While in high school, she worked as a waitress at a local diner. Most of the population was black, therefore there was little contact with white customers or employees. Margaret feels that she was socially isolated until the 1950s. She was not exposed to white culture; it was foreign to her. She was only exposed to black culture of the time. They were not allowed in certain stores, restaurants, or other places of business. She remembers "white only" restrooms and "black only" fountains. This cultural isolation was oppressive.
Margaret feels that the oppressive attitudes and discrimination that she experienced as a child determined much of how her life proceeded in adulthood. The idea that she could only go so far was ingrained as a child. She never really broke free of this feeling. In her 40s, she moved to upstate New York. Here, she found that many women had succeeded in areas that she never dreamed were possible. She found herself amazed at what these women accomplished. She knew from a rational standpoint, that she could do these things too if she wanted to. However, somewhere in the back of her mind were the "old school" attitudes that were a part of her educational and cultural experience. She always felt as if she could do more, but she never did anything about it. Her life was one of acceptance of things that would not be.
Margaret says that if she had it to do over again, she would go into education or social work and would teach black children that they could be and do anything that they wanted to do. Margaret feels that it was not only her school that was responsible for her attitudes, but the entire community and culture in which she grew up. The school was a part of the culture, one that accepted and even promoted the ideals of racial discrimination and prejudice. Margaret ended by saying that she thinks kids today have far better opportunities than they did when she was growing up, but that they take them for granted. These children have no idea what it was like in the depression. They have no point of reference to relate to hard times. She said that they still have fewer chances for success than whites, but that being black is no longer an excuse. Margaret feels that youth need to step back and look at what life was like for their parents and grandparents in order to appreciate what they have as far as opportunities are concerned.
I asked Margaret if she wanted to add anything else and she replied that we need to focus on eliminating the effects of cultural bias in the educational system. She feels that children could benefit from a concerted effort to recognize their unique heritage and what it means in today's world. Margaret does not feel sad about her childhood, she simply sees it as the times they were in. Everyone was in the same situation and she does not feel that this is a reflection on the school, but rather society in general. Margaret has seen many extremes in her lifetime regarding cultural diversity and the educational system.
My interview with Margaret touched me deeply and I could not help making comparisons with my own experiences. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in a mixed school setting. Many of the things that Margaret experienced were unfathomable to me....
I simply had no point of references from which to evaluate them on a personal level. I tried hard to imagine what it must have been like for Margaret, but I found it difficult to imagine myself in her shoes. My experiences were so completely different that I had a difficult time grasping what she was trying to say.
I have always considered myself to be open-minded as far as cultural differences are concerned. I have held the belief that a person makes their own way regardless of how they grew up or where they came from. However, after speaking with Margaret, I began to question my own beliefs. I began to realize that my attitudes were the result of a primarily "white" ethnocentric background. I did not experience cultural oppression and was always taught that my destiny was my own.
We had an ethnically mixed group in the school where I grew up. I never saw anyone as different from myself, other than skin color. Now that I think back on the African-Americans that I knew, they were under tremendous pressure to conform to white standards. There were two "classes" of black students in our school. There were those that dressed white, acted white, and tried to "fit in." These students usually got good grades and had a chance at college. They were typically from wealthier parents. African-Americans of this "genre" were treated no differently than anyone else.
However, there were also African-American students that were rebellious to white domination. They dressed differently, listened to different music and typically did not associate in any way with anyone other than those in their own groups. Everyone knew that these kids would probably end up on welfare or in a street gang. They were a closed social group. They had their own language, their own style of dress, their own music and did not participate in mainstream activities. They were not the "in" crowd.
Before my interview with Margaret, I had never thought extensively about what these two different "classes" of blacks represented. Those in the "upper" class struggled silently in a way that none of us ever knew. They were the products of pressures to succeed. Their parents had probably told them the harsh truths that Margaret knew. Their parents knew that to succeed you had to be white, or at least try to fit into white society. Looking back, their parents had probably ingrained these values and attitudes since they were small children. They had to do more in order to have the same. They were under tremendous pressure to succeed academically "despite" the color of their skin. I never knew how important this was until I heard Margaret's story.
Those that were from the "other" black culture were also under tremendous social pressure. They had to make a choice: to be black, or to be successful according to white standards. I realize how fortunate I was not to have to make these choices. I had never thought of my destiny as "set" when I was in school, but I now realize that I had many advantages that were connected to the color of my skin and middle class upbringing. I did not have to make a choice between my culture and my chance to succeed.
Thinking back to these two "types" of blacks in our school, they were always at odds. They were rivals in every way. Those that were rebellious saw the others as a sell-out. They did not consider them to be blacks. The middle class blacks were seen as outcasts by both groups. The few Hispanic students that were in our school were automatically classed as the "lower class" blacks. They never had a chance to succeed and were always viewed as unable to succeed. When I was in the midst of these underlying racial tensions, I never saw them as such. I saw them for the individuals and the choices that they had made. However, now I see them in a different light.
A realize that the minorities in our school did determine their own destiny in a way, but not in the way I thought at that time. They chose to which group they would belong. In some cases, these choices were made for them by others. Social isolation played a significant role in the ability to "push" someone towards another social group. If a Hispanic tried to socialize with the "white" crowd, they were quickly rejected until they accepted who they were and where they belonged. I never realized that this was going on at the time, but looking back, I see it very clearly. Blacks had to choose where they would fit in. Their choices determined their destiny.
Once social choices were made, they were reinforced by the way other students treated them. Even teachers fell into the routine and "class" system. Teachers were more likely to help a "white" black than a black of lower socioeconomic status. I thought that I grew up in a free society where racial stereotypes were becoming outdated. My interview with Margaret made me realize that I held certain prejudices that I did not even realize. This project opened my eyes to the reality that racial stereotypes still determine what we become in life. The classes and differences might not be as blatant as they were in Margaret's time, but they are still there.
Several social theories can be seen in the interview and my reflections on my own personal experiences in school. The first…
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