Family Roots: Race, Class, Disability & Love in an Unjust World


root - Posted on 01 January 2000

by Pamela Juhl

(Hello Illin-N-Chillin Readers! As I approach middle age I want to display my rich family's history so I talked to my White, non disabled Sister in Demark through Skype and she wrote this below.)

It has always been a state of mind to observe, like the fly on the wall - and all through childhood, while growing up in the heart of New York City - this was my motto. The circus of life - the haves and the have nots, the sane and insane, the druggies and the hippies, the kind and the evil doers - this city had it all during the 70s and 80s. The only question I used to ask myself, who was responsible for this mess? It all just seemed like complete chaos, and yet somehow it all just worked in its dysfunction. That became the norm - the abnorm - the crimes, the violence, the street gangs, the bullies, the rich avoiding the poor - and the poor evaporating into the subways, as the city became a tourist hotspot for the Giuliani Mayor regime of let's get NYC cleaned up.

As a child, I never thought much about color of the skin, until my best friend (whom I consider my sister) and I needed to run from racist white kids who wanted to kick our asses because she was dark skinned and I was light skinned. My family was not rich and the whole concept of money was a stressful issue, and as I felt my own family's struggle to keep things together, I saw those less fortunate than us hangin' out on the street corners - lookin' for ways to make a life better - either in a jam, a funk, a jive, a jig, a crime or a line. And as the perverts followed me home at age 9, it became a reality that life, as my mother used to say, was not fair.

My mother's best friend Lela (The Moore family) had 3 kids; my brother and I considered them our family - our brother and two sisters. We all spent summers together, and I was able to see how the world treated us - a family of mixed race - The normal stares were a standard, the racial comments, the ill treatment, the whispering behind backs - it all seemed so strange - and never at one point, did I think it was us with the problem - for we, as a family, were happy together - enjoying each others’ company and learning from each other. The white neighbors, who lived beside The Moore family, seemed like rancid, bitter monsters of hate in their way of treating my family (all of us) differently because of our skin color. I felt, at times, deeply ashamed to be white, because I could see how it made people treat me better than my dark skinned brother & sisters. I learned to be clever and to use the whiteness of my skin as a tool to open up doors for others of a darker shade, and till this day - I consider my skin color a key to doors locked for others, and I realized that what I was born with, I could use it and share it to provide for others in this "unfair" world - until the real change came to eradicate all racism. These moments, as a child, were fraught with insightfulness into the minds of the prejudice and discriminating entities - the attitudes & learned behavior from adults and the surrounding environments which promoted separation and individualization as opposed to togetherness and cooperation.

As I walked through my childhood, never really knowing what it was like to have any kind of physical disability, only the ones in a mental sense (insecurities, peer pressures and societal expectations), my brother, Leroy, the son of my mother's best friend Lela Moore, showed me how to care with humor. My sister, Melissa and I, used to watch over Leroy "Roy", especially after he had one of many hip operations. We used to take him for “walks” around the block on a flat piece of wood with wheels, while his whole lower part of his body was in a cast. And as I reflect back on those moments, we never saw him as different, but rather the "boy" who got to see inside how we "girls" lived; what we spoke about, and how we processed the world. I remember the suburban white community, where the Moore family lived, and how the neighbors looked upon Roy. This confused my understanding of what I thought a small community should be like. They were afraid of him, and used to make fun of him. I compared it to NYC, and thought to myself, wow “ these neighbors are mean; but I knew from NYC, that people were mean and treated people differently based on color and ability. My sister and I only saw Roy's physical disability as an opportunity to be the first ones to run for the ice cream truck or find ourselves first in line for a morsel of something good from the kitchen. I never actually thought about his hardships and pain until later in life. My sister and I simply included him in our moments of girlhood, where other boys were not allowed to be; a peek into the world of young women and how we thought about things. We were always conscious of his presence, and I felt he was a part of our world; a part of our understanding of what we were experiencing as kids. I felt bad, at times, when my sister would be harsh to Roy, but in the end, I was just happy he was there. To me, he was a “boy” first; where we girls got the opportunity to expose to our “girlish” ways of doing and seeing things – in front of him, without him having the power to run or dominate.

In the mid 90's, I worked for the private corporations, while attending the university at night. I used to sit on a brownstone stoop during lunch off of Park Avenue, and cry as I saw the complete injustices of those sleeping on the streets in card board boxes (begging for a quarter), while the suits and ties walked right by, not even flinching an eye - talking on their cell phones. I dove right into a plan to get out - make a difference and I wound up in Panama with the Peace Corps. I was soon to realize, the bigger plans of bureaucracy did not always include those less fortunate; it was more about what things looked like on paper than the reality. And as I integrated into the mountainous lifestyle of the campesinos of Panama, my heart grew even more fierce and determined to make a difference. Seeing the children with no shoes, toothpaste, school books, bed linen, food or proper education burned me to the core. And in their lack of resources, there was still a kindness and compassionate warmth in their being that I had yet to experience in the hearts and minds of the busy NY City streets.

After Panama, I yearned to know who were my other brothers and sisters - suffering and dreaming of a better life. I moved to Mexico, and there, I volunteered at several orphanages where I saw another kind of poverty and hardship. I will never forget the eyes of these little children who, even in their hardship, carried a kindness in their hearts, and a curiosity of compassion expressed in simple ways of being. They lived in the now, and learned to survive, all the while, having a depth of purity and innocence that pervaded their conditions. No one can justify these outrageous states of being for our children of today, and everyone’s hands carry the burden of its manifestation.

Now I live in Copenhagen Denmark, and see social injustices of yet another kind. The one that says - it's "us vs. them" (the foreigners invading the "purity" of Denmark). It's a strange feeling to be a foreigner here - and especially for those with darker skin or of another faith - like Muslim; it can be even worse than strange - down right painful. Imagine a world where people don't look at you, don't acknowledge your presence, and don't even converse with you on a basic social level on a cue at the market, on the bus, in the park or on the streets. A place where it is uncommon to hold the door for someone or to say “please” or “thank you”. I remember when I first came here, many Danes used to say, "OH, you won't amount to anything here unless you learn Danish." I thought to myself, but I already am something, can't you see? It frustrated me to think that the doors of acceptance were based on learning their language. Yet, many foreigners here, who learn the language, are still marginalized and ostracized by the society and culture. Why? for the simple fact that they are different. To be different here is a threat and not widely accepted. In my opinion, it is a nation of followers - with few possessing leadership qualities - and the idea of co-existence is foreign. My goal has been now to find the few Danes who do not agree with the norm of the culture and its ruling political party prejudice agenda towards foreigners, and to work together with them to create positive integration between various people, cultures and traditions.

As an international press photographer, and a humanitarian activist supporting the voice of the voiceless through photography, TV, journalism, multimedia, and activism, I see that with each and every problem any society faces, irregardless of its origin of source, is everyone's problem. Thus, we are all responsible for all that we are faced with today. I have come to the conclusion about the social injustices of the world; in order to heal any situation, one must begin from within. This entails certain conditions of letting go of the ego, learning how to forgive, learning how to let go of our past, and learning how to be in the now with compassion, respect and understanding of our differences. I realized in all these years working as a press photographer that I am no different than the one I am shooting - we are all the same - just on the outside we appear different - it is up to us to decide that which we see, and if we see ourselves as individuals searching for our own piece, this is what we will find.

Multimedia is the key to linking those who are like minded at heart, and it has become a tool of the future for those who are considered cutting edge Doers in humanitarian rights, activism, social justices, and the like - however, we must remember that what would happen if our internet were cut off, our connection and dependency to the multimedia world just simply vanished - and we had no way to communicate internationally to each other? And what truly would stop the powers that be from doing this, perhaps one day. I ask you now, to think about this, because as big brother becomes even bigger, and tax payers keep pouring money into military, war, political agendas of the elite and the corporations - at some point it will come to a simple fact.

And then the question of communication gets very basic - how are you with your neighbor? Are you kind, open, caring, forgiving, understanding, or bitter, angry, resentful, cross, and full of rage.

How well you treat people on a daily basis throughout your day, this is the real way to create an environmentally effective change. Sure, we can all join a group, speak out, collect in numbers, and this does work as well. However, if you have joined a cause, or are marching in a demo, or simply sitting back in your home connected to all causes via internet - what does it all mean if you cannot be kind and caring in the moment which you are living in - the now. A simple smile can change a person's whole day, and this, after all these years in the field of media, is what it boils down to - the kindness extended to another - no matter what they look like or who they are - we are all human first. Hate is the very emotion which feeds the beast which enslaves our people.

As I see racism and injustices here in Copenhagen Denmark against the immigrants and asylum seekers here - I hold one thing true - integrity of action - how am I being today? What have I done to improve the well being of another? These are the questions which will lead us to a better world - to be bold enough to make a stand, to support a voice, to move forward into the unknown with a surety of heart and kindness - that breeds compassion in others - for we are only the action which we take in the moment - and every moment needs to be cleansed of the ills which we have been conditioned to have - for we know now that there are some who benefit from our dysfunctions. We must heal each other and be there for each other; to embrace that which scares us the most - and face our fears - act boldly for those in need. Look deep inside yourself, and do one good deed from the heart today - and see how it feels. There is freedom in this; true freedom deep within our being - nothing can take away the bliss of being compassionate and in alignment with love for all, including yourself.

We must all begin to see that we are all together in this mess, and it is simply about those who are compassionate for others and those who choose to abuse others - in power and control - we will prevail - and we cannot be chained - for our freedom is from within - extending out to all. The social injustices, the senseless murders, the exploitations, the abuse of our planet - its all because we are conditioned from the greedy and ego minded ones not to believe in our power to be. If there is anything in my life that I have learned - it is me who is responsible for this mess - because we are all connected - thus - I am obligated to be love, to be kindness, to be compassion, to be a bridge, to be the platform for the voice of the voiceless - in hopes that that we all will eventually see without eyes but with heart, that we are all one. If we all saw through our hearts, no one could hurt another - and every piece of bread would be shared equally.

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