The lesson plan for eighth-grade school teachers called for the teachers to help their students understand names stemming from their ethnic origins. In this particular class period, one of the teachers was concentrating on the term "African-American."
After explaining to the class what it means to be an African-American, a fair-skinned girl in the class with long blond hair by the name of Angelina said, "I am African-American."
The teacher was somewhat taken aback by a white girl with blond hair thinking she was African- America, especially after she (the teacher) had just explained what it meant to be African-American. She gathered her wits and replied, "I don't think so, Angelina. What makes you think that?"
Angelina was quick to reply. "I was born in South Africa. My parents were Afrikaners. But they were divorced, and Mom married an American. We moved to the United States, and he legally adopted me. Now, both my Mom and I are American citizens. You see, I am African-American."
The teacher didn't know quite what to say, and she finally answered, rather halfheartedly, "Yes, Angelina, I suppose you are African-American." And, of course, even though it may not coincide with the way we usually use the term African-American, Angelina is African-American in the truest sense.
This story, which was told to me by Angelina's father, caused me to think about the ethnic titles we use. When I was young we referred to people native to Africa with dark skin pigmentation who lived in the United States as Negroes, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speeches and sermons. Since then, however, we have used a variety of terms: Afro-Americans, Blacks, Black-Americans, and now African-Americans.
It seems to me that referring to particular groups of Americans by different names deepens the racial and class-distinction problems we have in the United States. We, in the United States, have always taken pride in referring to our country as a "melting pot"-- described by Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as a "a place where a variety of races, cultures or individuals assimilate into a cohesive whole."
It is worth noting that this term "melting pot" has been used to describe our country's population since the 1880s. At that time the United States was much younger than it is now and people were closer to their "old-country" origins than we are today and had more reasons than we to refer to their ethnic origins. Yet they referred to themselves simply as Americans. It is in more recent years that we have embraced words of racial divide and ancestral histories to distinguish what kind of Americans we are.
I grew up in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, where we thought of everyone in the community as being an American. We didn't refer to the middle class, the wealthiest Americans, the privileged class, or to African-Americans or Asian-Americans or German-Americans, nor did we refer to the farmers in the rural areas surrounding our small community as rural-Americans or those of us who lived in town as town-Americans -- we were all just Americans. Certainly some lived in better or larger houses than others; some had more money than others; some had more education than others; some had more prestigious jobs or positions in the community than others; some had more expensive cars or bicycles than others; and, yes, we knew that the profile of our town's population was a composite of different ethnic origins. But in the truest sense, we were a cohesive whole -- a melting pot. I did not learn about the "lower class," the "middle class," and the "upper class" until I took Sociology 101 at the University of Missouri, although, as I look back on my childhood and high school years, my playmates and friends consisted of people from all three classes.
When I was a college president, many colleges and universities established "black" student unions. I always resisted doing this. I thought this was just as wrong as having a "white" student union. I thought of all of our students -- regardless of their ethnic origins -- as being students of the college. I saw no difference in them, and I did not want our students to begin classifying their fellow students as "black" or "white" or "Hispanic" or "Asian" or what-have-you. That, I thought, would be teaching racial profiling and racial prejudice -- the very opposite of what I wanted our students to believe being an American is all about.
I'm not naïve. I know only too well that racial discrimination exists in this country. I have a long personal and professional record of crusading for equal opportunity and dignity for all people regardless of their ethnic origin or their religious beliefs. But I never wanted to be a party to fostering or accenting racial or class distinction.
I firmly believe that it is the moral and legal obligation of all individuals working in a school district or an institution of higher learning -- whether as administrators, teachers, coaches, bus drivers, security personnel, food service professionals, or whatever -- to guard against nurturing class and racial distinction or discrimination.
In my opinion, all of us need to stop blaming one another and do away with the negativism that divides the various segments of our population and work toward being Americans in the truest sense of the melting pot, of being a cohesive whole. In my experience, this has to start with individuals--like you and me.