My first experiences with racial diversity went right over my head. I think the best word to describe it is naïve. Or maybe oblivious? Bear with me for a sec while I explain with a little bit of my story:
One of my closest elementary school friends was black. It never occurred to me at that age that there was anything unusual about our friendship – I loved Venita and her family. The thing that initially drew us together was our shared faith. I had just started learning about Jesus (along with my parents who were new Christians). She had been raised in a Christian home. So, we bonded over books and Jesus. Her family took me to Pioneer Girls every Wednesday night and I ate it up. We eventually grew apart because she was brilliant and skipped a grade. For me, that was a harder gap to bridge than the color of her skin! In my naiveté, it never occurred to me that her “blackness” might mean that she experienced life differently than I did. I never considered what it might be like for them to be one of the only black families in our entire elementary school.
My other experiences were similar – my Mom’s best friend was a Philippine woman who had married a white man. I thought it was cool that Dorothy could make unique-to-me foods, that she could pull off that black, thick line of eyeliner on her eyelid, and that she had some interesting artwork in her living room. That was it. Her racial history intrigued me but I just never really thought much about it beyond that. Except that my Dad called her our “little yellow friend” – a reference to Cato in the Pink Panther movies. Before you freak out on me, please note that it was an endearing, loving reference in the comfort of a close friendship – Dorothy wasn’t offended by it because of the context. So, it never occurred to me that it would be offensive in another context. Or that some people would say it with disgust toward people of Asian descent.
By God’s grace, I grew up in an environment without any of the undertones of racial superiority. My parents always had people of color in their lives – even though we lived in a very rural area that was predominantly white. My Mom talked openly with me about some of the atrocities of things like the holocaust or the Japanese internment camps in the US during WW2. Our small church had two bi-racial couples. Whenever I heard about other races at that church, it was always in a positive context with a nod to God’s love for ALL people. My earliest days as a Christian were always infused with the idea that every kind of people would be represented in heaven, worshipping our good God. This was the context in which I grew up.
Enter Billie – A Pivotal Moment
And, then, there was Billie. Billie hung around the garage where my Dad worked on his high performance funny car. Sometimes he was part of the pit crew and traveled with us to races. I have vivid memories of him teasing me as I pushed the broom around the garage. He was just sort of a fixture around the shop and, as with my other encounters with racial diversity, his blackness never really meant anything to me one way or the other. I just never thought about it.
Until I reconnected with him as an adult. I had just moved back to the area where I grew up here in Northeast Ohio. He was still living here, working now as a janitor in the school system where my kids attended. We were chatting and just catching up a bit when his mood changed from jovial to serious. His eyes moistened as he recounted a memory he had of my Dad. Evidently, they had been traveling together in the 70s in the South – funny car in tow as they headed to a drag race to compete. Weary from their long day of travel, they went to check into a hotel. No problem, right? Wrong. My Dad was welcome to stay the night in the hotel… but Billie was not. According to Billie, my Dad refused the room too. He wouldn’t have Billie sleeping in the truck while he had a bed. Clearly, it was a deeply impacting event for Billie.
That story had a huge impact on me too. Not because of my Dad’s action (though I do remember breathing a huge sigh of gratitude and awe at God’s goodness in giving me parents of such conviction and example – I’ve learned so much from them!). But, something else shifted in me in that moment. It hit me like a ton of bricks. My Dad wasn’t the hero of that story. My proclivity to view everything through my white eyes, was tempted to make him such. The truth is, Billie is the main character of that story. BAM!
Like a vending machine about to spit out something yummy, the coins were dropping for me in that moment. Things started to click in a way they never had before. My old friend Billie had experienced life through a lens that was very different than my lens. He had lived through things I never had to deal with. I’d never been turned away from a hotel because of my skin color. I have no idea what that feels like. What other prejudices and slights had he been dealing with his whole life that I was oblivious to?
It’s not that I hadn’t had people of color in my life all along the way. I’d had black friends over the years. I’d even done ministry with a small group of black students at Bowling Green State University in the late 1990s. Jua, Lohn, and Audrea were precious to me. I’d mentored students of color over the years. I have always delighted in other cultures and have enjoyed living in university towns for most of my adult life because they tend to be more ethnically diverse than other suburban towns.
But, this moment with Billie was pivotal for me. My eyes were open to a whole new reality that, unbeknownst to me, had been there all along. As part of the majority culture, I just hadn’t noticed it. No one has ever followed me through a store. Or locked their car doors because I happened to be walking by with my friends. I’ve never gotten stuck on the hiring committee because the dean says it needs a black person – as if my presence meets a quota instead of being valued as a real contributor. I’ve never had anyone look at me with suspicion for walking through the neighborhood where my house is located. I’ve never had someone eye me with disgust at a traffic light because they question whether or not I deserve to have a car that is nicer than theirs.
The Journey Continues
That conversation with Billie was 10 to 15 years ago. Since then, God has had me on the hot seat, continuing to push me. Another coin dropped when someone yelled the N-word out the window at a friend as the two of us walked downtown Kent. Another coin dropped when my son was profiled with his black friends in a store. Another when I realized that some of my Christian black friends viewed the same current events through different eyes than I had always assumed. Another when I talked to a friend whose husband had reached a sort of glass ceiling in his job – not because of his talent but because of his color – today in the North! Another when I read The Warmth of Other Suns and books like it. Another when Rick and I started going deeper in our friendship with Pastor Bryndon and his wife Yvonne, looking for ways for our churches to truly partner.
Here’s the place I’m coming to: It’s one thing to not look down on someone because of their color or ethnicity. That’s where I had been for most of my life. I was comfortable there and even sort of proud of my background – truly, I remain very thankful for that background.
But God has been pushing me further because it’s another thing to try to actually empathize and understand what someone else lives day in and day out. To be aware of the slights going on all around me. Not to pity them or have a white savior complex like I need to be the hero of their story. But to just enter into it with them. To have conversations. To be a voice for bridging the misunderstandings. To look at history with different eyes – to be proud of my country’s heritage in many ways but honest about the many ugly things both in our history and in our modern psyche. To apologize when I need to but not be consumed with unhelpful, white guilt. This is the hard work of building on that initial foundation. And I’m still very much a work in progress. I hope I always will be. (Maybe not quite so clumsy with it… )
For better or for worse, this is my journey. This is where God has me right now and I know He’ll keep upending the junk in my life so that I see it. He’ll push me forward, out of my comfort zone and into His perfect will. Because He’s good like that.
And He knows I’m a better woman for the friends of other colors and cultures who are in my life.