In earlier posts I have written about my younger years. I grew up in northern New York, near the St. Lawrence River and the Canadian border. My hometown is Lisbon, in St. Lawrence County. I graduated from Lisbon Central School, had a graduating class of 52 students. Back when I was a kid life got to Lisbon well after it had arrived in more populated areas. Remember, when I was a kid there was no internet, no cell phones, no cable tv, no computers…it was the dark ages compared to now. I mean, really, as a kid we got three tv stations. One, a network, was broadcast from Watertown, one was out of Ottawa and the third was out of Montreal, and it was in French.
But I don’t think I missed out on much growing up. What we had was what we knew and appreciated. The Montreal station was actually a good thing…they tended to show more “interesting” movies late at night, after my parents had gone to bed, on weekends. And I even learned a little French. Movies were shown in theaters only on Friday and Saturday, and all of the area movie theaters had only one screen. We got two newspapers daily, the Ogdensburg Journal and the Watertown Daily Times, which provided us with our fill of news, supplemented by the news broadcast on tv…one-third of which was in French.
Lisbon, like the entire North Country, was composed of white people. We were either protestant or Catholic. Diversity did not exist, nor was it even a word I remember hearing growing up. We didn’t need diversity, wouldn’t have wanted it if it had been an option, and were pretty comfortable all looking alike.
So it’s not surprising, when framed in such a context, that we were all racist in our attitudes and our beliefs. We had no opportunity to interact with any racial minorities, they just didn’t exist in my world growing up. There were no religions other than the normal protestant ones (Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, etc.) and Catholicism. I did have a friend who was a Jehovah’s witness, but overall, other than a weird religion, he was pretty normal. There were no foreigners living in the area, if you didn’t count my high school Spanish teacher, Mr. Miro. Why even calling someone a Democrat was an insult. There was nothing or no one to provide opportunities to interact with or even experience differences. We looked alike, we thought alike, we behaved alike.
Our only experiences with diversity came via tv and what we read, experiences that weren’t personal, almost weren’t real to us. And, of course, we were heavily influenced by older kids and adults who had grown up in the same environment we were living in. We didn’t spend time reading about people unlike us, and we didn’t discuss what other people, people very different from us, thought, believed, ate, worshipped, looked like, or did. So we didn’t place much importance on other ways of living, they weren’t relevant to us, they had no bearing on what we did, and we didn’t care. And we had a very biased opinion of most things and people that differed from our own world. Racial epithets were common, as were comments disparaging other religions, nationalities, life styles, ways of living. Calling someone “gay” was the ultimate masculine insult. We only knew our life and anything that differed from our known existence was automatically distrusted, disrespected, and disliked. It was bigotry or racism based truly on a serious lack of knowledge, guess you’d say it was based on plain ignorance. That’s not surprising, after all, isn’t that what all bigotry and racism is based on?
Being so insulated from the real world has many downsides, one of which is lack of exposure to people and ideas which are different for us. Living in the Capital region now I can look back and see how and why we developed and understand how people even today, people who live and develop in such isolation, physical as well as intellectual, have the thoughts and beliefs that they do. It certainly doesn’t serve as an excuse for it, just an explanation.
I began to open my eyes to others at college, yet even SUNY Potsdam wasn’t as diverse as the junior high school I work in today. But, I began to see that the way I grew up in northern New York was quite limiting, that although I enjoyed my youth, I missed out on a huge part of the real world. The process of broadening my understanding and appreciation of diversity of people, ideas, beliefs, and interactions was well underway. It’s a process that never ends, as there’s always more to learn and appreciate.
And that is my perspective.