From my understanding of history, xenophobia has always existed. When people dwelled in caves as a family unit, I’m sure they considered any outsider an enemy, a dangerous and untrustworthy person.

When mankind expanded into tribal units, I’m sure the exact same idea prevailed, as later when we had feudal estates, later loosely formed into countries. While we didn’t even trust our neighbor from the next village, we outright hated anybody from another country and we’ve been fighting wars forever to let them know it.

In America times have changed for the better. Not a lot maybe, but times are better for people who aren’t exactly like us.

As an old timer, I clearly remember my days as a child. I didn’t live in a segregated part of the world mind you, but in an “average” part of the country. I say “average” remembering that, while there was no blatant segregation, most blacks lived apart from the whites. Some restaurants actually had signs: White Trade Only. A hotel for Blacks in our part of town was the only black hotel I knew of.  And yes, I’ve seen white women on the bus get up and move when a black person sat down beside them.

Growing up I constantly heard a long and painful list of pejorative names for Japanese, Chinese, Jews, Mexicans, Italians, Irishmen, Blacks, and so on and on.  Although my parents never said or intended anything derogatory about these peoples, for many of those early years I didn’t know they had any other names. Those were just the names everyone used. Usually they weren’t said with animosity. That’s what my parents grew up hearing and that’s what I grew up hearing.

Actually, being blessed (!) by poverty, we lived in an ethnically mixed neighborhood. Today they call it integrated, I believe. My next door neighbor was an elderly black couple. Being about six, I enjoyed going over and sitting at the kitchen table while Mrs. Ellison cleaned up string beans, peeled potatoes and so on. She told me amazing stories and gave me pencils and things. Beneath her bed she had a box that contained her father’s uniform. Yes, he had fought in the Civil War. I don’t remember whether his uniform was blue or gray, but he had been a soldier. A Mexican family lived directly behind us. Any neighborhood kid hanging around at mealtime was fed just like their own children. I ate a lot of beans and tortillas over there.

A great many people of  Japanese origin almost had their own little village nearby. Later I would learn that most of these thrifty people owned their own homes.

At this time any Woolworth type store would be loaded with trifles marked “made in Japan”. I say trifles, because all this stuff was poorly made, cheap and often a rip-off of some American product such as a Zippo lighter. Hey, I was a dumb kid. I took it for granted that the Japanese were incapable of producing anything better.  They came from a primitive country and didn’t have the ability to produce anything of real interest.

Then came Pearl Harbor.

Of course xenophobia really went wild. In my part of the woods and evidently all over the country, the people of Japanese origins were forced to sell their homes and businesses and go to camps.  I can’t say there was any mercenary interest in all this. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the “village” near me where so many of these people lived was bought up for pennies on the dollar and right after the war, all the homes were torn down and up went what I believe was America’s first shopping center.  Most don’t know that many people of Italian extraction were rounded up and sent to camps as well, mainly because they found it easier to communicate in Italian. Very suspicious, I admit.

I got my own taste of xenophobia too. This was wartime. Nazis. When asked my name, more than one interlocutor would eye me suspiciously and say, “Albrecht…that’s German, isn’t it?”  How does a fifteen-year old American boy respond to a question like that?

During most of my life, I saw very little of racial intolerance. This was mainly because in whatever city I visited, blacks had pretty much their own parts of towns as did Asians.

I’m not sure whether to call it lucky or unlucky, but I did visit Miami in the ’50s when there was still segregation. I was dumbfounded to see segregated drinking fountains, restrooms and so on. I worked in a walk-up fast burger joint with about ten stools.  Just a little joint. A black person could not sit down on one of those stools. He or she could stand up and order something to go. I found the job embarrassing and didn’t stay in Miami.

Later, of course, came the sixties and sit-ins and so on.

I’m relieved and happy to say that in the last forty or so years I don’t remember ever hearing one of those common old racial designations of my childhood.  I realize that they weren’t always meant to be mean; people just said them.

Since those days I’ve seen a great change in America. People of different colors and backgrounds manage to get along without one party kowtowing to the other, and such things as interracial marriages, etc. are not only common, but commonly accepted these days. It’s probably true that beneath the clear exterior, old wounds still fester and it wouldn’t take more than a word to open them. But we’re doing a lot better, in my opinion.

Xenophobia of course till exists. I’m not sure it will ever go away completely. Despite America’s purpose, many of us still revile immigrants, no matter their country of origin. Sometimes we forget that we’re all — except for Native Americans — immigrants, or the offspring of immigrants. But I believe that if it weren’t for all this great mixture of immigrants coming to America, our country wouldn’t be the great world power it is today.

I hope we can all try to remember that.

Okay, our country still needs work, but I do believe we’re getting there.  Only a very few years ago considering a black president was simply unthinkable.

And look at us today.


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