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Dear Orange County: Inequity is about more than race in OC

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in our occasional series, Dear Orange County. The Orange County Register is looking for contributions from county residents who want to share their experience and contribute to the dialog in an evolving region. If you would like to be considered, please email reporter Theresa Walker at and put Dear OC in the subject line. Submissions should be 700-1,000 words.

Dear Orange County,

I have lived in Orange County since I was 3.  I grew up in Costa Mesa in what I would call a middle-class neighborhood, made up of single-family homes as well as apartments.

I was exposed to people of other races from preschool on.  My kindergarten class in 1975 had 26 kids in it and six of those kids were Hispanic or Vietnamese. My first experience with any sort of name-calling or mistreatment due to race happened when I was in the third grade. I was upset about my day and complaining to my mom about a kid I got into an argument with at school. He happened to be a Vietnamese kid and since I was angry with him I referred to him with an ethnic slur. Wow, did my mom immediately make me aware how utterly unacceptable that was.

I was 8, mad at another kid, and called him a name I had heard on the playground; my mother, however, was aware that the way I chose to lash out was incredibly wrong. I remember at the time thinking, “I just called the kid a name, is it really that big a deal?” My mom made me understand that, yes, it was! Needless to say, I found other insulting terms to use when I was angry with someone, terms that had nothing whatsoever to do with someone’s race.

Back in New York before I was born (I’m the last of six), two of my older sisters had friends who were Black. When my grandmother found out, she told my mom to have the kids end those friendships, adding the threat of being “cut out of the will.” My mother chose to ignore that command.

My parents explained to all of us at an early age that racism is learned, it is taught. It is not an innate characteristic. I am eternally grateful for the parents I have and the lessons they have taught me.

I learned about inequity early on in elementary school. I had friends who lived in the apartments down the block and it was apparent that they had much smaller living quarters and no front yard or backyard like I did. That did not seem “fair” to me, and I felt lucky. Some of my friends also did not have dads at home; I certainly did and it seemed unfair that they did not. Again, I felt lucky.

I also learned a lot about inequity on the playground and on sports fields. From kindergarten through most of high school, I was literally the smallest kid in class. It never seemed “fair” to me that all the other boys were bigger, taller and stronger. I have heard quite a lot over the last five to 10 years about my “white privilege.” Let me tell you, when you are 4-foot-10-inches and weigh 85 pounds as a freshman, no one notices your “whiteness.” But everyone notices your tiny size.

My mom worked so that she could afford to send my brother and me to Catholic school in the fifth and seventh grades, respectively, and when I got to Mater Dei High, I saw much more “inequity.” I rode the bus for 45 minutes every day to and from my home to Santa Ana. While waiting for the bus in the afternoon, I often saw fellow students driving home in Audis, Mercedes Benzes, Jaguars and even Porsches. Clearly the idea of a 16-year-old kid driving a $40,000 car (in 1985) seemed absurd and certainly not “fair.” However, I also learned early on to be grateful for what I have and not to be envious or jealous of what others have.

My parents are devout Catholics and raised us with Christian values. My mom volunteered at Share Our Selves and took me along many times as a youth. I saw firsthand how many people had much less than we did. Whenever I would complain that some kid had something that I wished I had, my parents would remind me to focus not on what I don’t have, but on what I do have and to be grateful for it. They also taught us the value of hard work and earning things as opposed to being given things.

I have taught high school for the last 24 years to “at-risk students” who are generally of a lower socioeconomic status and I always share a great quote from Abraham Lincoln: “People are generally about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” I point out that you can compare yourself to the Kardashians or famous athletes and musicians and feel depressed because they “have so much” and you “have so little,” but you can also compare yourself to the homeless person on the street or a kid in war-torn Syria and feel incredibly blessed and grateful because, compared to them, you have so much. It’s an epiphany for most of them and they tend to become more aware of their blessings. I also remind them that in America, if you are willing to work hard you can always improve your situation.

It seems as though literally every issue these days is viewed through the lens of racism and I am unconvinced that is helpful and providing any real improvement. For me, Orange County has been a great place to grow up, to live in and to raise a family. Orange County is not a “racist county” neither is it a “murderous county” nor a “child-abusing” one.

There are undoubtedly racists as well as murderers and child abusers who reside in Orange County. However, do we let those people define the culture of our entire county?

No, we do not.

Charles T. Kelly, 49, lives in Aliso Viejo. He’s a teacher with the Orange County Department of Education’s ACCESS program. His students have been expelled from their districts, kicked out of schools, served time in Juvenile Hall, or sent at the request of their parents.

Source: Orange County Register

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