Racing away from racism

Mrs. Heller’s 5th-grade class at Conestoga Township Elementary Sch. 1963
Can you tell which one is me? See any colored people?

I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. At the time, nearly 100% of Lancaster County’s population was white Caucasian. My mother and father were both of English extraction. All my classmates in elementary school and high school were white. The only non-Caucasians I saw were Puerto Rican farmworkers and the very rare black.

My parents, however, were liberals who preached and practiced racial equality, and were passionately opposed to any form of discrimination. They donated our family station wagon to the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. One day as Mom was driving me home along a country road, I told her a Pollack joke I’d heard at school. She made me get out of the car and walk home. It was a two-mile walk, which made quite on impression, especially on my feet.

In spite of this family background, when I moved to Los Angeles in 1980, I carried a lot of prejudices, both conscious and unconscious. I saw brown-skinned immigrants everywhere, and I felt uncomfortable. Where were all the white people?

I found work teaching English as a Second Language to immigrants, and by exposure and  gradual attrition — especially by tasting international foods that my students brought to class — I started to enjoy racial and international diversity. I married a Chinese woman and befriended people of all colors and ethnicities, especially after going to work for the Los Angeles Unified School District teaching English to immigrants in L.A.’s inner city.

In 1987, my wife and I bought our first house in Mission Hills, California, an L.A. suburb in the northeastern corner of the San Fernando Valley. At that time, Mission Hills was mostly white, but L.A.’s ethnic makeup was quickly evolving, and the white population of Mission Hills seemed rather nervous. I witnessed several incidents of racial tension close-up. I saw a black couple get overt hate stares from white guys in a supermarket parking lot. Waiting for a red light, I saw the driver of a car full of young white guys toss a lit cigarette onto the hood of a car full of blacks. Walking along one street, my Chinese wife and I were accosted by a group of white men who asked us if we were tourists. A white neighbor told me that if his daughter started dating a Mexican boy, he would go after him with a baseball bat. Another neighbor who worked in the restaurant business told me Mexicans were dirty and lazy. This did not conform with my experience of the Latino immigrants in my classes, most of whom got up before dawn to catch the bus for an hour-long ride to work, eight or ten hours cleaning houses or washing dishes in restaurants, after which they rode the bus again to adult school, where they studied English for three hours, finally arriving home for perhaps six hours of sleep before getting up and doing it all over again. Not one of them was dirty. Not one of them smelled bad. Not one of them would I call lazy. Exhausted, yes. Lazy, no.

Even my wife’s mother, an immigrant from China, said in her broken English that Mexicans were dirty and lazy. (She spent a lot of time with our neighbor’s wife, so that could have been a factor.)  Then I invited the immigrant students from my night class to a party at our house. The mostly Mexican and Central American students came to our door with mountains of food — carne asada, tortillas, salads, rice, beans, salsa and guacamole — which they prepared and served us with great enthusiasm. The food was delicious, and afterwards the students cleaned up, leaving our kitchen and barbecue grill cleaner than it had been when they arrived. My mother-in-law commented, “Mexicans not so lazy. Very clean.”

Subsequently, when Mama became very ill in the final stages of cancer, we hired a Guatemalan woman named Nidia to take care of her. Mama loved Nidia so much that she invited Nidia’s entire family to celebrate her last birthday with her.

After Obama was elected President in 2008, I got a Facebook “friend invite” from a former neighbor and elementary school classmate in Lancaster County. (Let’s call this guy “Paul.”) Paul and I became Facebook friends, and I started to see the comments he and his friends were making on Facebook. Half of the comments, posts and memes, it seemed, were about Obama and Muslims, and Obama being Muslim, and isn’t Obama a piece of shit, and wouldn’t it be fun to kill us some Muslims. I tried educating Paul and his patriotic Christian friends about my experiences with Muslims in my classes, all of whom were very kind, good, honest, hard-working, loving people. Paul and his friends were not interested. Muslims aren’t Christians, they said; “Muslims are terrorists, and our president is one of them.” I finally “unfollowed” Paul on Facebook. I couldn’t take any more hatred and stupidity.

Paul and his friends, and millions of like-minded Americans voted in 2016, and gave us a president who campaigned on a platform of bigotry, hatred and willful ignorance. “Make America Great Again” seems to me like an effort to turn back history’s clock, to take us back to a time before Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act, a time before most of our nation woke up to the fact that people of all colors, religions and ethnicities have much to offer. I believe many of the people who voted for Trump are like those nervous whites in Mission Hills, and like my mother-in-law before all those immigrant Latinos came to our house to feed us and clean up afterwards. I believe I might have voted for Trump myself if I had not moved to Los Angeles and married a Chinese woman and fallen in love with the vibrant diversity of this world’s people and their foods.

With students, celebrating by birthday at West Valley Occupational Center in 2013



About John Mears

I teach English, take photographs, play guitar, write, do yoga, meditate, hike, play computer games, and love (and try to serve) humanity. If anything here touches you, let me know! Leave a comment! Subscribe! Enjoy! If you like the photos, you might like the greeting cards we will be selling soon!
This entry was posted in Autobiographical, Political, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Racing away from racism

  1. Gino says:

    Professor Mears,

    My name is Gino from Peru. I used to be your student at WVOC long ago. I wanted to say thank you for all your teachings. You were a great influence on me while taking ESL as far as the importance of English in people interactions and how we just need to practice reading and writing. I am not much of a writer, even though I continue being a student. I must admit I have not stopped learning. I am currently a medical student second year and you inspired me help others as I witnessed how passionate you were of cultivating a desire to better oneself.


    Thank you!

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