Diversity Lessons

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I was born in Chicago. It’s the most segregated city in America. Sure, we live in neighborhoods divided by color. But even in 2011, we segregate based on country of origin. And it doesn’t matter if your family has lived here for 100 years. It’s Polish v. Irish v. Mexican v. Guatemalan v. Puerto Rican v. Dominican v. just about everyone else. I dunno. It’s bizarre.

So back in the day, my mother’s family moved from one area of the Northwest side of Chicago to another. My family has a Jewish last name but they are Catholic. They moved into a non-Jewish area — and even though my family went to Catholic school and were clearly screwed up by the nuns — my grandparents received hate mail.

And my grandmother would say, “Stupid Polacks don’t know the difference between Germans and Jews.”

Nice. Okay. Now you know my framework growing up. Everyone hates everyone.

So I attended a pretty diverse school. By diverse, I mean there were a couple of Filipino kids, a few from Puerto Rico, and a handful from Mexico. And when I use the word ‘from’, please know that I use it loosely. Nearly everyone in my school was a third or fourth generation American. Nearly everyone spoke English at home. And we were all lower-middle-class kids who had parents working 2-3 jobs to send us to a Catholic school.

Every once in awhile, we’d get a new kid at school who was right off the boat from some Eastern European country. Didn’t speak English. Looked terrified. And inevitably, that kid would be teased. One year, around 6th grade, we had a new girl in our school. One of my classmates referred to her as a dumb Polack and my teacher lost her head.

“Who are you to mock this poor girl?” she asked. “Where does your family come from Mexico? Puerto Rico? No, they are American. And unless you have papers proving your ethnicity, you’re probably Polish, too. You live on the Northwest side of Chicago. Everyone in this town is Polish.”

Schwoo. So true.

Then she said, “And how do you know where ‘Sally’ comes from? Did you ask her? How do you know she’s not from Czechoslovakia? Or Romania? Or Lithuania? Why do you assume she’s Polish? Just because she speaks Polish doesn’t mean she is Polish. She could be Russian.”

Then the teacher added, “If you ever say the word Polack again, you’re going to Sister Francine’s office.”

Oh well snap. You don’t want to go to Sister Francine’s office. That polish nun would chop your head off and feed it to the lions.

It’s so funny how diversity lessons are implanted early in life. Because of this one experience in 6th grade, I started to think about ethnicity — and even states rights and genealogy — a little differently.

And I learned pretty early in life that it’s ridiculous to lump people into categories by race when you’re all from the northwest side of Chicago AND everyone is poor AND everyone lives at home with extended family members AND no one is really expected to go to college. We were all a product of unplanned pregnancies or poor decisions. We all qualified for free or discounted school lunches. And our parents were all assholes who, at one point or another, caused trouble and taxed the system. You’re Polish? You’re Mexican? You’re German? That’s great. Just please graduate from high school and get a job.

Really. The expectations were not high.

And just for the record, I’m still a little scared of Sister Francine.

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