We're all guilty, and we're all victims. Tolerating the disrespectful, rude and at times illegal behavior of other people around us takes its toll. I personally have had enough of racism. What will it take for mankind to be intelligent enough to just simply get along with each other?

When I was in first grade in Catholic school, the nun called me a "guinea." I grew up in a mostly Irish, all-white neighborhood, during the late 1950s and 1960s in Brooklyn. I was one of four Italian children in my grade and had never heard the ethnic slur before that unforgettable day.

I asked my dad what the word meant, and you could almost see the steam coming out of his ears. "Where did you hear that word?" He yelled, and I got scared. Of course, I am unsure what he did with the information about my first-grade nun. All I know is that any teacher using a racial or ethnic slur today would suffer great consequences.

From that time on, I felt different from my peers. I was made fun of and taunted that my family was in the "mafia" and my relatives were "greaseballs." I would tell the Irish kids that they should hate me because I was part English, not because I was half-Italian, thinking that they didn't even know who to really hate. Those were the days when life was so politically incorrect, and ethnic jokes were part of daily life. Our skins were so much thicker then.

My family moved to Orlando, Fla., in 1971, and as a senior in a public high school, it was my first time not wearing a Catholic school uniform. I made some friends as the new kid in a strange environment and soon learned about a different kind of hatred. I graduated with students who would not even talk to me just because I was a Yankee from the North. They were still immersed in hard feelings about the Civil War. I tried to justify my existence by saying that my family, on both my parents' sides, came to this country long after the Civil War. It did not make a bit of difference in their minds because hatred is deep-rooted and difficult to heal.

Years would go by, and I fell in love with my 100 percent Irish husband. He accepts me for who I am, and my Italian family loves him dearly. We moved from Staten Island, N.Y., and lived for 20 years in Virginia while he served in the Navy. I was already used to the North-versus-South mentality and it did not bother me. The Chesapeake Bay region, however, is a deeply rooted Bible-belt area, and they disliked Catholics and did not recognize Catholicism as a Christian religion because of "fairy tales about saints and popes."

Such ignorance was a common problem, and I maintained a keen sense of humor to hold it all together. I would tell them that Central Park was once the Garden of Eden, and New York is the center of the universe, to give the North a good reputation. I actually had some people believing me. When the Witnesses for Christ came door to door, I would ask them if they knew about Catholicism. That would more or less bring any further conversation to an abrupt halt.

I worked for five years as the first psychiatric nurse at the regional jail in Portsmouth, Va. We had 1,200 inmates, and one-third of the population had various forms of mental illness. Any person who serves as a public servant has to be able to put all feelings of discrimination aside and treat all people equally. This is not a new concept. Imagine a nurse having an issue with someone of a certain race or religion and ignoring this particular patient's complaint of chest pain. What is inside the mind of our public servants that allows them to think clearly and without hesitation or fear when dealing with all types of people?

When I worked at the jail, I was one of four white people in the medical department. My coworkers were African American, and we spent the first few months getting to know each other. There is a definite cultural difference, yet as in any workplace relationship, trust needs establishing. I remember one of the nurses saying to me, "Hey, Joan, you're not really white!" We laughed because we both knew she was saying that we were the same. Isn't this true for all of us?

Citizen Columnist Joan Mahon, of Villas, has been a registered nurse for 37 years.

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