Senior Musings October 2010

Posted 10.02.10

Judge not

BobbiJudge not...

The headline screams from the front page: Your friends and neighbors: The face of homegrown terror>.

Inside, we Canadians read that Ottawa Police met with key members of the Muslim community to quell fears of a public backlash against Islam.

But surely I'm not the only non-Muslim worried about that.

Prejudice flourishes, despite many efforts to eradicate it. Yet we tend to be selective about the groups we discriminate against.

When my ex-husband and I first visited the Ottawa area, in anticipation of moving here for his new job at the now-closed Abitibi-Bowater mill, we met with other engineers and their wives who were eager to give us advice.

Don't buy a house from a French Canadian, one woman warned. Some of their places are clean, but most of them are filthy.

I had to suppress a giggle. That's the same comment we'd heard so often in Chicago about blacks. We were moving from Oak Park, Illinois, an all-white suburb where the Mafia housed their families. It was very safe, not because there were no blacks, but because there were no liquor stores and no on-street parking overnight.

When close friend, an officer with Chicago Title and Trust and his wife, a librarian, came to dinner, our landlord was worried.

I hope you don't visit them, she cautioned. Some of their places are clean, but most of them are filthy.

That landlady, by the way, had no idea that my maiden name is Florio and my grandparents on both sides came from Italy. If she had known, she would never have complained about the Eye-talians who had tried to rent one of her units.

When I was a child, growing up in Connecticut, there was a lone black family living on our street, in the midst of a solidly middle-class white neighborhood. My father was an auto mechanic who owned his own business. My best friend's father was a high school teacher. The polite black man at the end of the street wore a suit to work, and his wife, like most of the mothers, stayed at home to care for the children.

We learned that Gertrude, Mel, and Pat were this couple's niece and nephews, whose parents felt they'd receive a better education living in Connecticut than in Long Island, NY, where the parents were employed as a chauffeur and maid to a wealthy family.

My mother was one of the few who allowed Pat on our porch.

If you, Judy, and the other girls want to play without the boys, that's fine. But if you let Eddie or Al on the porch, you have to include Pat.

How wise she was.. I lost track of Pat after we moved, as he was two years younger than me, but Gertrude went on to medical school, and Mel became the first Captain of our high school football team, and won a scholarship to university.

Afraid of bikers? I once bought a piece of furniture at WalMart, and although the clerk put it into my cart, I faced having to wrestle it into the trunk of my car. A very large man in biker gear complete with tattoos and bandana approached me.

May I help you? he offered. And when I nodded, he put the carton into the car, accepted my thanks, and smiled. It never dawned on me to worry that his intentions were anything but honorable. Would I have refused a native man in a deerskin jacket? An ordinary guy in a suit? A member of the military?

Those who knew Colonel Russell Williams, who was also in the news this week as he was committed to stand trial for murder, never suspected he was capable of such horrible crimes.

Why are we so quick to judge others?

My ex-husband and I did buy a house from a French Canadian. It was so spotless the man who delivered our kitchen appliances was convinced we'd laid a new floor.

Across the street there was a couple with three children. It was tempting to criticize Lucille, who wore bright orange Bermuda shorts, her obviously dyed hair piled high on her head. But after I learned that she was coping with a profoundly retarded daughter, I was glad I didn't share my petty comments with anyone.

We became good friends, and I learned another lesson in tolerance.

My closest friends in the Ottawa area are Ismaili Muslims. They consider me one of the family, and I'm included in every important occasion. I come to understand the basis of their religion, with its emphasis on philanthropy and multi-cultural outreach.

They were refugees from Uganda, where Idi Amin demonstrated to the world the horror extreme prejudice can create.

Of course we all have to be careful. We should lock our houses, our windows, our cars. We should inspect strangers carefully before giving them our trust. But let's not allow skin color, religion, style of dress, or national background influence how we treat others.

Barbara Florio Graham lives in Gatineau, Quebec. The author of three books, her popular website, www.SimonTeakettle.com, is named after her cat, who is not prejudiced against dogs.

Copyright © 2010 Barbara Florio Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/08.10