I grew up in an almost totally Caucasian town in southeastern Massachusetts. To the best of my knowledge, during my childhood, the only exception to this vast “whiteness” was a single Asian family.

This could have made me a racist. Having never personally known any persons of color, I might have deemed myself superior. Why should I associate with anyone of a different skin color? I’d be way out of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t bother to learn about other cultures. Why should I care?

Or maybe, because I never was taught as a child to hate African-Americans, Asians or Latinos, or witnessed others being hateful, I’d never learn to be a racist.

Thankfully, it proved to be the latter. Too bad I can’t say the same thing about our president. Though he grew up in New York City, and has basically lived there his whole life, he has secluded himself in a micro-world of white privilege.

I have felt nauseous for the past week. Anyone who judges others based on the color of their skin or where they (or their ancestors) come from sinks as low as a human being can go. I know.

You see, though my town was homogeneous racially, we weren’t ethnically. We were all hyphenated, and were well aware of the ethnic origins of our surnames. As a Portuguese-American, I was at the bottom of the hierarchy, because we were the most recent arrivals.

There were cruel slang terms for every ethnic group that arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries. I call ours “the P-word,” an insulting variation of “Portuguese” that I refuse to use, here or anywhere else. I worked at KFC as a teen, a job my father helped me get because he sold Arnold bread rolls to the franchise. On July 3 of this particular year, the Portuguese-American KFC manager asked me what my family was planning to do for the holiday the next day.

“We have a clam boil,” I said, “but I’m not crazy about clams.”

“And what self-respecting (P-word) doesn’t like shellfish?”

Well, what self-respecting Portuguese uses the P-word? I duly reported this to my father, who then proceeded to tell off the manager, which could have ended both my job and his contract … but it didn’t. I think the guy was sincerely embarrassed.

Dad was sensitive to the importance of language. He had spent his early years in the city of Fall River, Massachusetts. His mother was the daughter of Québecois immigrants; his father, Portuguese by way of Brazil. He had to choose sides in the playground and street fights. Was he French or Portuguese? His Brazilian Uncle Manual had taught him how to fight. He had a Portuguese surname. He made the logical choice.

My father took after Manual, with his swarthy skin and pugnacious attitude. In the early 1950s, Dad went out to California to have a look-see. He had asthma, and his doctor thought the climate might be good for him. There, some people thought he was Mexican — and treated him with prejudice. This was far worse than the childish ethnic skirmishes of his youth, and Dad never forgot it.

So I grew up learning that bigotry is wrong. I didn’t learn how to hate. I did not want to be judged on superficialities. And I refused to judge others in that way.

As a school librarian, I recently read a book called “Sofie’s Role,” by Amy Heath, to several classes of early elementary students. Sofie and her parents, as well as everyone who works at their bakery, are people of color. Their customers run the gamut of human skin tones. And here we were, in the capital of the whitest state in the union.

We discussed the book afterwards. There were many different kinds of pastries mentioned, some with foreign names. The author used expressive language. Someone in each class noted the scene in which Sofie looks out the front window and sees what she perceives as huge shapes (adults) anxious to get into the bakery to buy their Christmas Eve goodies.

Not one student noticed that all of the major characters were black. One child did mention this: “All the men who work there are wearing white, and the ladies are wearing yellow and white.”

I looked back at the book. He was right.

Excellent work, young man. You should run for president some day.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]

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