Discrimination: What I Learned from My Dog
When I first got Oliver, he was eleven weeks old and weighed about four pounds. I didn’t know a good vet, so I went online and searched areas nearby. After looking at various sites and reading the dog owners’ reviews, I chose Dr. Peter Kross, whose practice was not far from Turtle Bay, where I live. Nervously and ineptly, I packed up the puppy in some sort of square bag contraption with straps (think of the boxes women used to wear in cigar, cigarette, tiparillo ads) so that I could take him home on the bus. I walked down past the United Nations, past many guards, on First Avenue to the Rivergate Veterinary Clinic.
Dr. Kross’s clinic is in a tiny space on 37th Street, close to the Bideawee Animal Shelter and the FDR Drive. I had never been a part of the dog/cat lover world before, and everything about the experience was new to me. Dr. Kross was easygoing. He had a sly sense of humor and an appealing, breezy physical presence. “Did you get Oliver because you wanted a guard dog,” he asked me. I thought he was joking, and maybe he was. I said, “No, of course not.” (The puppy was so tiny and vulnerable at that time.) However, Oliver, possessing a hyper-alert temperament and a very loud, tenor bark, did actually develop into an excellent guard dog.
Right away, I was struck by the affection Dr. Kross displayed with Oliver. He told Oliver how beautiful he was, and he hugged and I think kissed him. How different the dog-vet visit was from my own or my 97-year-old mother’s visits to the doctor: no encouraging compliments or gestures of kindly affection for us.
Most important, Dr. Kross advised me to develop several habits with Oliver right away:
- Get him used to you touching his feet and mouth.
- Start brushing his teeth, and do it regularly.
- Make sure he gets at least two hours of exercise/walks, even if you have to play with him in the hallway of your apartment building: A tired dog is a good dog!
- Expose him to people of all races, types, and ages, including people who wear uniforms or appear different in some way.
As I took the bus home with Oliver squirming in that awkward square carrier, I thought about what the vet had said. And I tried to follow all of it, though I wasn’t so regular about brushing the puppy’s teeth in the beginning, and I still fall off from time to time.
Of all the items Dr. Kross mentioned, Number 4 has been the most critical, and it has been on my mind a lot this past week. Most likely, I am mulling over “expose him to people of all races,” because of what has been happening in the past year in this country.
Let’s go back to me and my young dog. It was easy to expose my new puppy to people of color because my mother was still living on 123rd Street and Broadway, my childhood hood. Eight years back, the neighborhood was the Edge of Harlem to me, even though some businesses were beginning to refer to the area as SoHa (short for South Harlem). Gentrification and Columbia University’s expansion were still in their infancy. Now the neighborhood is changing so fast, I can’t keep up with all the new restaurants that have opened and the luxury hi-rises going up.
I didn’t want my dog to dislike anybody because of race or outfit, so I made sure Oliver met people of different ages, colors, and professions. I walked up to guards, police, mail men and women. I let young children touch him (with much cautionary advice). Oliver is “black and beautiful,” and many black people would stop to admire him and his color and call him “blackie”. (They still do, though his chin has become a bit gray.)
Dr. Kross’s advice paid off in large measure. Though I admit we had a couple of unpleasant “racist dog” incidents. One occurred in a laundromat in the country. Oliver was playing with a group of white youngsters when a Mexican family came in to do their wash. Suddenly, he changed and started barking at the Hispanic children, and I believe it was because they weren’t white or familiar. I apologized to the family for my dog’s behavior but the incident unnerved and saddened me. Another failure of mine involved people with physical challenges. I didn’t anticipate early enough that people in electronic wheelchairs or scooters would be foreign and, hence, frightening to my dog. I have not been able to change Oliver’s behavior on this score. Whenever he encounters a person in such a device, he feels threatened and barks at the person. At least he is not afraid of the many elders who use walkers. My mother, whom he knew from the beginning (and until her death), regularly used one.
When I think about how I tried to raise my dog, I see parallels to how my parents raised me. My mother and father exposed me from the very start to all kinds of people. At age 3 and 4, three of my closest friends were Adina, Leo, and Eva. Adina was black, and Leo and Eva were Chinese-American siblings. We played together often. Because my parents exposed me in a natural way to racial differences, I knew nothing about racism as a young child. My nursery and elementary schools were fully integrated like the neighborhood itself. I didn’t hear racist language at home or at school. It wasn’t until my friend Adina accompanied me to Long Island to visit my grandparents that a kid from the block there told me an off-color joke with the n-word in it. I didn’t really get it, so I asked my mother what it meant. She told me that I should never use that word, and she impressed upon me how that word would cause injury, the same kind of hurt she had experienced when people had used the word wop with her.
Words meant a lot to both of my parents, and my mother was particularly sensitive to racial and ethnic slurs. Her forebears came from Furore and Positano, Italy. She and her mother, and some of her siblings, had dark skin and dark hair. Because of the prejudice against Italians when my mother was growing up, her family felt shame about being dark. This attuned her to racial discrimination at an early age. My father, who was white as white can be, and freckled all over, was named Justus. Maybe he felt the way he did about equality and justice because his father was a Baptist minister and his mother, whom I never met, was by all accounts an extremely kind, generous, and open-minded person. I’m sure my father’s love of jazz and admiration for so many black musicians and singers had an influence. I like to think that just because my parents were good people, they stood firmly against racism and discrimination of any kind and did their best to pass their principles on to me.
I have been thinking about the white problem in the United States, and about how easily it could be prevented in children if white parents made a point of including children of all backgrounds and colors in their children’s lives. What if American communities were better integrated and comprised people of many races and religions, so that exposure to all types came naturally and early on?
I do believe that being with children of all colors and religious and cultural backgrounds would enrich the children’s lives and be a lifelong inoculation against racism. White parents could help to bring this about but they’d have to want to, and, for some, that isn’t the case.