Jewish World Review Feb. 22, 2002 / 10 Adar, 5762

Lori Borgman

Lori Borgman
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Consumer Reports

Wrestling with prejudice -- A VULGAR slur boomed from a car in the parking lot. That got me to thinking about prejudice. I learned about prejudice from my dad in 1963.

We had just moved one and a half inches on the Rand McNally map from Nebraska to Missouri. Nebraska was not, as we say today, diverse. There had been an Asian girl named Iris in my kindergarten class, but mostly I grew up thinking everyone was white, knew how to milk a cow, and wore a DeKalb Seed cap.

The only people of different races I saw were on the wooden shelves of my bedroom wall. I had an impressive doll collection. Well, at least it was impressive by my 9-year-old standards. There was a black baby doll in a soft blue pajama, a Japanese couple in brocade jackets, a Chinese couple with porcelain heads and jet black hair seated on red and blue satin pillows, and a Mexican couple wearing faded red sombreros adorned with miniature silver beadwork.

These dolls from around the world, clothed in authentic native dress, had been gathered from authentic gasoline and souvenir shops scattered across the Midwest. I often wished I could see some of these colorful people in person, but Lincoln, Nebraska wasn't hosting a large minority or international population in the early '60s.

Kansas City, however, was different. There, the dolls on my wall came to life. There were black people in the stores, a Latino section of town called the Guadalupe District, and my dad worked with a man who lived in a neighborhood called Little Italy.

Shortly after we had moved into our house, my little brother dashed off to the neighborhood park to play. A few minutes later he returned and announced that a boy had called him a Jew and tried to beat him up. My dad looked at my brother, twisted the side of his mouth like he always does when he's thinking, then said, "Well, get back over there and give him everything you've got."

Keep in mind, my brother was sent back for a rematch in the days when little boys frequently settled differences with a benign wrestling match and then minutes later would trot off and share a bologna sandwich. The wrestling issue aside, I didn't understand why my dad didn't say, "Tell him we're Methodists." More than that, I didn't understand why some kid would care what religion we were. My dad knew what kind of mind would sort people by religion, the same kind that would sort people by color, which is why he told my brother not to back down.

The snow fell, Christmas came and my mother set an electric candelabra with orange light bulbs in the front window. It was a Woolworth's dime store decoration of breathtaking beauty, but to some of the neighbor kids it was further evidence that we were Jewish. When Mom and Dad heard what was said about our "menorah," they had the same reaction. They laughed aloud.

They always were a hard pair to figure. Why didn't they tell us to invite these kids in to see our Christmas tree and nativity set? No, they said we shouldn't dignify them with a response.

Of course, we have a different approach to confronting prejudice today.

Like everything else, we talk it to death. Or at least try to. My parents' approach wasn't flowery and eloquent, but it was solid. There are times when, in the face of prejudice, you give it all you've got (although today it can't be by rolling around in the grass and pinning someone to the ground), and other times it's best not to dignify a bigot with a response.

If my parents wanted us to learn something, they didn't talk it, they lived it. They judged individuals by their character, not by the color of their skin or whether their last name was Borgman or Bergman. It was an effective teaching method. The lesson stuck.

JWR contributor Lori Borgman is the author of I Was a Better Mother Before I Had Kids. To comment, please click here.

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© 2001, Lori Borgman