I had an uncle growing up that wasn't really my uncle. His name was John Henry. I hope you all had one like him. He was best friends with my mother's brother Bob and was treated like one of the family. I don't remember much about him except that he seemed tall to my 5 or 6 year old self, had dark skin, a big smile, and he was usually one of the reasons I'd get to giggling at the dinner table and end up having to leave the table for a few minutes to compose myself!
As a child in a small town in the south in the mid to late 70's, I didn't realize how unique this friendship between my uncle and John Henry was. How it pushed the boundaries of what was typical. How it stretched some of my family. And how they loved him. I saw John Henry. Others saw a black man. Still others saw a friend. Wonder what God saw?
Sadly John Henry's life ended far too early but I wonder about him in our lives and how today it would not matter that our skin colors didn't match. Or does it?
I think partly because of John Henry and partly because of my mother's students and friends being a variety of races, as a young child, I was completely unconscious of racism. Skin color was sort of like hair color in my world at that young age. My best friend in kindergarten was Monica. She stood up for me when I was teased for my short "boyish" haircut. To me she was brave and strong. She never had less than 6 beautiful braids with colorful barrettes on each one. I was so jealous! Now looking back I wonder if there were times when I should have stood up for her. Times when maybe she was treated wrongly because of her skin color.
As I hit my pre-teen and teen years I began to see an under current of discomfort between people of different cultures, ethnic groups, or races. I have seen and heard stories of past and present offenses against people based on differences that just make me ill. Some of them are so current and so crude it would shock you if you didn't witness it first hand. It makes my heart ache that we treat others so badly based on a difference like skin color. Something God created. That the Almighty views as beautiful!
Recently I discovered that Cheerios used a biracial couple in a commercial, along with a biracial child. My normal reaction would have been, "cute kid!" expect that my attention was taken by the violently negative responses some have made to this commercial. Before I go any further, I want to say that I think General Mills is AWESOME because their response was to simply disable the ability to comment on the commercial and delete the negative comments. They stood behind the commercial.
I was embarrassed, saddened,...and convicted.
It made me look inside and wonder what I think of others. What do I think of other races? What do I think of biracial marriage? Children? All those answers were pretty positive. I think children who are mixed race are gorgeous! I find their parents to be people and don't usually worry about what color they are painted by God beyond that.
I'm pretty sure that genetically our first parents were a nice latte or caramel color with all the genetics we see in the world. Or maybe they were the original biracial couple! And Christ was probably not blond with freckles.
But what do I think of racism? That question stopped me cold. The sad thing is that I do not. Because it is not a challenge for me. I live in a progressive, metropolitan city (#1 in nerdiness & #1 in redneckness...go figure!). It is a city of many colors, cultures, and lifestyles. In my immediate community, church, and association, we are of like minds about color being just a part of someone not a separator, similar socio-economics, politics, education, etc. In short, our lives fit together. They mesh. We agree.
So racism isn't on my radar. Until it is.
I have friends now, 2013, who have described to me events, days, words. They were ugly, painful, embarrassing. And all of them were connected to the color of their skin or their ethnic background. Why do we seek to hurt that which does not look like us?
I live in a bubble. Most of us do. We live in a bubble of our comfort zone. My comfort zone doesn't all look like me. But they THINK like me. They talk like me. I suppose instead of racist, maybe I'm guilty of a sort of classist discrimination. Only associating with those I feel are like me in these ways. I wonder have I hurt someone with words or a look? A look that said, "You don't belong here."
Now we have a boiling nation, angry and on opposite sides of a fence we've painted black and white. One side is screaming, "HE'S A MURDERER!" while the other side yells back, "JUSTICE WAS SERVED!"
And I can feel nothing but sorrow. Sorrow for Trayvon's mother who lost her son. Whether he was troubled or not, she has lost the precious child of her heart. I do not know what went on that night. I did not follow the trial and was frankly sickened by the media frenzy. But I want to hold his mother and weep with her for her loss.
I feel saddened of stories that I am hearing about young black men who are suspected, followed, looked at with suspicion due to their age and skin color. I have not lived this. I cannot imagine. I am looking at my children and I wonder how young men deal with such pressure.
I am saddened by the anger and violence that people speak of in impoverished inner city neighborhoods that is ending the lives of so many teens, many of them African American or Latino. These are precious children of God and I know he is weeping for them.
I hear of what someone wrote on the car of my African American friend and I wonder in that moment, how she explained those horrible, cutting words to her beautiful young teen-aged daughter.
Is it any wonder that people who are treated as such would feel anger? That there would be a riot? Just because we do not experience a situation does not mean it does not exist. And just because one such person is cruel, does not mean all such people are.
So what is the answer? Where do we go from here? How do we back away from the boiling point and move toward healing? I cannot make others like me due to or inspite of my skin color, economic level, education, etc. I cannot change who I am or what I look like to fit into others molds. So, how do we honor our differences, appreciate our uniqueness, and come to common ground?
I'm not sure we all can. Because we all have history. We have been hurt. Or we have been trained. Or we have been taught. It all builds up.
One child is taught that only those from our country, our color, our "side of the tracks" are OK. The rest are to be tolerated but not appreciated. They witness name calling by adults. Maybe even violence. They grow up with these beliefs. They become a name calling, racist teenager. There's no real anger behind it. Just ignorance. Ignorance usually ends up looking like stupidity, does it not?
Another child is called a racial slur. They are hurt. The child is told to "go be with your own kind". Anger builds. The child becomes an angry teenager who wants others to feel what he has felt. There is mistrust. How can you trust those who have hurt you?
So now it is time to find answers. I do not have them. I am not an expert. I do know that I am leaning heavily on God in this. I am seeking his guidance.
My gut feeling is that God is telling me that I must stand up against the ignorance of those who may look like me, but do not speak for me. I do not see racism but I feel I must seek it out and call out those who would consider themselves "good people" for their cutting words. I cannot change them but if enough of us stop them in their tracks, let's them know we won't allow them to insult another human being that God considers precious, perhaps they will keep their poison to themselves. But then again, maybe God will use our words to change their hearts.
I must go where I am not comfortable. Perhaps to an inner city, poor neighborhood, and serve those who are not usually served. Maybe I should start a conversation with friends of different races and ask if they've ever experienced racism. And then listen. And cry with them if they cry. Pray for their healing. And maybe, just maybe, God will heal some anger in that process.
We talk about random acts of kindness. Buying a cup of coffee, mowing a lawn. What about random words of wisdom? They say actions speak louder than words but what sticks with you longer? I'm sure someone has bought me coffee before but ya know what I remember? I remember thoughtless words spoken to me in a moment I was in great pain. I remember praise from a 6th grade teacher that I would be a great teacher myself one day. Words. They last forever in our memories.
Maybe, just maybe, if each of us turns off the toxic news and instead turns to talk to a real person, and use our words with love, we can make a difference. I pray that we can.