Ethnocentricity and lack of “good will”

This morning, I came across an article published by Eater.com  on my Facebook newsfeed entitled:

Milwaukee Custard Shop Defends ‘English-Only’ Policy by Chris Fuhrmeister, May 19, 2016

So, now I’m writing in response to that article — I’m in the mood to write an opinion piece, and rightly so. Honestly speaking, I’m upset by what I learned. I cannot even begin to understand why this custard shop is so resistent to allowing their employees to speak to customers in languages other than English. To do so is disrespectful of customers, that is, persons. And it’s disrespectful to the cultural heritage that the city of Milwaukee is built on and is currently living. The word ‘living’ is important here, because the present life as we know it, in any given community, is linked to the past.

Wisconsin has always, for umpteen decades, for generations, been a big ethnic melting pot! I won’t comment on the legal aspects (that’s another territory altogether; and wouldn’t it be better if people could just act out of pure kindness instead of laws telling us what to do), but I will elaborate on the company’s lack of “good will,” for it is that which is so difficult to fathom, at least from my own personal perspective. If I owned a custard shop (ice cream shop, whatever), I would be happy, grateful that my shop was so popular that people wanted to spend their hard earned money on my products, and I would never ever turn away a customer. AND if a customer needed a little help in ordering a custard in a language other than English, I would be more than happy to find a way to make it easier for them. For me, it just comes natural to think in this way, virtuous really. So, my question is, “why don’t others think the way I do?” Can it be attributed to merely not having a good will? Is it just plain downright ethnocentric attitudes that some people embrace to the deteriment of others?

My view about the World began so humbly, innocently and variously. I grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where in the 1950s to the 70s, you encountered people speaking all kinds of languages, and in Milwaukee it was even more so: English, German, Yiddish, Polish, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Croation, Lithuanian, Serbian, Spanish, Native American languages, and others ! As a young girl, I thought this was the normal way to live and experience life!

I bet you, back in the old days, say the 50s – 70s, Leon’s Custrard had customers who spoke all kinds of languages and probably their employees did too. Did they turn those customers away? Probably not, or at least we hope they didn’t— because if they had, they might not have survived over the decades. Just think for a minute about all the hardworking working class people who went to the place to get a custard — their hard earned money going into the pocket of the company, hence boosting the local economy for everyone. Wisconsin was built on the backs and labor of hardworking immigrants and their offspring — Milwaukee a very ethnically diverse community of peoples, was a place where you’d hear many languages spoke, at least that was the way it was when I was growing up. Primarily the working class, especially in the Sheboygan area, were employed at the Kohler company in Kohler, which by the way, was founded by an immigrant (1899) from Schnepfau in the Bregenzerwald of Voralberg, an area that we now know as belonging to modern-day Austria. Most of the fathers of the kids I went to school with, as well as my own father and grandfather, worked at the Kohler company or at Vollrath.

cultural diversity

We were kids coming from working class families from different ethnic backgrounds. We sat side by side in the school classroom and socialized amongst ourselves as well as with those who came from more affluent backgrounds. We learned at an early age to treat everyone with respect.

I also went to school with the Kohler kids, some who were in my German classes in Jr and Sr highschool, along with a host of other kids from various ethnic and social backgrounds. My collection of friends, at school — of which I was so proud — had all sorts of interesting and sometimes hard-to-pronounce, if not funny-sounding, surnames, which was genuinely representative of the diverse cultural heritage of our local community. We all belonged and we all supported each other the best we could. We also celebrated our multicutural community. And every year, when we had our big food festival at the Sheboygan Armory, it was truly international — every family or ethnic organisation had a booth where they proudly served their homemade precious ethnic foods and even gave dance performances — how wonderful! Every year I was so excited because it was the one place where I could be assured of getting some authentic Greek food to eat ! That was the community I belonged to. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in such an environment, for it has shaped me — I am the person I am today because of it — that unique life experience is not only precious, but unforgettable.

I love the sound of different languages, and helping someone whose English isn’t as good as mine, for it is an act of respect for that person, treating them with dignity. And what the hell is so wrong about it?

By Karin Susan Fester (c) 2016

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