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I have to start by saying I have fantastic, loving, open-minded children who have not yet been tainted by hate or stereotypes. My career has exposed my children to people of almost every nationality, religious background, school of thought and exterior appearance in a positive manner, but I am still overcoming my upbringing and the Southern culture of the late 1970s when I was born. But as they matured and began reading actual literature (Mark Twain, Langston Hughes) things got harder. Explaining why what someone looks like or who they love or to which deity they pray makes them less when you don’t really understand it yourself is nearly impossible. Unfortunately it is something we cover often.
Our first notable encounter was on a local outing with a close family friend and her mother — two beautiful ladies who happen to be Bahraini. As a combat veteran who has been to the Mid-East, I know that not all people of the Muslim faith are radical, but clearly not everyone got that memo where we live. Our group was refused service at a B&B during tea. In my shock I actually requested that the manager explain the reasoning to my children himself as I kept my military ID visible. The kicker was that I was on my two-week leave from a tour in Kuwait. While leaving, I told the girls that often when people or things are new or different they are feared and, that when a small group of people act crazy, everyone that might be somehow similar gets blamed. I referenced Waco and Joseph Kony (which led to more explaining). To 7-year-olds that didn’t mean much; their only takeaway was that fancy tea house manager was not very smart.
I got the opportunity to better explain not long after when we visited a theme park and tour of Tom Sawyer’s Island. I downloaded the 1938 movie that evening so they could see why the attraction was popular — my mistake. The opportunity to remind the girls that different is often feared until it is understood happened every time Jim or Injun Joe took the screen. This is what I told them: “In our history, mistakes about the value of a person based upon their appearance were more dominate. As a country, we are slowly beginning to judge a person by their heart and actions. Great grandma uses terms for different types of people because that is what was normal when she was young. Papaw doesn’t do it as much because in the 1960s when he went to school, our world started to make big changes, and Mommy and Daddy rarely mention those differences. But you (this generation), might be the first, if taught right, to truly not see any difference.”
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Then came summer 2014 with racial tensions in the Midwest and summer 2015 with close friends and family divided over flags and marriage. These were just other opportunities to discuss our faith with our country and our past with our future. To not be misunderstood or aggravate an already touchy subject, our girls have been told that different doesn’t always mean bad and that ignorance is just fear in action. They know we are supposed to love everyone, no matter how they look or believe. It is okay to have an opinion and okay to disagree, but it is not okay to push our beliefs on others or exclude others because of our beliefs and theirs. It is okay to ask questions, but it is never okay to make others feel bad on purpose. Most importantly, it is the right thing to do to stand up for others if they are being mistreated. The best way to make changes in our world is to be the change we want to see.
I can only hope that in my lifetime a day will come when I no longer have to try to explain differences in social norms and culture. Until then my family will do our best to use mistakes of the past to teach better habits for the future.
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