Creating Cultural Tolerance, One Meal at a Time – by Elisabeth Falcone

My daughter came home from Middle School where they were studying the Holocaust and asked me “Mommy, was grandpa a Nazi?” How do you answer such a question? Easy! I said “No”, because all of my life I had heard my parents rail against the Hitler regime. They sent my father to the Russian front and my mother to the basement for shelter from the Allied bombers attacking Berlin. But thirty years later, a fifth-grader in my French class, who was also learning about the Holocaust, asked me, “Why are the German people so awful?” Now the answer was not so easy, because the student unwittingly used a stereotype painting all present-day German people as Nazi criminals. Without going into the history of WWII, I briefly explained that not all Germans are awful, just like not all Americans are awful. Still, seeing an opportunity for a lesson, I taught the French words for “war and peace” (la guerre et la paix) and went on with class.

This incident inspired me to write a book on prejudice, tolerance and understanding, and for that I am thankful to the little girl whose family had immigrated from Argentina, a nation terrorized by the dreadful dictator Videla. If the entire German people can be regarded as “awful” in the eyes of a child, what is the cause? Where do stereotypes and prejudices originate? Over the years, I had heard family members and friends talk about their encounters with bigotry, so I let them know I was writing a book to which they might want to contribute their story. I also expressed my belief that having a meal with people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds has a positive, lasting effect on our perception of the world. It seems that food causes a chemical reaction that arouses our curiosity about the ingredients in the dishes and leads to questions about our fellow-diners. By the end of the meal we may find we have more in common with one another than when we shared our first bite. In an unexpected way, some contributors discovered their own prejudices while others were reinforced in their belief that we all come to the table as One.

The ethnicity of these storytellers ranges from Polish, German, American, Lebanese to Irish, French and Argentine. Their stories take place during WWII, the Lebanese War, the US Civil Rights era, as well as present-day France and America. While gathering stories for my book, I came to the conclusion that bigotry is learned at an early age. Exposure to negative stereotyping determines the way children look at others. When left to their own devices, they communicate and play together, regardless of their color or creed. Once they learn prejudice from misguided adults, they also discover they can inflict pain by hurling racial epithets at each other. If they are lucky, they are cured of this “disease” through self-examination or by enlightened teachers who appear along their life’s path.

I consider myself fortunate to have parents who taught me in my early childhood to regard people of all ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds as equal. They provided my sisters and me with solid, multi-colored building blocks on which to base our social beliefs. The Polish refugees who lived in our town right after WWII, were “Poles”, not Polacken. Later on with the implementation of the Marshall Plan, the Italian guest workers in Germany were not Spaghettifresser” (pasta eaters), rather they were people who came from the land of Puccini, Caruso and da Vinci. We had never seen a black person, so when we immigrated in 1959 to Kentucky, we learned that not all Americans were equal. We saw signs designating water fountains “For Whites Only” and “For Coloreds Only.” Some of our neighbors told my father they were relieved to find out we were not Jews. To our unending amazement, while we had come from a country forever branded for its racism, we were in a place that seemed to tolerate it. Eventually, our family avoided those who openly declared their dislike, even hatred, of Negroes and Jews.

Yet the neighbors we first met welcomed us into their homes to share delicious meals with them and to teach my mother the new recipes. She returned their hospitality with her German cooking that paved the way to long-lasting friendships. We found we had much in common with these people who were eager to tell us about their families and the American way of life, and that not all of them were prejudiced. My sisters and I were quickly adapting to the American school system and way of life. Most likely, because we were white, of Anglo Saxon heritage, i.e., WASPS, we experienced no prejudice.

As a foreign language teacher, I believe it is important to point out similarities in the language and culture under study. The students are delighted to realize the foreign language, lifestyle and traditions resemble their own. My own lessons in adapting to a new culture have helped me appreciate the courage immigrant students have in trying to fit in with their new peers. It seems to be a sink-or-swim attitude that helps them make the transition so quickly. Above all, the love and support of parents and teachers is essential to helping children deal with the prejudice they are bound to encounter in their new surroundings. Many children do not hesitate, especially as part of a group, to harass immigrants. A teacher must show patience and understanding and immediately report any bigoted behavior to the school administration. Hopefully, the school’s leadership forbids all prejudiced behavior among the student body and the faculty. Awareness is the key, and school events that focus on the issues of prejudice can offer lessons that are helpful in bringing students and faculty together. An “International Day” with diverse ethnic foods may help open the minds and palates of the student body and staff, bridging cultural gaps – one meal at a time.

Elisabeth Falcone
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