How childhood discrimination prepared me for my adult experiences (not what you think)
This was my Facebook status this morning:
On Martin Luther King Day, I’d like to applaud and reiterate my pride and awe for my parents. In the early 1970′s, my Mom and Dad (who only had me at the time, I was 5) adopted a child of mixed race, African American and caucasian. They went on to have 2 more children soon after the adoption of my sister. My parents were pioneers in mixed race adoptions, and I can assure you – they did not have it easy. They held their heads up high as they were the targets of bigotry, hatred, scorn, from every direction. So was I, and my sisters. They loved each of us equally, and still do. When you live with or in a situation, it becomes normal – it becomes a part of you. Myself and my family are both more tolerant and more aware of racial discrimination, and I also thank my parents for that. I went on to marry a man also of a different race, and we have 2 children of mixed race. And so now, while my family could make our own Benetton commercial, we prefer to simply call ourselves a FAMILY.
Even as we speak, lots of responses and “likes” are coming in under that post, and I’m appreciative that it is catching the attention of my friends. As I think about my childhood and these experiences, I have to admit that the post had dredged up some dark and painful memories – mixed in with a renewed sense of pride and gratitude for the experiences and how they have shaped me. And now, as an adult, I realize that those experiences also prepared me for my own journey as the parent of a child with autism. My son will be 20 this year, so he was of that very early wave (although many came long before me) of the autism epidemic. I guess that makes me a pioneer in some respects, of the generation who has kept their children home and not hidden from society (again, with a nod to those before me who did the same). I have very distinct memories of the early 90′s when I was yelled at, asked to leave, reprimanded for poor parenting; when my son was kicked out of daycare, stared at by horrified bystanders – and while this goes on today still, the difference is, most people had never heard of autism, so explaining was futile.
My disabled peers were down in the basement at my school in the 70′s and 80′s. But we were the first to share our classrooms with children of all races from the first day of Kindergarten without having lived through desegregation. Children now have their disabled peers sitting next to them in the classroom and have no understanding of the concept of them not being allowed in their classroom at all. They will not care that their next door neighbor has Asperger’s syndrome or Down Syndrome, or that there is a group home nearby. The founders of HMEA were people who, like my parents, were also pioneers. 50 years ago they decided to begin the battle for dignity and an end to the cruelty of people in institutions. My generation is taking that to the next level and carrying on the fight for educational and community equality and acceptance. These are examples of what I’m talking about in my Facebook post – when you live in a situation, it becomes normal, and becomes a part of you. I think that ‘you’ can be applied to the collective ‘us.’
As I read through this blog post I have come to yet another realization – that every generation has something to pioneer, a different societal wrong to fight against , to change our collective minds and make things better for others. I wouldn’t change my life experiences because they have given me lessons, strength, faith and hope. Wow, what an amazing time to be alive!