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Zirpoli: Relationships key to breaking stereotypes and prejudices

A recent article by Moises Velasquez-Manoff in The New York Times recommended that if we wanted to be less racist, move to Hawaii.

You see, the majority of Hawaiians are mixed race. The article found that relationships are key to understanding others and that the lack of relationships with people who are different promotes stereotypes and prejudices.

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Growing up in New York in the 1950s and hanging out with my friend, Kevin, who was Irish, was the extent of my experience with diversity as a child. The Italian and Irish jokes shared among our peers in school were numerous. They were based on ignorance, mostly due to the lack of relationships with kids who were different from us.

Growing up, the lack of diversity in my world was not limited to ethnicity. Everyone in my orbit was white and Catholic. My first serious discussion with someone different was a neighborhood friend I made after my family moved to Virginia. I had no idea that she was Jewish until she told me what her family did for Christmas.

That was a surprise! Indeed, when it came to the diversity of experiences, my life was pretty shallow.

My first significant relationship with African Americans came when at age 15 I took a summer job with a landscaping company. I learned the value of hard work and the reason to stay in school. The real education, however, came from the fact that I was the only white person on the crew. The other workers — five young black men, adopted me for the summer, taught me the skills of landscaping, and introduced me to the world beyond my white, Catholic universe.

Sometimes, for lunch, the guys took me to downtown Norfolk, then segregated by race. There, I was introduced to food that my Italian mother never cooked. I also learned about segregation and discrimination. When we traveled around the state for different landscaping jobs, my black co-workers had to stay in different hotels because they were not welcomed in the hotel where my white boss and I stayed.

I remember my ignorance in not understanding this.

I remember picking the guys up for work each morning. They were poor and their segregated housing was as in terrible shape. I learned during that summer that other people, outside of my privileged circle, had difficult lives merely because of the color of their skin and the chance circumstances of birth.

My first adult relationship with an African American was during my years working at a state school for children with disabilities. But while we worked together, we seldom socialized outside of work. Our agency nurse was a young African American woman who taught me the value of education in helping all people reach their potential.

Before her, I had never worked with a minority medical provider.

In my 23 years at McDaniel College and as CEO of Target Community and Educational Services, I’ve had the pleasure and joy of working with and socialize with many people of different backgrounds. The more I learn the more I realize how isolated my childhood and young adult experiences were, and how this isolation promotes prejudices and stereotypes.

What I’ve learned is that, for most people, life is about family, friends, and food. The more I’ve been exposed to in my life, the more I’ve learned that we are all not very different. Moreover, the differences we do have are differences worth celebrating, like Hanukkah with my Jewish son-in-law’s family.

My life is richer because of my experiences and relationships with people who are different from me. But I’m still learning. For example, McDaniel professor Apollo Mian recently spoke at a graduation ceremony about his home in Bangladesh. Because of my ignorance and stereotypes, images of poverty immediately came to my mind. But professor Mian informed us that there have been 26 female presidents in Bangladesh and that plastic bags were banned there over a decade ago. In many ways, Bangladesh is more progressive than the United States.

Education and exposure is a major factor in breaking down the ignorance we have towards and about others. This is why, for example, our children view people with disabilities differently than I did when I was young. Today’s students go to school with kids with disabilities. My generation never did.

I have a long way to go to understand my own prejudices and racism, past and present. I believe that life is about relationships and I’m realizing that relationships with others continue to open my eyes and clear my mind.

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Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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