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Learning and Unlearning to Hate  

Ed Lewis is a retired Early Childhood Education Professor who loves adventure travel. He has explored the length of the Amazon River, lived in a cave in the Canary Island for 6 months, kayaked with Killer Whales in the San Juan Islands, and danced with the Duke of Arundel's daughter in jolly ol' England. He is a storyteller for adult and children's audiences. 

Editor's note: This article contains some language that is considered insensitive, but Mr. Lewis feels that it is necessary when taken in the context of the story.

(A complementary song is available: James Taylor: You Have to Be Carefully Taught)
I was carefully taught to hate by my father. By 10, I was convinced that Indians were drunks, Mexicans were lazy, Blacks were dangerous criminals, and that "Japs" could never be trusted since they had attacked our country at Pearl Harbor.
My father was an executive for the Cyclone Fence Division of United States Steel. Dad would recount his work day as he commanded the conversation around the dinner table. One evening between bites of salmon and my mother's famous scalloped potatoes he said, "Son!  Today I had to drive into "Niggerland" to put a fence around the chemical drums at Larson's Laundry because those "nigger" kids sneak in at night to get high sniffing the fumes. Can you believe it? Don't worry though, son.  You are safe here with your kind." This was the toxic stew of my childhood in 1950s segregated, White Seattle.

 As I continued through elementary school I learned that White people had civilized our country, freed the slaves, and saved the world in World War II. We then created powerful industries that gave good living wages to anyone willing to work hard to achieve the American Dream. I learned nothing of lynchings, police brutality, horrible conditions on Native American reservations, OR of the privileges I took for granted as a "White" boy. Living in my segregated White community and school I never had to interact with anyone except "My People". I do remember that my Dad always told me to roll up the window and lock the door when we drove through the poor black community on the way to Lake Washington. He commented disdainfully about how they didn't care about the appearance of their homes and probably stole money to buy the fancy cars in their driveways.
My dad's hateful teachings began to crumple in high school. I formed a rock n' roll band, The Accents. We played at city dances with bands from the "other side of the tracks," like the Velvetones which was Jimi Hendrix first band. Hanging out with black kids my age, we forged friendships, bridging our divide through music.

We shared similar dreams and a passion for Rhythm and Blues. Every year my idol, Ray Charles performed a concert at the Seattle Center. The following day Ray would invite all the high school swing bands for a mentoring session with his amazing band members. Everything I was experiencing contradicted my father's world view. I grew ashamed of being White.
In college I learned how White privilege limited people of color from getting well-paying jobs which my father had said were guaranteed to everyone who was willing to work hard. But when my father said he'd never hire a minority in a leadership position with his company, I confronted him. Dad insisted: "I'm not racist, just a practical man. They lack the ability to lead." We argued but that went nowhere.
Two weeks later I tried a different tact. I asked my parents if I could bring along a new friend when I came home from college for the weekend. He was studying to become a doctor. Mom and dad were thrilled to host him until I mentioned that my friend was Black.

Dad just shook his head, saying it won't work. I called him racist while he made excuses about the neighbors being uncomfortable and that we were all better off staying with our own kind. Then he offered the old trope that Blacks are dangerous criminals even though my friend was probably "one of the good ones." Still, they just couldn't take a chance.

I turned to my mom who had always preached love, peace and to judge people by their actions, but she sided with my father. That "cut" deep. I knew my father was racist but not my loving, sensitive mom. I felt betrayed!


I fled the house in a rage and didn't talk to them for a long time. I soon realized it wasn't about them, it was about ME; what I could do to counter the racism choking our community. I joined with college students from diverse backgrounds in Civil Right's marches, and campaigns to elect local minority leaders to office, and I tried to learn more about my own biases.

After finishing college with a degree in Business I was immediately drafted into the army and sent to serve at the DMZ between North and South Korea. Sitting for many evenings in fox holes for 12 hours in 20 degree below zero weather I bonded with people who would become my lifelong brothers—a Black man from Chicago, a White pig farmer from Alabama, an Apache man from New Mexico, and a farmworker from Southern California whose parents had brought him illegally across the border when he was 1 year old. We shared our bland C-rations, pretty good "happy smoke", photos, and the stories of our lives. I was "sheltered" no more.
After the war, I knew I wanted to challenge what I'd learned in my youth and pursue a career where I could make a difference. I enrolled in a teacher's college that was developing a new "Anti-bias Curriculum" for young children. The curriculum guided us in creating a classroom for young children with materials and activities that honored diversity.

Our coursework also challenged us to be honest about our own prejudices. Until we did that, it was too easy to blame overtly racist people, like my father, for all of society's injustices. It was THIS unflinching look at our blind spots that accelerated my UNLEARNING.

We answered questions to tease our biases out into the open, where we picked them apart and held them up to the light of truth. We shared where we learned these stereotypes, which ones we hung on to and why. Classmates of Asian heritage shared stories about straining to be free of the "model minority" narrative that commands they "fit in" and lumps them all together as the "smart" ones while devaluing the unique aspects of the diverse Asian cultures. Becoming "American" really means accepting a power structure that makes "White" the default.
When I got a full-time job as a preschool teacher in a College Child Development Lab School, I looked at the environment through the lens of this Anti-Bias Curriculum. It didn't take long for me to notice all the dolls in the dramatic play area were white and the books, puzzles, magazine, and posters only represented the Ozzie and Harriet families with 2 well-dressed, affluent blond children. Most of our students, however, were children of color, being raised by single moms in poor communities.

One day, a 6 year old black girl closed a book with an exasperated sigh saying, "Teacher Ed, do we have any books with people that look like me?" Our children didn't see themselves in the pages they turned and the dolls they hugged every day. So, we bought books, puzzles and dolls that represented all the diversity of our world. We compared the varied hues we humans come in and started using real skin tones to paint pictures of ourselves.

Parents gave us family photos and we took pictures of the children and their families at "pick up" time. The children created autobiographical books from these pictures and their drawings. They told us stories about those pictures and we wrote exactly what they said. These autobiographical books were placed in our library and became the rage at "Circle Time" and a big hit with the parents.

I cared for my father the last three years of his life. He passed at the age of 91. Although I never managed to get dad to unshackle himself from his prejudices he did finally admit he was racist: "It's just how I was taught, son."

For me though, I felt compelled to unlearn the hate I was taught. It is possible! My journey continues.

~ Ed Lewis








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