Column: Social tolerance, a life-long journey

I believe that most people view themselves as being socially tolerant. However, the question we need to ask is whether others see us this way. Are we really accepting of others, even if their views and beliefs are different? I think I speak for many members of my generation as I reflect on how views of race have evolved over the years.

I grew up in the Long Island Village of Westbury in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a diverse community, but like most of Long Island, it was carefully segregated. There were not just racial boundaries but neighborhoods that were defined by religion and ethnicity.

I began my education by being bussed to New Cassel in an attempt to achieve racial balance; although the other four elementary schools were still segregated, the junior and senior high schools were well integrated. While the groups were initially wary of each other, eventually students crossed boundary lines and became friends with students who were different. But we remained friends only in school; the neighborhoods remained segregated. In retrospect, when I look back, I realize what a loss it was for us all.

After graduating from Niagara University and completing officer basic training, I was assigned to Ft. Bragg, N.C. in November 1969. I served as a detachment commander for 450 men from all parts of the country. During my first inspection of the barracks, I realized the troops were segregated, not just by race, but geography as well. This was my first time living outside New York and the segregation was even more blatant than what I remembered from my home town.

On my first day, a fight broke out between two enlisted men, one white, one black. It wasn’t the first time that I had ever heard the “N” word used, but the white southern sergeant repeated it about a dozen times when he addressed the black soldier back in our office. His treatment of the white soldier was quite different. I pulled rank on my first sergeant, told him how offensive I found that word. He had sized me up quickly and in a very surly manner said, “Yes, Sir!”

I then informed him that I wanted the barracks to be integrated. He told me this was not a good idea. For the first two months, it became apparent that this plan of mine was not going well and most of the men wanted to return to selecting their own barracks. I was naïve enough to think that I could just “integrate” the groups and all would be fine. I didn’t understand the complexities of institutional racism. In fact, a large part of the resistance was that the groups claimed it was all about appreciating different types of music, when in fact, the issues were much deeper. I later realized that the concept itself may have been noble, but the issues were beyond me.

I then went to Vietnam. Most of the soldiers had been drafted and they referred to Vietnam as a “white-man’s” war. I spent much of my time in small Vietnamese villages, attempting to bring the civilians medical support. I tried my best to think of these villagers as people that shared similar needs, because as different as their lives were from mine, they valued life, family and peace more than the political strife that was tearing their nation apart.

Fifty years later, I believe that every day provides an opportunity for all of us to grow as people. During my lifetime I’ve witnessed a lot of changes, but we still have a long way to go. I’m a white guy in my early 70s. But at the Shelter Island march on June 14, I learned a great deal from the high school students and former graduates of our school. I listened to their stories and heard their pain.

One thing is clear: Dividing and polarizing people is not productive. Those who choose to divide us need to be voted out of office. Americans of all faiths, nationalities and races need to embrace our diversity and see it as a strength, not a weakness. White people need to see the other point of view without feeling threatened. Social tolerance is a life-long journey worth taking.

I saw the beginnings of that journey at the BLM rally on Shelter Island and I am committed to do everything I can to help move it forward.

Mr. Colligan is a member of the Shelter Island Town Council and also a member of the Shelter Island Mental Health Team, along with Ryan Sultan, MD; Town Social Worker Lucille Buergers; Senior Center Director Laurie Fanelli; and Mental Health Professionals Bonnie Stockwell and Jessica Colas.