A Lesson in Tolerance
The woman in the adorable crab hat is my friend Karri. More than that; I consider her the sister I never had. We were roommates (always platonically) way back to 1994-1999, and she moved out to Portland as a roommate with my wife and I back in 2003. She now lives by herself in Astoria.
Karri is an adopted child and she has no idea who her biological mother and father are. She doesn’t even know her ethnic background. But growing up in south central Idaho — agriculture country — she was always mistaken as Mexican-American, so much that migrant workers would instantly speak Spanish to her when she worked as a grocery cashier (she knows no Spanish). When Karri met my Mexican-American friends, Ralph & Madeline, I mentioned to them that Karri was born in East Los Angeles, just as they were. They asked her “which hospital,” and when Karri replied, they nodded their heads and said, “oh, chica, you’re definitely Mexican-American, then.”
Over the Christmas holiday Karri, her mom, her sister, and her incredibly-hot-but-I-didn’t-notice-because-I’m-married-and-she-just-turned-18 niece got a beach house in Manzanita on the Oregon Coast. Karri invited us out for the festivities and we inaugurated the new tradition of fishing for Chris Crustacean the Christmas Crab.
I was excited to meet Karri’s sister. Karri had spoken about her many times, but we had never met. Karri had always told me that her sister is nearly her complete opposite — an uptight white Republican Born-Again Christian breeder — and that she has a hard time getting along with her because of the vast difference in their beliefs.
That was readily apparent when her sister started talking about “the wetbacks” back in Idaho. “They come to our country and they won’t even learn the language,” she complained. “They’re always so dirty and they’ll rob you blind if you don’t watch ’em,” she continued. “And they are always ogling my daughter,” she said (and I stifled my retort of “yeah, and so am I and all the white, black, and Asian guys, too!”) “and they make such crude remarks and they just leer at her like pedophiles!”
My wife and I wouldn’t let that talk just sit there, but we tried responding as tactfully as we could, not wishing to offend Karri or her mom. “Do you like onions on your burger?” I asked. “You ever worked in a field picking onions?” “Do you know what produce would cost without migrant workers?” We kept the questions coming, but sister just kept responding with hate, bringing up cases where migrant workers had killed someone in a DUI wreck or noting how the Mexicans have such high rates of teen pregnancy (a stat she pulled from the Department of Right Outta My Ass; religious white girls in Idaho have much higher teen pregnancy rates.)
Anyway, I could see the intolerance was starting to get to Karri. She stood up and turned to her sister and said, “you know I’m Mexican, don’t you?”
The sister’s face dropped. “What!?! Mom always told us you were [American] Indian!” Mom piped in and let her know that she had never said any such thing, and that they’d always suspected Karri was half-Mexican, half-Russian. The sister, still visibly upset and now very embarrassed, slunk down in her chair, head lowered, and said something beautiful that I’d love to hear every uptight white Republican Born-Again Christian breeder say:
“I guess I’m going to have to learn to be more tolerant.”
So that’s my lesson in tolerance for the New Year — you won’t get tolerance until you demand it, and you won’t be tolerated until you are seen. For some here, it’s coming out of the closet. For me, it’s proudly standing up as a cannabis consumer. For others, it may be letting your friends or co-workers know you don’t appreciate the racist or sexist or homophobic joke. Whatever the issue, it is much easier for people to be hateful and intolerant when the “they” is an unknown, shadowy, distant figure. When the “they” is someone they know, love, play, or work with, stereotypes fail and prejudices fade.
Happy New Year, House Blend!