• Tamara S. Graham

The Color of My Heart

Updated: 6 days ago

In a worldwide pandemic, we as a nation are also having to come to terms with our racial disparity epidemic. It is time ~ long overdue ~ to look into our own hearts to see what has left an imprint on our views of the world and equality. So much needs to change, and having to shelter-in-place has given us an opportunity to see with fresh eyes. Really see... what we have been too busy to acknowledge or let sink in past our rushed and sometimes superficial existence. Too often I have felt helpless and have turned away from watching the difficult things, but now the cruelty has been too great to ignore! It's been right in front of us all along, and there is really no excuse for why we haven't addressed it with a meaningful, long term solution.


For the past 4 months, I have been saying that I feel like COVID-19 has been a magnifying glass - zooming our focus onto all of the issues we desperately need to address as a society. Too much has just been chalked up to how it has gone before, and not enough of us have demanded change. We are seeing our environment, and society through a different lens now and it's time for a huge shift!


IT'S TIME:

to really listen,

be compassionate,

show empathy,

and above all else ~ be kind,

while taking action to recognize,

repair, and restructure our ways!


The first step to change the world is to change our own heart. So that's where we need to start, and never stop. It's time for all of us to look inward and see what each one of our hearts brings to the collective. What has shaped your perception of different cultures, and skin colors? What color is your heart?

"World peace through inner peace" ~ Dr. Darren Weissman

This all makes me wonder what color is my heart?

In my own heart, I am searching for what has influenced my view on color, race and ethnicity. I have been thinking about what I have lived through, and how it has made me who I am. I didn't choose to experience most of it, but it did make me who I am today. I am grateful for that path since it created this compassionate heart that I enjoy my life with.


I do believe we as a society are shifting from holding mirrors up facing outward - judging others, to really looking inward at our own behavior right now by turning that mirror onto ourselves. How did so many people in our society grow up to be so numb, lacking empathy toward others, or only caring about those that look like the image we have of ourselves? It can't be a "nature vs. nurture" viewpoint since our souls are born pure.


I don't think I have ever considered myself to be prejudice, but it's time to look deep into my heart to see if my behavior shows otherwise. If I review my subconscious influences, perhaps I can heal the ones that aren't congruent with my own true heart. I am ready to look at my own racial, financial, and ethnically influenced experiences to see where I may have my own shadows of any and every type of prejudice. I think that is where we all have to start... I will dive deep. You are welcome to go on this raw and honest journey with me. Grab a cup of tea and lets go...


CHILDHOOD FAMILY INFLUENCE

My first memory of exposure to skin of a different color really isn't my own memory as much as it is a memory of the story my mother used to tell. Living in a small suburb of Chicago, I don't remember anyone in my childhood looking dramatically different than me, or perhaps my child heart just didn't see people through the lens of skin color. That is, until a grocery store outing with my mother when I was about 3 or 4, when I asked a silly question.

The story is not my own, but it goes like this - while shopping I noticed an adult black man and apparently I had not seen one before and blurted out, "Mommy, why is that man's face so dirty?" My mother always laughed when she told that story, but I never thought it was funny. I don't even know if it is true. Isn't that more of a reflection of her parenting than my ignorance? I would love to know what she said in response, but she never told that part of the story, at least not that I heard. And of course, I don't remember. I am positive her response planted a seed, and her emphasis on retelling that story speaks volumes about her own views. If she had been impartial to people of color, viewing us as all equals, she would not have kept such a story alive.


Then there was my prejudiced father who matter-of-factly used every racial slur in the book ~ wait is there a book?! He would come home from work, frustrated and tell stories describing his coworkers and customers using very derogatory names. Those words were like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. Others laughed or commiserated while I sat wide-eyed in disbelief. I almost never used those terms, but I also never spoke up about my distain for them either. I am of the generation that wasn't allowed to question what the adults did or said, and unfortunately was "trained" to "never tell" when I saw or experienced a wrong-doing - except of course when it was about my sibling misbehaving, lol. I honor and respect my own children's generation where they must speak their piece (or is it peace?), no matter what. Right on millennials!


SOCIAL ATMOSPHERE

In my early childhood, the town that I grew up in was very much split between lower class, middle class, and a few rich people. What is "lower class" anyway?! Who the hell came up with those categories?! I understood the class category to mean financial status. It never occurred to me that it could be poorly used to separate people's skin colors, or that it could be a description of a racist, unequal dispersion of wealth.

I had the naiveté of a child that assumes everyone was pretty much the same - until I started school. Then I began to see that most people had more food, clothing, and bigger homes than I did. This began my house shame, and reluctance to have friends over.


I was probably in middle school by the time I realized that the town next to ours was where all the Mexican Americans lived that held all the jobs that the white people in my town wouldn't do (like lawn care, assembly work and fast food jobs). Somehow, they were deemed lower class because of their jobs and the only location they could afford to live in. Many factors that are out of a person's control are what society judges them for? That seems ridiculous! Nonetheless, it had an effect on me because of what other kids and adults around me had said.


RELIGIOUS IMPRINTS

As I got older, and my home town began to change, more and more upper class people came to settle there. Most likely because it was on Lake Michigan and not too far from Chicago. That is when I learned about religious prejudice. It seemed like many of the wealthier people moving in were Jewish. Of course this was through my own perception, but was it really mine?


It did seem odd to me that we were a non-religious family living two doors down from a Methodist church. A church we never went to, although I did play on their playground with some neighbor kids occasionally. My parents - when pressed for a label of what religion we were - would say we were Protestant. We didn't have a local church or any religious practice other than celebrating Christmas and Easter.

Crocheted Easter outfit my grandmother made.

We only went to Easter services when we visited out-of-town family. I did get a new Easter outfit every year from my grandmother, most likely because she hoped that I would be going to church. Even as a young girl, I picked up a neutral attitude about my own core family's religious beliefs, while also feeling my parents distrust of organized religious conformity and societal pressures.


Bible school seemed to be important to my mother's parents, which made my mom cave under pressure one summer so she asked a Christian neighbor to take me under their wing and teach me some things about Jesus. I don't remember much except feeling a bit out of place - like a foreigner in a different country. I had felt vulnerable being alone in a transient neighbor's home that we didn't know very well, especially since I had an over protective mother. But I do remember loving the songs:


"Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world."

Those lyrics really spoke to me. That is how I felt, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for kids. I find it ironic now as I type those song lyrics that "white" kids were listed last. Many people in our society would put white people first on that list. It wasn't until much later in childhood that I realized society was not like Jesus.


In Junior High School I began to see a connection between religion, ethnicity, culture and finances. My classmates and I began to notice that the few non-white kids in our school seemed to be from families that struggled financially, including some from the neighboring army base. Financially I identified more with them, becoming friends due to the commonality of our "low income" lifestyles. The Jewish kids seemed to have financial abundance with more lunch money, larger homes, no monetary limits to the field trips and they had the largest birthday or graduation parties. I remember one extravagant party the whole class was invited to, skiing in Wisconsin, that my parents would not permit me to go to. I assumed at the time that it was mostly a financial decision. But, as an adult looking back, I wonder if religion played a factor in that refusal since my classmate was Jewish.


I remember as a young child spending so much time alone in my room, setting up stuffed animals so I could pretend to be the teacher. I had every type and color of animal represented, perhaps as a way of expressing diversity. I knew in my heart that there was something bigger than me. I truly believed there was more to this life than the limitations I had been born into. I felt like God was inside of me and that my soul had more wisdom than a child my age could express. It gave me hope that my life would get better - one of my earliest survival skills. All of my life I have longed for a spiritual community.


SCHOOL OSMOSIS

I believe the formative school years are tough for anyone, no matter what color, race, or ethnicity you are. It's really the first time you find out that your family may be very different than your classmates. And then we set out to do whatever we can to fit in. Through a willing kind of osmosis, we often become a product of our surroundings.


Comparisons at school began to become the norm in social behavior. It started to become crystal clear to me that most families had more than mine. It never bothered me until I started judging myself by other's standards. For most of my elementary and junior high school years, I had the same old box or bagged lunch, and rarely had .50 cents to buy a hot canned meal from the vending machines when they became available. Other kids had money for all kinds of vending treats. Occasionally I would skip the hot ravioli and buy an ice cream sandwich instead feeling deprived of the added treats everyone else could get.


I had to walk or ride my bike to school while the "cool kids" rode the bus or got dropped of by a parent driving an expensive car. Other kids had nice gym shoes and more than one set of gym clothes. Most kids had expensive school supplies with nice binders, a full set of colored markers proudly displayed on their assignment notebooks, and lockers full of extra items my family could not afford. I coveted the few Flair markers I was gifted on special occasions. Doodling in my assignment notebook was one of my middle school highlights. I was jealous of other kids that weren't as artistic but had a full palette of colored markers, toting notebooks heavily adorned with their wealth. I have always enjoyed colors. Perhaps that is why I don't sort people that way, but I do see them through a financial lens. Envy and jealousy can definitely cloud your judgement and spark prejudice.


Junior high is when I began to see some discrimination and social preferences for male vs. female, popular vs misfit, athletic vs. clumsy, or rich vs. poor. Whether it be school staffing, sports teams or teasing on the playground - there always seemed to be social categories, sorting us into "boxes" or labels with less inclusion. I began to feel "less than" others, and found myself in the misfit, clumsy, and poor "box". I do not remember color, or race being one of those boxes. It seemed like that was more of an adult experience that didn't affect me at that age.

Being a highly sensitive child added another layer of discrimination. The scent of cultures and lifestyles was also a factor for me. I have an intense sense of smell and it has caused me to be repelled by some cultural cooking that I hate to admit resulted in body odors of my classmates. One boy who always sat next to me (since he was alphabetically similar) used to have a strong odor that he got teased over every day. I didn't tease him, but I sure didn't like him. Then there was the boy who lived inside of his family's business, a funeral home. He brought a smell to school that made me think he lived in a science lab. I didn't want to sit next to him either. My sense of smell was discriminatory, but I also couldn't smell in color.


Then came high school and the expensive, designer blue jeans trend that I could not partake in, and the classic winter parka with fur edged hood that I could not afford until I got a job. How did clothing become another mode of discrimination? Uggh. Again a financial sorting was at hand. A term began to surface around school for those rich, Jewish kids and I have to admit I often referred to them like everyone else as J.A.P.'s (Jewish American Princesses), mostly because I was jealous.


I did begin to see more ethnicities and colors represented in my 2,000 student high school. That was really cool. More kids from varied classes and cultures came together in one school. I did not like the size of that large school, but it did offer a more well-rounded representation of the "real" world. My friends and I enjoyed some freedom to walk to the McDonald's near the high school and luckily I could buy a small lunch with my daily $1 of lunch money that was a thrill to finally receive from my dad. It was really good to see a better representation of the working class and diversity of customers that came there.


High school was also a time when I began to hear more of the name calling and racial slurs that I recognized from my own father's vocabulary. I didn't use that slang, but I did not say a word when my friends did either. I do believe that is the core of society's complacency - exaggerating the racial discrimination. Not correcting the issue, is part of the problem. As an empath, I feel deeply the emotions of people around me, and that combined with my desire to not cause a confrontation was a hard juxtaposition to be in. I have struggled with that my whole life. I grew up hearing:


"Don't cause more trouble, just stay out of it."
"Don't stir the pot."
"Don't stick your nose in where it doesn't belong."
"It's none of your beeswax."
"Children should be seen and not heard."
"Aw, you're just a kid, what do you know?"

WORK ENVIRONMENT

I am extremely grateful for my first job experience. At age 15 working at a dry cleaners gave me a second home, and some money to feel like I had some control of my situation. I was able to buy a new pair of jeans, not designer, but a pair that I was proud of when it came time for the locker room judgement. I even got one of those parkas that was turning into a status symbol, and a sign of school pride. I grew to become very attached to the amazing warmth of finally being able to walk to school in a snow storm without arriving soaked and frozen. There was a sense of deep accomplishment too, because I worked hard to be able to buy that! My self esteem began to build and I didn't compare myself to others as much. I began to grow my wings.


Soon I had enough money to buy my first beater car, and I didn't even care that it was the crappiest car in the student parking lot! I was very proud and loved the freedom to drive. I even got to enjoy more fast food restaurants!

My coworkers were diverse and very loving. These were my surrogate family members. My boss was a great father figure that I lovingly called "Mr. B". And after my own father left us just before my sixteenth birthday, Mr. Bochner began to teach me the wonderful ways of Judaism, and gave me the praise that I desperately needed as I worked very hard and devotedly. I gained a grandmother figure, Dorothy, that I adored taking care of by giving her rides to work and many grocery store runs. I always felt connected to the elderly in general, but my own grandparents lived far away and were too old to travel. I so loved their wisdom and story telling.


I worked side by side with a Mexican girl, Gloria, who was about my age, and I learned a bit about her culture and family pride. She had brought a friend, Rosa, to apply for work who was not even eighteen years old yet but was already married. This new girl only lasted about a week until her older husband angrily came to pick her up and she never returned. My coworker later told us that the husband was abusive and the girl ran away and wouldn't be back. I was not surprised since I recognized some of the excuses and bruises that were similar to my own mother's - from my new stepfather. I wished for her to have a work family to feel safe with and to be able to get away from a tough family life. When I moved in to my very first apartment at age 17, I thought of her - hoping she had found a safe home like I did, even if it was just a tiny room with a bathroom.


I had two African American "aunties", Bertha and Grace, coworkers that worked in the pressing room. They were two of the strongest, most nurturing women I have ever known. I loved hearing my surrogate aunts joke and laugh while they worked so hard in a grueling job. I learned so much from hearing them talk about their families. They had many adventurous tales of commuting to and from the suburbs by train to the rough part of Chicago that they lived in. (I use the term "rough" as my perspective from their stories, not that they used that term.) I had heard dramatic portrayals on the news referring to that area as "rough", and I look back and think that was not politically correct to call it that. I assumed it meant rough as in a tough place to live. But others would say it was rough because it created rough behavior in people, or they would say you could get ruffed up if you (as a white person) accidentally ended up there. So many nuances in the English language. So many perspectives, and many lenses to see life through. Perhaps rough is really just a bumpy road, and you do your best to tough it out. Many of us have that in common.


I had also made friends with the two male African Americans, Spencer and Michael, that worked so hard in the extremely hot conditions of our dry cleaning/steam/press room. I felt deep compassion for their working conditions, knowing I could not stand that kind of heat all day long - even in winter. I cried when the younger man, Michael, showed up to work one day beat up from a scuffle he had on the train coming up from Chicago, only because he was a black man traveling to a white neighborhood. He always came to work dressed way nicer than his work required. Often he would change into work clothes and then return home in his suit or sport jacket. I wonder now if perhaps that was a necessary travel attire to try to prevent racist attacks.


As fate would have it at age eighteen, I fell in love with and eventually got engaged to a Jewish man from a successful family in town. I had been an eager sponge when Mr Bochner had taught me the beauty of Judaism. Those two important relationships had really helped me to embrace a new perspective on Jewish culture. I formally studied Judaism and decided to "convert", well more like choose Judaism as my religion of choice. I began to see life from the other side, that is to say, I stopped judging Jewish people.


Great Grandma Elsie, Me, & Mother Billie 1983

At twenty years old, I had invited all of my black coworkers to my Jewish wedding although none of them attended even though it was held in Chicago, admittedly in a very different side of the city. I began to understand that they couldn't do the same things I could, or go to the same places that I could. I admit that I had felt like a princess being a poor girl getting married at a fancy hotel like the Knickerbocker, and not in a backyard (which my parents couldn't even afford). I wanted to share that fairy tale with all of my friends, not realizing they could feel like they didn't belong for many other reasons. It was then that I had started seeing more than class or financial discrimination and that was difficult for me, and I could not even imagine how hard it was for my diverse coworkers. I regret not considering how hard that invite was for them, and wonder how I could have made it easier for my work family to attend.


After moving into my very first home as a young, married lady, I invited my two work "aunties" to come over for lunch. I wanted to give them a ride in my very first new car, a red Chevrolet convertible that I had gotten to pick out. I was going to have to sell it to help cover the new mortgage payments, so I wanted to have one last fun event and share it all with these ladies that I admired. They seemed so surprised by the invite that they got wide-eyed and giddy until reality set in, and they looked at each other and both said in unison that it "wasn't possible". I accepted the rejection without fully understanding that two black women riding in a convertible to a "North Shore" neighborhood was probably a bit concerning for them, not knowing how my neighbors would react. I was so naive that I didn't even think about that. Again, I just wanted to share a milestone with people I cared about. I wasn't doing it to show off. I look back and see that their life experience must have taught them that it was a bad idea. We never discussed it further and I ended up just bringing a picnic to work instead. I was a bit heartbroken back then, and after all of these years I still wish it had been different. But I had too easily accepted it "as the way it was", instead of adding my heart to fix it, or at least adding my voice to say that things needed to change.


I adored my coworkers and I tried to understand their lives and cultures, although their stories were just that - stories that I couldn't really identify with as much as I wanted to. I haven't had that intimate of a relationship with people of color since, and I miss them. In these modern times of too many photos and selfies, I only wished taking photos was as common back then. All I have is my memories as momentos, and I wholeheartedly wish I had photos of those days.


LANGUAGE AS A BARRIER

I have often wished that I had learned some Spanish in junior high instead of French, if only to understand what others were saying around me. Language is another way we as people are separated, and adds to discrimination. If only I could have understood the whispered tauntings of the hispanic men at the laundromat when I was a teenager living on my own. They used to point and whistle when I folded my laundry, especially if they got a glimpse of my underwear. I felt threatened and sexualized back then, but more by their gender than just their ethnicity. But it did leave an imprint on me. I think if I had been able to hear what they said, and perhaps comment back I would have felt more in control of the situation. Instead, I ended up buying some extra large men's white t-shirts and added them to my laundry so when I folded them they might feel intimidated. It worked and I also had some great big shirts to sleep in.


I have also wished I could understand the woman at the nail salon as they banter back and forth while they do my nails, assuming I cannot know that they may be making fun of us, giggling in their own language as their attention all goes to a specific client. If you read body language and non-verbal cues there are things your intuition can "hear". I stand guilty of being prejudice of language barriers. I am not proud to say that I wish all Americans spoke English as their first language, because I think it could help us all feel more connected. This I need to work on. Perhaps I need to learn a second language. It's also about feeling left out. I don't like being excluded and it feels like a type of discrimination on me. But, I also realize it was important that I felt that too.


TELEVISION CONNECTION

I was positively affected by being able to see and identify with African Americans on television. I absolutely adored the Cosby Show and loved watching how those parents managed their family issues. Although, once I became an adult I saw it as a "whitened" version of Black American families. That was not a family I had experienced in real life, and I honestly didn't view it as a family of color as much as I envied the dynamics of problem solving and natural consequences to life decisions. I wanted to be part of that family. My own family didn't understand why I always wanted to watch that show when there were other "perfectly good white shows on". Another reason why I felt like I was not in the right family. I often felt like I was from another planet, and these earthlings just didn't get the big hearted, all inclusive love I shared for humanity.


Oh how I wanted to be real life friends with Oprah Winfrey. We could have been besties. I was home full time and pregnant with my first child when the Oprah Show began in Chicago. I loved her candor and compassion along with her refreshing, intelligent interviewing skills. I watched almost every day and felt like we grew together as we all learned so much more about the world through her guests and topics. She was the first person who spoke candidly about childhood sexual abuse. It was because of her bravery of speaking about the topic that I was able to come to terms with my childhood abuse. The collective timing of her disclosure right after I had experienced an event that brought all my repressed memories to light was like having a sister who understood me, and knew exactly how I felt. Her voice was my voice and she gave me the courage to seek professional help to heal my past. I became more grateful in life when she introduced gratitude journaling, and I embraced my love of books when she started a national book club. When I watched her I did not see a person of color, I saw a kindred spirit - a loving soul that seemed to be more like my twin than just a talk show host.


"Our body is just the wrapping paper, comes in all colors and sizes, but the REAL gift is inside." ~ me

EXTENDED FAMILY THROUGH MARRIAGE

The other father figure in my life, my father-in-law used a derogatory Yiddish term for black people that I hated, but never spoke up about. For that I have deep regrets, because when you don't object it allows terrible behavior and enables the bigotry to continue. He also used to show prejudice toward non-Jews. Even though I converted to Judaism before marriage (partly due to my first bosses loving teachings), I felt like those Yiddish terms were still mean to me. I had a hard time feeling like I ever measured up, no matter what I did in life or whom I was around. It seems like I took every kind of ethnic, class or racial slur as a direct attack, which sounds odd, but being an empath I felt them deeply. Although I never had the bravery to speak up - until 2008.


It wasn't until Barack Obama was running for president that I saw how my now ex father-in-law and ex-husband really felt about people of color. I wasn't really into politics much until that time. I was so excited that we as a country were ready for an African American president. My husband at the time, had misgivings due to his own experience working in a crime ridden neighborhood in Chicago. He had been a victim of a personal robbery by a black man and it left an imprint that no words from me could ever erase. The dinner conversations would escalate as I stood up for people of color and voiced my admiration of, and intention of voting for, Obama. It become difficult to have my in-laws over for dinner. I did not want that kind of talk around my children or in my own home. I was finally taking a stand, small as it was, and it caused friction in my marriage. Politics had been the final magnifier that had shown me the many ways my husband had never stood up to his parents on my behalf. It was the last straw, the breaking point of our teamwork of parenting our own children.


Inauguration day of Barack Obama was a life-changing day that I will never forget. Work stopped, as my boss and a few coworkers stood around a television set in the back room watching live as President Obama was sworn in. I was a bit surprised how emotional I was. I cried huge tears of joy and admiration, as if my own family legacy was unfolding in front of me. Perhaps I was tapping into a past life, but that day left a big imprint on my heart. The color of my heart has forever changed because of the people of color that I admire and adore.

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou, one of my all-time favorite writers

MY OWN CHILDREN

I am also proud to say that my children have never shown signs of prejudice and were always comfortable to bring home any and all of their friends. Even though we lived in a predominantly white city, my son has had many friends of color. Our home was a safe place to be yourself. Because of my unsafe childhood, I was determined to create a safe place for all who visited. It may seem a little trivial to mention but when my daughter was into the trendy American Girl dolls, I felt it was hugely important to get more than just a caucasian girl doll. I also wanted her to have other dolls of color too since her school didn't have much diversity. She actually asked for them, which I admired. I am happy to see that my grown children see with their hearts through the lens of compassion.

The world is changing because of the younger generations. They have strong voices and empathic hearts and are not allowing the status quo any longer. So many young adults are standing up, marching and demanding change as I write this, and I could not be prouder. If it weren't for the pandemic I would be protesting right along with them.


It is time EVERY one of us not only votes but looks deep into our hearts to see what kind of world we want and what experiences have shaped us that need to be healed. I know I have paid more attention to social injustice and our skewed American history during this pandemic and current uproar over police brutality. There is much more to learn from people of color and I am ready to listen. Looking back has been a good way for me to do more and be better moving forward.


Thank you for taking this journey with me, and know that I will be here listening with my heart - which by the way is the color of a rainbow of equality.



About Tamara S. Graham

Tami is grateful for all of her Highly Sensitive Person traits because they have made her who she is today: an optimistic, nurturing soul, full of great compassion. Being a mother has been her hardest and most rewarding job since her unique and sensitive children have been her greatest inspiration and teachers. She is currently writing a series of children’s books for HSP families. Follow this blog for more of her heartfelt ponderings about life and love. Or sign-up above for her weekly emails as she continues writing from her heart.

{Copyright 2020 - Most photos are the property of Tamara S. Graham unless noted otherwise}

Copyright © 2019 - 2020 Tamara S. Graham. All rights reserved.