Sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump - going through life seeing the details and missing the big picture.
I have seen the pieces of chocolate in life's box, but I have not always known how they got in the box.
Here's my almost 40 years of life- as a Euro-American from the suburbs of Philly - as it relates to how I have seen race.*
1. Childhood: What's the Difference?
I grew up not seeing black and white. That was most likely because I only had white to see. My classes in school were almost always limited to about one black person any given year. (The word "African-American" was not in vogue for a few years into my school experience.)
There was a black family that lived next door to us. We knew them about as well as we knew the white family that lived there before them. I didn't know what what the mom or dad did for a living or what it took to get to the house next door to us. It didn't matter to me. Shinita was my friend in my mind and I saw her in every way my equal.
Noble thinking, huh? Actually, I now see it as very self-absorbed. I knew what I thought, but I never knew what she thought. I never knew the terror she might have faced starting in a predominantly white school. I had no idea from where she came. I still don't.
My thought was that black people COULD attend my school. Segregation was illegal. I figured that most just CHOSE not to.
I probably believed that for the first 30 years of my life.
2. Teen/Young Adult: What's the Big Deal?
In the '90s, I felt like I was drowning in "race relations." The college I attended was also predominantly white, though there were more people of color on campus.
I had a class on African-American literature. (I had to take it because it was the only honors class that fit my requirement.) There were 12 students in my class (taught by a white professor). Two of the students were black. We read 10 books that semester and then discussed them. Books that "chronicled the black movement in America." Tragic stories, like The Color Purple and others. I wrote papers that received A's because I knew what the right answers were. Slavery is wrong, segregation is wrong. (And I was a good enough writer to pull it off.)
However, I skipped going every other class because I feared the discussion. I felt badly for the 2 black students that were constantly singled out, not knowing that maybe they wanted a chance to tell their story too.
I cried at the books I read, not because it happened to black people, but because it happened to people. I figured it could have happened to anyone.
There was an organization on campus called Building Bridges. It was a group of students and faculty who stepped into some of our classes to explain how they felt and answered any of our questions. To this day, I could not tell you what color skin the presenters had.
But I had no trouble telling them how I felt - We are all the same, so why can't we just act all the same?
They tried to compare their experience and a need for Affirmative Action to a basketball game where white people had been spotted 60 points, and we needed to step aside to let the black people catch up. (poor example, but it stuck with me.)
I countered that I should not be punished for the sins of my great-, great- grandparents.
Still, I only saw my life - my job opportunities, my future. I didn't see how there was a lack of what I took for granted available for others.
You would have thought I would have gotten a clue about present-time inequality when I found out that the KKK had "rallies" in the town where I attended church. Or even when a black member of my church explained how he had been treated in his hometown. In the 1990's.
Still, I didn't know. I assumed that there were a handful of poorly-educated racists around who said what they felt. I assumed they would get in trouble if they stepped out too far.
I assumed the law would protect the innocent.
What I didn't know was how the presence of racism commanded fear in the lives of the innocent. Black people, who had been given their freedom many years ago were not free to live where they wanted and do as they pleased.
I was chose to be blind to it all.
3. Age (almost) 40: What Else Am I Missing?
I guess it really hit me last year. I saw the movie, "The Help."
My jaw dropped. People could actually be handed down through someone's will? Slavery was over. How was that possible? The entire movie opened up my eyes and flabbergasted me that such events could take place in the 1960's.
Throughout school, I had learned about slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, and even the Civil Rights Movement. I could tell you all the prominent players and dates related to each of those events. Heck, I even had to teach it to 3rd graders when I student taught.
But I was missing a few years- those between emancipation and Civil Rights. That was about a hundred years. I also never heard anything more after the death of Robert Kennedy.
I read Gone with the Wind. From it, I learned that though white leaders did what was certainly in the best interest of blacks by freeing them from slavery, nothing was done for them after that.
I had no idea.
Then I saw The Butler - unintentionally. I heard it was a good movie, and had an idea that the main characters were black, but I didn't really know what the movie was about. After seeing it, I was completely baffled that the black and white double standard in life persisted even through the '80s.
Yes, it was a perfect example of how I walked through life, ignoring how the others felt and lived.
(Please feel free to engage me in a discussion about this movie. I loved it.)
It was only recently that I was taught how the Bible explains race. That we are all one people - one great big group of sinners still loved by God.
I can't tell you that I am so much more enlightened now. All I can say now is that I know that I don't even know how much I don't know.
Maybe that brings me back to where I started. Maybe I can go back to believing what I did when I was little - that there is no difference between people of different skin colors. Or there is all difference, but not between races. Between individuals.
I can still believe that. Only now I need to understand that not everyone sees it that way and it is a view worth fighting for.
I encourage comments from every here - especially about your experience as it pertains to race relations.
*Note: This post regards my experience learning about African-Americans in the U.S. I am trying to learn more about the Asian-American experience in our country as well. I am trying to learn what I can about how Japanese-Americans were treated during and after WWII. I still have much to learn also about native Americans and Latin Americans as well.
It was a such a natural moment in Sunday school. Ten-year-olds are hardly transparent and innocent like they used to be. But the question came up out of nowhere, agreed upon by all the kids in class, and it deserved an answer.
"Why do adults always fight over who's going to pay?"
The girl who posed the question, and had the attention of the whole class, added to her query. "I mean, if it was me, I would just be like, 'Sure, you can pay. Thanks!'"
I could answer her question.
"Pride, my dear, pride."
I know the kids couldn't understand, but they hung on my words. They didn't get it because money isn't a definer for them yet. They are accustomed to someone always paying for them. They are never expected to pay. All their lunches are free, to their knowledge.
Here's what they don't get: What goes through an adult's mind when the bill comes and she is with company.
Reaction #1: Panic
"Here it comes! I remembered my wallet, right? I have enough money, right? Right? Right? I don't want to look like a beggar."
Reaction #2: Brain-wracking
"What was the purpose of us going out? Is it my friend's birthday? Did I invite her? Is it a special occasion? Did my friend pay the last time we went out? Is there a reason I would be responsible to pay and look stupid if I didn't?"
Reaction #3: Planning
"What if my friend wants to split the check? How do I avoid looking stupid dividing this up? What is half of $17.50? I forget how to divide! What if I mistakenly make her pay more, and she catches it and gets mad?"
Reaction #4: Defeat
"The only way to avoid all of the above and not look like a cheapskate is to offer to pay the whole bill."
In the meantime, the same exact thoughts are going through your friend's mind. The entire thought process lasts from the moment the waitress lays down the bill until someone picks it up - not more than about 4 seconds.
Thus, an argument ensues. You have already made up your mind that you are paying the check. Even if it is your birthday, your mother, or your last dollar.
However, I have found this argument tedious. Essentially, it is a disagreement about who is nicer. I don't want to fight about that. Why is that even a question?
So, some time ago, I've boycotted the argument. You win. You're nicer. And I will believe that every day of the week, too.
So here's how the conversation goes when I go out to eat. (Unless I have a firm reason, such as you have paid for my coffee for the last 4 outings, or we have a standing agreement that we will always split the check and we're okay looking dumb about it together.)
Me: "I've got this one."
You: "No, no, I do."
Me: "Okay. Thank you."
At this point, I imagine you are astonished that I don't continue insisting. And yes, through your mind, I'm sure, wafts the smallest indication that I am always looking for the cheap way out.
But, really, I just don't want to fight. It's a superficial waste of words. We've only a limited amount of time together, so let's put it to good use.
Wow, why aren't more people doing this? Why do the fights continue?
In order to give up the battle, you are conceding defeat. You must be willing to look cheap, when everyone knows you have enough. You must be willing to look like a taker in a place where it's preferable to be the giver.
The one who pays is generous; he's the good guy. The one who takes is the weaker damsel in distress. The taker gives up the right to be the hero. It's almost a gift the receiver can give to the giver- glory.
My chance always comes back around. It may not be seen by those who keep paying my way, but I do get my opportunities.
After all, I do have children...
Passion Under Grace,