This past Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day, a national holiday in the United States. The photograph accompanying this post is one that I took several years ago of the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C. The celebration caused me to reflect on my personal experience with race relations throughout my life.
I grew up on a small farm in western Iowa and attended a Catholic parochial school, grades 1-12, in a nearby small town, graduating from high school in 1966. The only race I experienced first-hand in this community was Caucasian, mostly the offspring of German immigrants. There were no African-Americans or Hispanics and no one from any foreign country in the school, or in the four other nearby small towns and Catholic schools. Sports teams were all white, both my teams and the opponents teams. Teachers were all Caucasian, almost all of them nuns. Priest likewise were all white. I did encounter utterances of the N-word at times among my family members and peers, but these were minimal.
One might think that with these non-experiences I might have been influenced in a negative way toward other races when I entered college in the fall of 1966, Iowa State University. But this was not the case. Early on, I came to know two black students, one occupying a room next to mine upstairs in a boarding house near campus and the other in my chemistry classes (I was a chemistry major). I remember that I was rather unconcerned about their being of a different race; I was more much more concerned about succeeding in my studies, which were quite challenging. I rarely saw the student in the room next to me; he kept a very low profile. However, the chemistry student was quite annoying. I befriended him, and he came to my room periodically for help in his studies, but he seemed more interested in converting me to his religion, which was Mormonism. This was not an issue for me, however. There was no way he would pry me away from Catholicism. I also had a graduate student from Nigeria as my calculus teacher. The only thing that bothered me was that I couldn’t understand him!
During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, 1968, I had a job working in a lab in Chicago. There were black lab technicians in the lab that I found very friendly and good-natured. I remember my mother being fearful of my being in the big city of Chicago, especially since race riots and the infamous 1968 Republican National Convention were the news at that time. Of course, Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated that April. I was aware of the heightened tensions and had some fear myself. One day, I took a little road trip and, by accident, wound up in Gary, Indiana. I needed gas, and stopped at a filling station in Gary. I was very frightened when I observed that I was the only white person around and felt that everyone was looking at me. I was a fish-out-of-water and knew it! But I calmly filled my car with gas and got back on the road.
Later in college and in graduate school at the University of Texas, I began to encounter many students and faculty of other races. In the fraternity that I pledged at Iowa State, there were two foreign students, one from South Vietnam and one from Iran. Both were congenial, pleasant people and we got along quite well. I never thought of them as being different from me – only from another country. In my undergraduate research program, I met a black man who was studying for a PhD. In my graduate program at Texas, I joined a fairly large research group. There were a number of foreign PhD candidates in this group, one from Japan, one from Turkey, etc. Still not the slightest problem with friendship or prejudice. Later, in the workplace, I met black men and foreign professionals who were PhDs … still no problems. In my 37 professional career as a community college professor, I had black students and foreign students from Iraq, Vietnam, China, Japan, and other countries. I had no problems relating to them in any way in my role as their teacher.
While my life experiences were perhaps unique, I think I understand the pressures and prejudices that are often experienced by black persons and foreigners. I see it on TV and in the newspapers. However, my story is one that proves that we can all get along and even establish good friendships. My prayer for today: Lord, in your kindness and goodness, bring all races together in this country and beyond and help us to settle our differences by peaceful means, knowing that we are all your children, all worthy of life with you in heaven. Amen.