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Critical Autobiography

Pamela Henderson

Washington State University

Diversity 330

October 17, 2017


Growing up I was not mindful of the bias or prejudices surrounding me. My life was very

sheltered and privileged. My father was in the Navy so my family moved every three years and I

had the opportunity to live in Asia for six years and travel the world at a very young age. Being

exposed to such diversity in the critical development period of my life really shaped my ideals

and what I find important. When I lived in Asia I attended a Department of Defense School on

the military base. These school were very diverse because they included all the kids of military

personnel as well as some international students who paid to attend the school even though they

were not associated with the military. This microcosm of diversity created a unique experience

for me because it allowed me to interact and be exposed to people from all different backgrounds

and with different life experiences. I was not very aware of these differences at the time though,

but looking back I am very thankful I had this experience because it allowed me to develop

friendships with people from very different backgrounds than myself. Being exposed to diversity

at such a young age meant that it was always the norm for me, people were always just people

and I appreciated them for who they were.

I believe that individual racism or prejudice is learned and not something that you are

born with. By exposing people to diversity, especially at a young age, you can teach people that

we all have the same wants and needs and love regardless of what we look like on the outside.

This is the experience I attribute to my interest and want for learning about social activism and

how systematic racism and oppression has shaped our country and affected a large majority of

people. Diversity was the norm for me in the majority of my youth growing up. I began

competitive running at age seven with my father and sister and through that I met and interacted

with people who became my best friends. My sister is two years older than me so when she was

running track in high school I, as an eighth grader, was allowed to train and compete with the

high school students on our military base in Seoul South Korea. The majority of people on the

track team were African American and I developed a deep friendship with these people. I think

they thought it was funny that this little skinny white girl could run as well as I could especially

considering how young I was but regardless I was accepted into their ranks with ease and spent a

lot of time around this group of people. At this age I was still pretty ignorant of the systematic

racism that minorities have to face in the United States but also around the world. For example I

would go off base with my friend and the Korean people would be shocked to see an African

American in Seoul. Most of the reactions would be shocked and curious but occasionally they

would look disgusted and blatantly ignore or follow my friends like they were going to cause

trouble. My friends would always laugh this instances off like they were no big deal but seeing

this expression of prejudice so deliberately expressed started to open my eyes to the way people

are treated differently. Along with seeing how the Korean people treated African Americans I

also experienced the privilege of being a blond white woman living in Asia. While my friends

were getting accusing glares or rude comments I would be treated like a princess who could do

no wrong. I could get away with doing almost anything I wanted just because of how I looked,

and I was well aware of this privilege. These clashing experiences I was witnessing really made

me start thinking about race and what it means. These people were my best friends and were no

different than me besides the way they looked so why were our experiences so different?

My father grew up in Cookeville Tennessee, which if you dont know, is a very small,

majority white, city in the North Central part of the state. His family was very poor as the

majority of people in the city were back then. The racial relations in a town in the area in those

years were not ideal for minorities as one could assume but my dads father was fairly

progressive for the time. This shaped my father which in turn shaped me because in a time and

town that was fairly racist my father and his father did not associate the color of your skin with

your self worth. My father tells me the story of how one day his friend and him wanted to go to

the farm my family owns in the woods outside of Cookeville. My father had an African

American friend who they invited to go but he refused because of a small town they would have

to drive through on the way. The friend explained that the town was known as being extremely

racist and associated with the Ku Klux Klan and he would not go through the town even with his

white friends. I think being a more tolerant person in a very racist state and area really opened

my fathers eyes and allowed him to be the person he is now. Stories like these that my father

would share really shocked me because it seemed so bizarre to me that anyone would feel like

this about someone just for looking differently.

Growing up in Asia was not the only determining factor that has shaped me to be the

person I am today. One of the biggest contributing factors that shaped me was being a woman in

these environments. With the attention that came from being a blond white woman in Asia there

was also this underlying sexual attention I got from a very young age. This was another aspect I

was pretty ignorant to for a long time even when it was happening to me. I would be followed

and catcalled and hit on before I even knew what any of that meant. We live in a society that

normalizes this type of behavior (even when directed at a young girl) and due to this a lot of

women, myself included, develop this blame or guilt that the unwanted attention is our fault or

something that we could have stopped. This past summer I lived in Rome Italy for three months

and it was an amazing experience being immersed in the culture and the country. There was one

part of the experience that I struggled with though. The relationship between men and women in

Italy is a very different experience than I, as a pretty strong outspoken feminist, was used to. The

men felt entitled to do and say whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to whatever woman

they pleased. Of course not everyone in Italy is the same but the majority of my experience was

like this and it was alarming for me. I was living and working with an Italian family in a more

affluent area in Rome as a nanny for their children. The parents both spoke English proficiently

but the children did not. The father, while the mother was away, would often make comments to

me about how it was a waste that I did not have a boyfriend and that I was too pretty to be

single. Unfortunately I am all too used to comments like this but the sheer number of times it

occurred is what really opened my eyes. Almost every day I went out some man said something

to me, sometimes more respectfully than others, and while I recognize that from the mans

perspective it may look like harmless flirting but from all the negative and often intimidating

experiences I have had with strange men it is not a comfortable experience for me. I recognize

my privilege in this as well; I am a pretty woman from America which means these men are a lot

less likely to escalate to aggression if I turn them down and many women dont have this. I also

have the privilege of being white in America which means while I am still sexually harassed

more than should ever be acceptable I will never have to experience the sexual assault and

harassment that minority women experience and my voice, while still not heard often, is heard

substantially more than these women.

Overall the collection of experiences I have faced throughout my life has added to my

character and beliefs. I want to be as educated and knowledgeable about the struggles minorities

face so that I can use my privilege to raise these people up so they can share their experiences

with people who are not exposed to diversity. I want to be a teacher because I think it is one of

the things I can do to bring and celebrate diversity to new generations by showing them that we

are all beautiful and unique and deserve happiness. I want all my students to leave my class

thinking about how they can use their privilege to make someone elses life better because

change occurs through everyday people working everyday to be better.