Editor’s Note: This column is part of a series in Freeline Media Orlando about the nature of bigotry today. Peg Dunmire spent 25 years in the field of health care, starting as a medical technologist and rising to become chief information officer. She ran for Congress in 2010 on the Florida Tea Party ticket and now lives in Hunter’s Creek. This article was written for Freeline Media Orlando.
Political correctness has led us to become afraid to speak. We are afraid to be called bigots, or that we’ll be charged with discrimination.
I regularly hear people say things that make me believe they are narrow minded and intolerant. Every day, I hear people say things that indicate prejudice. This is reality in the United States of America in 2011.
I was born in New York City and as a young child was moved to a beautiful suburb, Chatham, N.J., where I attended public elementary schools through public high school. Chatham was a sleepy bedroom community to New York and 100 percent white. Never do I recall hearing derogatory remarks from anyone about people who didn’t look like us or live like us.
When I was in high school, I recall my parents being up in arms when our minister tried to integrate our church by inviting blacks from the next town to sit in the front pews of our all-white church on Sunday mornings. My parents didn’t like the minister being an activist and superficially forcing integration into our congregation.
And during my entire childhood, we always had domestic help. Liza and Doris were “colored” women who helped my mother clean the house and wash and iron our clothes. Their husbands and teenaged sons would periodically help my dad clean out the garage or do some special projects around the house. I only recall my parents being grateful they had help. I never heard or saw anything that was disrespectful or derogatory toward these long-term employees of our family.
I went to Penn State Altoona Campus as a freshman in the 1960s. It was there in Altoona, Pennsylvania that for the first time in my life I heard offensive remarks about various ethnic groups. No one was exempt — Germans, Italians, Jews, blacks. Each had some slur that I had never heard before. My freshman English instructor assigned an essay for each of us to write describing some interaction we had with blacks. I wrote about my life experiences with our domestic help. My instructor panned my essay. He didn’t consider this experience valid. He was looking for controversy. This was the 1960s, and civil rights marches and protests were encouraged in academia.
During my college summers, I worked in Wildwood, N.J. on the boardwalk. The entire boardwalk experience changed on the weekends. Busloads of blacks came to Wildwood from Philadelphia. The town turned from a sleepy vacation spot to a rowdy crowd. I didn’t like to go to the boardwalk on the weekends. I didn’t feel safe with the large, boisterous crowd.
After graduation, I moved to Pittsburgh. My husband and I worked in the inner city. He was a teacher and vice principal; I was a medical technologist. We had different experiences with blacks in the workplace. My husband dedicated his entire professional career to working in Pittsburgh’s schools. As a music teacher, he enjoyed teaching and his students performed well. However, there were other elements in play during the 1960s and 1970s. He broke up racial fights. His car was turned over and his windows got smashed. He was transferred when a student brought a shotgun to the school to use on him. After a thirty-year career, I’m not sure that he would consider all the time and effort he and his colleagues put into providing education to the inner city students much of a success.
I worked in an inner city hospital. There were only a few black employees in the laboratory. But we served the inner city residents and as such we had a large patient population of blacks. I believe I was color-blind at work. I remember being invited to a black co-worker’s home for her daughter’s birthday party. Regina and I had worked together on the evening shift for more than a year. From the moment I walked into her home until I left, I didn’t understand a word anyone spoke. I couldn’t understand Regina. Her language was different. Her demeanor was different. I had no idea where I was.
I went to graduate school. I did not believe I harbored prejudice. But after two years of graduate school, I concluded the blacks in our program were not as academically skilled as the whites. There were significant differences in our academic performances. The class was half men and half women. There were 18 whites and two blacks. Academically, the blacks were at the bottom of the class. But this was the late 1970s and early 1980s and no one dared to note the differences between whites and blacks. That would have been politically incorrect.
I became an administrator at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Looking at the department heads and administrators, I could see there were very few blacks in leadership roles. As Children’s Hospital served the inner city and this was the 1980s, one would expect more diversity than I saw. The black leaders did not have either the education or broad experience that their counterparts had. When the quality of the leaders is clearly different between blacks and whites, the stereotypes of inferiority and advancement based solely on race become enforced; but no one says this because it is politically incorrect.
In the mid-1990s, I formed my own company. I was an information systems consultant. I worked in West Virginia, where I smashed my notions of rural America and realized the people I worked with in the little town of Elkins were as educated and knowledgeable as the big city slickers of Pittsburgh. Materially, I found out that Elkins had all the same accoutrements that were fashionable and high tech that I would find in the city of Pittsburgh. West Virginians freely spoke their minds. I’m not sure political correctness had arrived in West Virginia.
Starting in 1999, I became employed at an educational institution in New York and worked with middle class, educated blacks and Russian immigrants. I had never worked with so many blacks that worked this hard and did their jobs so well. I had never worked with Russian immigrants; I had difficulty understanding their English, but I understood their accounting just fine. Although the blacks worked with me, they formed a little clique and didn’t invite whites to their parties. Likewise, the Russian immigrants formed a clique and the whites were excluded mostly because they didn’t speak Russian.
I worked for a large urban healthcare center in Pittsburgh. I was an independent consultant and I felt discrimination every day. First, I was a woman. In the world of information systems, men dominated the field, particularly in Pittsburgh. Second, I was an independent consultant. I didn’t bring in a crew of ten consultants and charge millions of dollars. Although I was competent, efficient, and effective, I wasn’t part of the old boys network. I couldn’t get the big contract, but I did get the cleanup contract. That is to say, I cleaned up the mistakes the big boys made. I didn’t mind as long as I got paid and got paid well.
That brings me to my move to Florida in 2001. I relocated to Orlando. In my neighborhood, there are 44 countries represented. If I go to the community grocery store, Publix, in the evening, I often only hear Spanish being spoken. I have a Brazilian who cleans my house. I have Puerto Ricans who tend my yard work. My next-door neighbor is Chinese. My dentist is Indian. My gastroenterologist is from Pakistan. Another physician is Korean.
When I worked in New York, I found speaking to the cab driver or the deli server difficult, as everyone seemed to be from some other country and English was their second language. Now that I live in Orlando, I find the same is true here. Everyone is from somewhere else. Language is an issue. Culture is an issue. Mingling is an issue. Community is an issue. Some are from outside the United States; others are like me, transplants from the north.
Frankly, I think this whole subject of political correctness, bigotry and discrimination to be as much a function of the tremendous changes we are experiencing in our population as anything else. The roles of men and women are under assault. Social mores are changing. Families are fractured and reconfigured and revised. Change is everywhere. And we are unsettled, even lost. When we cling to our Northern Star, we are accused of being a bigot or intolerable or prejudiced. When we stand for nothing and accept anything, we are mush or zombies.
Twenty years ago, my uncle from Iowa spewed hateful words about gays. His beloved son eventually told him he was gay, and a few years later we all watched him suffer from AIDS. My aunt’s church preached when he died that he was condemned to hell.
My son married a small town girl from Kentucky whose sister was married to a black man.
A few years ago, I attended my nephew’s wedding where he married a Chinese-American man blessed by an Episcopalian Priest. Today, they are expecting their first child — who is being carried by a surrogate.
Today, my son works in India as there are no jobs in his profession here in America. He is now dating a Columbian he met in India. They are hoping to relocate to America.
Eventually, prejudice and bigotry becomes personal. When you learn your son is gay or marries someone from Columbia, what are you to do? When it is personal, you cannot hide behind political correctness. No, you move beyond that crutch. You learn and accept we are all just people trying to survive and, if we are lucky, pursue our dreams.
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