I grew up in a Cleveland neighborhood known as Slavic Village. Immigrants from diverse parts of Europe moved to the city and formed their own communities. Each had its own churches and bakeries and restaurants and taverns.
The Italians lived in Murray Hill. The Germans were on the west side. Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Croatian, Hispanic – each had their own neighborhoods.
The various immigrant groups had much in common. Their languages were often similar. They dressed alike – babushkas were universal. They ate similar foods – each had their own kinds of sausages, and many loved pierogies. They danced to polkas and other ethnic music that sounded so similar.
They had another thing in common: disdain for the other groups. They brought long-standing prejudices with them from the old country.
Growing up in this immigrant culture, I learned that each group had slurs and characterizations for the other groups. Italians were mobsters. Polish people were stupid. The Irish were drunks. Germans were this, Russians were that.
This group was shiftless and lazy. That group was untrustworthy and dangerous – they’ll fleece you or hurt you, so stay away from them.
They shared a collective disdain for Jewish people and black people. Catholics had slurs for those “damned heretic” Protestants, and Protestants had their own slurs. I remember being caught off-guard the first time a Protestant referred to me as a “cod snapper.”
Jews and black people? They needed to keep in their place. And women, too.
They’re not like us
Of course, the immigrants knew that members of their own ethnic/religious group were dishonest or lazy, but those people were viewed as individual failures rather than a reflection on the entire group. They were the exception.
However, when someone from a different group did something wrong, it confirmed their prejudice against that other group.
See! What did I tell you? Those (fill in the blank) are all that way!
They favored an open immigration policy, of course, but they thought there should be fewer of those people coming into the country because, well, they’ll make the whole country go to hell.
For me, it was eye-opening. As a second generation of an immigrant family, I didn’t have those long-standing mistrusts wired into me. In fact, it all seemed so silly. Bizarre, even. To me, these people were far more alike than different.
While each ethnic group was proud of its distinctive foods, my generation liked culinary diversity and enjoyed trying other cultures’ dishes. To us, it was all food — and delicious food at that!
Same with the music. There are different types of polkas, and different ethnic groups thought their music style was better than others. We enjoyed different types of polkas – and Motown and the Beatles, too, which didn’t go over well with some of our grandparents.
To us, it was all music.
As the immigrants died off, their cultures began to blend and mix in succeeding generations. The stark boundaries they drew between themselves and others softened.
But boundary-drawing hasn’t gone away.
We’ve seen a resurgence. I guess prejudice and hatred merely find new forms, new lines to draw in each new generation.
We hear people saying Hispanics are all dangerous gang members and drug dealers who must be kept out of our society — after all, you know how those people are, they’re not like us.
We saw the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, encouraged by some of our nation’s political and social leaders. Jewish people and black people remain prime targets for old hatreds.
It’s all the same
There’s talk about how gay people are this, Muslims are that. Millennials are selfish and undependable, women can’t be trusted to lead or make decisions about their lives. People from other religious upbringings are great sinners to be avoided and shunned.
People like us mustn’t have any dealings with them, you know.
I heard those things so often in my youth, and I hear them again today. And my reaction is the same: Why can’t we see how crazy this all is? Why do we consider our diversity as a threat rather than an opportunity?
We don’t have to eat only one kind of sausage. We don’t have to dance to only one style of polka. We don’t have to speak only one language. We don’t have to stay in the bubble of our own upbringing.
We’re all God’s children. Our diversity is a precious gift. We can enjoy one another, learn from one another, share each other’s traditions and ways.
We can enjoy kielbasa or mettwurst or a vegan sausage. We can dance to polkas or rock ‘n’ roll or rap.
It’s all food. It’s all music. We’re all people.