Saturday, April 5, 2014

Amy Vanderbilt on Etiquette, Race and Immigrants

"Do not criticize another's religion, belittle his race or country, or refer unnecessarily to his color in his presence." Amy Vanderbilt

The Unimportant Differences

As long as I can remember, I have been bored with landscapes. I couldn’t look at a picture, a photograph, or a view with much interest, unless somewhere there were people or something that indicated they were there or soon would be.

I was long secretly ashamed of this limitation in me. I should have, I felt, been able to drink in the beauty of Mount Hood without stealing a connective glance at the outskirts of Portland. I should have been able to love the ocean, even when no ships rode low on the horizon to excite my speculations. But now, after half a lifetime of getting to know myself, I realize that there are too many of us who see the view and not the people humanizing it. My need for people in the picture has given me a fuller understanding of life.

I believe I have something warm and good to give my children in my love of people. When my eldest son was a little boy, we were on a Fifth Avenue bus. He kept turning around to smile at someone I couldn’t see. When we got off, this person did too, and I saw that she was an elderly Negro. “Your little boy likes me,” she said with some surprise. “He don’t seem to notice any difference in me at all, like I was his own grandmother. How’s that?” “Because,” I replied, “he’s never been taught by the grownups around him that there is a difference.”

Children un-coached in prejudice and class consciousness enjoy people for what they are. As they mature, our society soon sets them right, as to their place in it. More often than not, they accept this place without question, and thereby shut themselves off from warm human contact with many of their fellows. They become cocoon-like in their fear that reaching out beyond their own immediate social confines will place them in an untenable position.

It did take a certain courage, maturity, and sophistication to broaden my own circle to include people of other races, nationalities, and religions on the same terms as those born into my own little place in the world. But in doing so, I lost my fear of those different from myself in some way God chose to make them. As friendship became possible, differences seemed very unimportant. I think I’ve learned to accept the differences as an interesting part of my new friends’ personalities, not something to be feared, tactfully ignored, or excused.

I shall never forget my first lonely schoolgirl days abroad before I learned to speak French. I was entirely surrounded by the majestic beauty of the Alps, but I could not speak a word to the people, nor they to me. But within a few months, through the miracle of language, people came into the picture for me. It was the beginning of my understanding that the greatest natural beauty is for me, at least, comprehensible only through living contact with people of all kinds who share the view.

Our Attitude Toward Newcomers to the U.S.

        from Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette, 1957

Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s
Every generation has its immigrants. Many of us are descendants of the of Italians who came to supply our labor pool or bolster our artisan class in Irish who emigrated here during the potato famine in the nineteenth century, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of early Dutch settlers dissatisfied with opportunities at home and who came to trade and colonize in New Amsterdam. We are all, no matter how impressive our family trees, descended from immigrants of one kind or the other, if we are Americans. Even the American Indian is now known to have emigrated here from Asia.

Millions of us are the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those who took refuge here to escape political, social or economic upheavals in their own lands or who fled from religious persecution. The fleeing religious persecution, just as in the twentieth century refugees from Pilgrim fathers, now so revered socially as ancestors, were the first refugees, Hitler Protestants, Catholics, and Jews sought not only the right to worship as they please among us but the very chance to stay alive. The Pilgrims faced the Indians, who, being
here first, resented any encroachment on their hunting grounds. Every new settler today has us to face the entrenched Americans, who, like the Indian tribes, forget sometimes that they came (or their grandfathers or great-grandfathers) to this land of opportunity because, for some reason or other, things were not good at home. It is only natural for every man to regard the stranger, the possible economic encroacher, with a wary eye. But we need to remember our own sources and realize that the vigor and progress of the country is stimulated by each such influx of new Americans, who bring with them talents, trades, ambition, and even wealth America can use. 

Let's examine some of our attitudes toward refugees in our century-

One hears the criticism "Why do they all have to live in one neighborhood all the Italians, all the Poles, the Scandinavians, all the French, the Germans, the Jews in tight little settlements?" The answer is that our ancestors, even if they came here at the time of the founding of our country, tended to do the same thing for reasons of solidarity. The melting pot that is America doesn't immediately gobble up the new citizen. Any American who was born abroad must, of necessity, have mixed feelings about his new homeland.

The old living patterns, morals, social habits, and language are all part of him, and it is his children or perhaps his grandchildren who will first have the feeling of being uncomplicatedly "real Americans." Even after generations of assimilation there tends to be this gathering together of Americans with like backgrounds the Irish in Boston, the Germans in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Chicago, the Italians and Jews and dozens of other ethnic groups in New York, the Scandinavians in the Midwest, the Pennsylvania "Dutch," (really German) in Pennsylvania. Newcomers, quite understandably, gravitate toward these centers, where they can hear their own language, eat their own food, go to their own houses of worship, and receive assistance in their adjustment to a new and strange and often unfriendly land.

It is true that the young do move out and into other circles, through marriage or business opportunities, but it is human and understandable that the older and less adventurous often prefer to make their way in a more familiar atmosphere.

We should all remember that, no matter how American we are now, our ancestors, even if they were English speaking, had their own problems of adjustment here too physical, social, and economic. Even well-bred English who settle here today feel our hostility or experience our ridicule of their manners and customs as any English-born bride of an American can tell you. So it isn't language that is the principal difficulty at all. It is just the perversity of human nature. We all hate to move over, as others had to move over for us. 

Prior to writing her bestselling “Complete Book of Etiquette,” Amy Vanderbilt worked in magazines and advertising. She went on to write a newspaper column and host TV and radio programs about etiquette.

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