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my pace
Office of Multicultural Affairs—NYC

My Cultural Evolution

Let me start off by telling you a little about my mother and my grandma. These are the women who raised me. My grandma was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1933. This was the worst year of The Great Depression, Adolf Hitler opened his first concentration camp, Roosevelt was president and the Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Her parents came from Germany prior to the Holocaust and were very poor. Her father worked at the state capitol which was right across the road from her house. My grandmother grew up with her two sisters in a time of complete segregation. She entered what would become a troubled marriage, became a nurse who still works to this day, raised three girls, and is very right wing in her politics. My mother was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1963. This was the year Martin Luther King Jr. gave his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, President John F Kennedy was assassinated, and Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique sparking a national debate about women's roles. My mom is career oriented, has a great sense of humor and prefers not to pay attention to political affairs or world news. Most people begin forming their opinions about life, culture and politics from their parents, but my mom would much rather discuss celebrity gossip, shopping or football so that is the knowledge I acquired during what I consider my most impressionable years. Even now, she calls her residential street “ghetto” because black people live on either side of her and the houses are old. I was taught to treat everyone equally and to be considerate of other people’s feelings. However, I am embarrassed to admit that I have heard both of these women used the “N” word along with other racial slurs in reference to other ethnicities.

I spent the first half of my life in Nebraska; originally living in the house my mother grew up in with her and my grandma. Then my mother remarried when I was seven and we moved to a brand new cookie cutter neighborhood in a brand new cookie cutter town called Millard. My brother Adam was born in March of 1993. At that time in my life I didn’t notice that almost all of my neighbors were white and the majority of the students at my elementary and middle schools were too. There was one black girl in my grade named Andrea who was my very good friend. She worked hard at school and was so smart, always getting better grades than me. Her dad had a good job and her house was twice the size of mine. No one in my school treated her any differently that I noticed. In fact, everyone seemed to like her. She was what one would call popular. The only thing she did that I thought was strange was when she told me she would only wash her hair every month or so. My mom told me I was gross if I went more than two days without washing mine. These, I thought, were perfect examples of how equal and fair the world had become.

I had not experienced racism at that age, but I was exposed to some of the hateful behavior that can occur from ignorance – the same type of ignorance that feeds racist behavior. In 8th grade my mother divorced her abusive husband and being from a young town, and fabricated rumors were easier to believe and to spread. Those rumors got back to me through the taunting of my classmates who had overheard the gossip of their parents and came to school whispering to their friends that my mother was a “slut, gold digger, and a liar”. It was rare in this suburban neighborhood for a marriage to publicly fail and even less for a woman to accuse her husband of child abuse. It didn’t take long for us to feel alienated and alone; causing us to leave town.

When I first moved to Michigan the neighborhood seemed relatively normal and similar to Nebraska. I had to take the bus to school for the first time which took some getting used to because the many students were rowdy in the confined space. When I got to the school everyone wanted to know my name and all about me. I was warned to “watch out for the Chaldeans”. Although at the time I had no idea what the term Chaldean meant. There were a few new ethnicities I had no knowledge of, one of these being Chaldean, a group that mainly came from Iraq. I eventually learned the names of many different Middle Eastern cultures and some of their traditions. I tried their food and learned a few Arabic words. I listened and asked questions about their values and customs that seemed so unique and different. Some of these different customs included a strong dependence on family, strict rules for females with regards to dating, and a mainly male dominated culture. Also I lived approximately twenty five minutes outside of Detroit, so after living there for a few years, I thought I knew about poverty and the struggles of life in the inner city – even though my neighborhood was far removed from these concerns. Rap music was a huge new phenomenon and driving down to Detroit to buy drugs seemed so exciting and defiant. Looking back I have to laugh at it. High school kids from a good neighborhood and opportunities that many people dream of were trying so hard to forget it all. The majority of my friends during this time in my life came from suburban middle class, yet many took longer than four years to get a bachelor degree and are just now figuring out their career path.

I relocated to New York City in November of 2007. I live in Tribeca, an extremely nice area of Manhattan with my boyfriend Zach who works in Finance. The first group of people I encountered was through my boyfriend. These people mostly came from wealthy families, went to Ivy League schools and were equipped with a different set of priorities.The people I had been meeting did not cook and seemed impressed with the fact that I knew how. I wanted to impress my new acquaintances and in attempt to make friends I invited my boyfriend’s coworker, Matt and his girlfriend over for dinner. That night I decided to make pork tenderloin. I thought it was the perfect dish because it was easy to make and hard to mess up. It was around Christmastime so when my boyfriend came home the tree was lit, the holiday carols were playing and the pork was in the oven. I was so sure everything was going to be perfect. When Zach realized what I was cooking he kindly informed me that our guests were Jewish. I immediately promised to turn off the Christmas music so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. He told me to think about that his coworker’s last name was Knopman. The last name didn’t mean anything to me although I thought it was unique. This is when I found out the hard way that most last names ending in the letters “man” were Jewish names and people who practice Judaism don’t usually eat pork. I was confused to say the least. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t eat pork. I will never forget my first lesson in Jewish customs and am looking forward to attending my first Jewish wedding this fall to further my education.

I became employed in the high end of the fashion industry where I worked with my best friend Alexis until the economy fell on hard times and we were both laid off. I was the assistant for the sales team who sold the designer’s line to department stores and specialty boutiques around the world. Alexis was the receptionist. I think we bonded because we were both new to New York and at the bottom of the totem pole according to everyone else. Alexis is a 30 year old black homosexual from Savannah, Georgia who is living with HIV. He has opened my eyes to many things. My favorite quality in him is his self-confidence – he refuses to conform regardless of the situation. Because he is from the South, black, and gay he has had to endure many forms of racism.

Currently I am enrolled in a community college where I seem to be the minority. At the beginning of my first semester at CUNY, a professor went around to each student in the class and asked if they traveled anywhere over their summer break. When I answered honestly, with my hard to miss Midwestern accent that I had been to Italy and Greece there was a loud rumble of comments from my classmate’s reactions. Immediately an invisible line was drawn. I was no longer one of them. It doesn’t matter that I myself have no money. It’s the people who love me that have the ability to travel places and want to experience those places with me. I am now the one who may be labeled, harassed, stereotyped and taken advantage of because of my ethnicity. Because of my experience at BMCC my perspective has changed tremendously and will continue to change. I thought I knew what the world was like before. I thought I had put myself in the shoes of the less fortunate, the shoes of the minority, and the shoes of those who are judged. I had not yet. I don’t see that world anymore.

Talk about coming full circle. I learn more day by day. Some trivial things like the reason the girl that sits next to me in sociology class continually smacks herself in the head is because her hair extensions itch. And bigger things such as where my peers come from and what those places were like for them. I have met people from very impoverished countries that lived without electricity and clean water. I have met young girls who came to live in the United States alone and very possibly will not see their families again. I have never been poor. I have never gone hungry. I have never known an unprivileged life. But I have learned to keep an open mind and acquired a need to know more. I still feel I have just scratched the surface of my cultural education.

Erica Sparks
May 2010