972, Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed, laying the groundwork for affirmative action. It wasn’t lawful to discriminate based on race anymore.

    I was born in August 1968. In my own recollection of the mid to late 1970’s and early 1980’s, I remember being taught in school that M.L.K. was an American hero, and his fight was everybody’s fight. African Americans Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, The Harlem Globetrotters and many more were loved by all children. These were the images I held and still hold of African Americans. A higher awareness in the United States for cultural relations is what was happening in America in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when I was growing up. The epic mini-series  Roots’, starring many actors of African descent, was a huge cultural event for all Americans, and painfully demonstrated to all the people watching that African American people live, breath, and feel the same way White American people do. Humanizing black people created a problem only for those White Americans invested in the idea that African people are inferior to them. Jesse Jackson ran for President in 1980, and in my mind, as well as many other children, he could have been President. Being black didn’t seem to be a reason not to be President. Rap music had just been heard for the first time by the masses of white children across the country. Computers were just beginning to be mass distributed, Ronald Reagan was recently elected President in 1980, and MTV had just debuted. Racism still existed; it just wasn’t publicly accepted anymore. Teaching hatred and discrimination was not in the liberal school system; racial prejudice would now only be taught and learned in the home, and only if the children were listening.

    It was an exciting time for me, and this incident of my awareness of difference didn’t seem to fit into the scheme of my life. This incident still remains in my memory because it was a point in time when I was angry with my parents for thinking differently than me, not being as wise as they once seemed, and harboring prejudice. I wanted them to be enlightened, to change their minds about how they felt about race.

    Robert, all the other kids, and I eventually moved away from the apartment complex, but he is still in my memories. Unfortunately, this episode is also attached to my memory of him. Now I know the reasons my parents were prejudiced, and I don’t like to think of my parents as ignorant, or fearful of different people, but they just may be. That is different from the way I see my world.

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