I simultaneously remember very little and everything about when diversity started to be, as they say these days, a “thing.” I was in grade school and was very excited about this.
I was the only kid I knew who was a first generation American, who ate food no one else could identify, who had a foreign accent even though I had never left the country. I couldn’t WAIT to read about people like me.
But when the diversity books came to my school, they featured only black people.
I felt cheated.
What was diverse about only ONE group other than white? And it was still mostly about black boys, not girls. Mister Rogers had Ezra Jack Keats on and he talked about The Snowy Day, where the protagonist was black, and I felt a great big So What. Willie (I think that was the name of the protagonist) spoke English, as did everyone in his family. His clothes and food were like everybody else’s.
On Sesame Street, diversity meant only Black and Latino cultures, which is interesting because my mother was from Staten Island and she assured me that there were many more cultures in NYC than that. Heck, my mother met my Hungarian father on Staten Island.
My parents were close friends with a family I will call the Hopkinses, even though they weren’t. The point is they were descended from a Mayflower family in an unbroken line that included the last name they had in 1620. They never had to explain why they didn’t know the American word for “countertop,” or why krumplish teszta was a taste treat.
Hooray for pop culture, there were a few characters on television who spoke to my heart. First, Spock, from the first Star Trek.
Being half Vulcan and half human felt very much to me like being half Hungarian and half American. When Spock sighed because he had to explain, again, why some assumption about his people was incorrect, I rejoiced with recognition for every time some well-meaning fool fed me pasta and told me it was “Hungarian Goulash.”
The Electric Company was another lifesaver, not only with black and Latino and Asian characters, but women as business owners, interracial marriages and stay-at-home dads. I LOVED it. (As an adult, I just wish they’d done more for LGBT. Maybe if I watch again, I’ll see some nod to queer culture. Hope so.)
Then, in High School, my savior, in fictitious terms: Juan Epstein, the Puerto Rican Jew from Welcome Back Kotter. My god, he was both, he was neither, he didn’t fit in anywhere but referenced both cultures constantly. When I found out the actor was actually not in either culture, but an ethnic Hungarian, I couldn’t have been happier.
It gets more complicated, because my father, from Hungary, was actually part Mongolian. He refused to explain how that happened. And since neither culture is famous for its friendliness, I don’t get it.
My pale yellow skin is a reminder. In High School and college I was in a great many theatrical performances, and the makeup people would usually reach for the tube of greasepaint labeled “Fairest,” start to apply it, and frown. After a while I had to explain the part Asian thing and so every make up person for years had to custom mix the “base” from “Fairest” and “Asian” greasepaint.
Of course, High School was over thirty years ago, college twenty five; surely real diversity has improved since then. Eh. Within the past year I had to write an autobiographical sketch for a class I was taking. What made me unique? One of the things I included was that most of the time I was the only first-generation American in the room, and that it was still a little weird that no one else had even heard of my comfort foods.
I got a huffy response from the professor that if I lived in a real city there would be nothing unusual about that, that my small-town experience was what made it so.
But I don’t live in a “real” city. I live in a small town where the population of color is only about 4%, and one that doesn’t even count my ethnicity.
“How d’ya like that? Even among misfits, you’re misfits.”