My father is Hispanic; his family immigrated to the US when he was a child. My mom is white–a mixture of Scotch-Irish and German descent predominantly, with some other things thrown in there. I’ve been told there is some Italian in there somewhere; I’m not sure where or on whose side or if it even matters. I already got a lot of feisty blood, so what’s some more thrown in?
My life has been one of navigating two cultures. I don’t know it any other way. And I’ve never known which one I more strongly identified with; my pale skin and lack of Spanish linguistic skills kind of nudged me in one direction, but you can’t ignore what makes up half of who you are. In the end, this ambiguity has been a gift more than anything else.
(Although those little boxes where you can check your ethnicity on standardized tests and surveys and government forms always stress me out–which box do I check??? I don’t know!!! There’s no box if you’re mixed. I leave them blank.)
Anyway, the gift is that I adapt easily between people groups. This has even proven true in foreign countries when I don’t know the language or anything else. I just dive right in and absorb it all. And I was taught that all people are to be valued and respected because they are God’s children. To have ever held the notion that being white is somehow superior would have been to dismiss half of who I was. People are precious. Period.
It is hard for me to identify with communities that are predominantly made up of any one people group. I grew up in San Antonio which has a large Hispanic population. The school I went to was predominantly white and Hispanic kids, although there were a few black kids there too. I think that just reflects the demographic of the city; I could be wrong.
And then we moved to South Dallas which is so ethnically diverse, I don’t even know how to describe it. At one point the town I spent most of my time in was probably nearly half and half when it came to black and white residents; a rapidly growing Hispanic population I am sure has since shifted the ratios around some more, not quite into thirds, but still each group is significantly represented.
I thought we were a snapshot of America, just an example of how the population trends were going. At the very least I thought we were a snapshot of Texas. But after conversations with friends in other parts of the state and the country, I have realized how completely untrue this is.
My first real encounter with racism was as an adult, my first year teaching, to be exact. A student had failed an assignment because she had skipped almost all the parts I had outlined in the handout, so her mother and I had scheduled a conference to discuss it. I showed the mom the assignment sheet I had passed out, and then I showed her the assignment I’d received from her daughter which was barely completed and missing pages. I saw the anger rising in this woman’s face and was starting to feel very sorry for what was awaiting her daughter when she got home, when the woman stood up and started yelling at me: “You’re racist! You’re just penalizing her because she’s black. I bet none of your white students did the assignment right, but they probably passed anyway. You think you’re so much better, but you’re racist. I’m going to the principal!”
I was too shocked to even say anything. She stormed out, and I burst into tears, certain that I was about to be fired from my first real job as an adult. Was she serious? The thought had never even crossed my mind that someone would accuse me of racism.
I want to say that was an isolated incident, but there were a handful of parents who frequently tried to get around their children’s poor academic performance by blaming the racist teacher. It was exhausting. And to be perfectly honest, it hardened me. This is what people refer to as playing the race card–making race an issue when it has nothing to do with the problem at hand. I am sorry to say I came to expect it. I am even sorrier to say that for a while it kept me from being able to hear the legitimate wounds and struggles people were facing. I was too indignant that someone would make an assumption about me based on the color of my skin (ironic, I know).
When I was about to pull my hair out, I sat down with a friend and co-worker one day (who for the sake of the story I need to say also happened to be black) and said, “Please help me. Am I actually being racist and I don’t know it? Or is there such a thing as playing the race card? Why does this keep happening? What am I missing?”
And those questions to her opened up a dialogue that helped me gain some perspective and understanding. In our little neck of the woods, there were definitely times people cried “racism” to detract from the actual issues, BUT this did not negate that racism was alive and well, even in our very diverse community. My friend was highly educated and had run into people’s surprise that she spoke “like a white girl”–as if somehow a black girl couldn’t possibly be well-spoken and intellectual. Her fiancee had been followed by police on more than one occasion when he was hanging out with his brother, suspicion aroused because two young black men surely wouldn’t be out at night unless they were up to no good. Neither of them were alone in these experiences. My heart started softening.
I was an English teacher and always had to field an endless number of phone calls and emails from angry black parents whenever it was time to read Huck Finn. The literary purist in me was always indignant. Did these people not understand satire? Could they not see how Mark Twain poked at the foolishness of racism? I held my ground until another dear friend and co-worker lovingly but firmly said to me, “I would never ask my children to read that book. I don’t care what point he’s trying to make. Do you know what it was like in the years immediately following the Civil Rights movement to be one of the only black girls in your school and have a teacher assign this book and all of a sudden your classmates think they have a right to try out this word because it was in literature and you’re the only one around for them to try it out on?”
That book was not on my reading list the next year. There were other ways to teach satire without ripping open wounds for the parents of my students.
I am so grateful these friends were in my life to help me see. I don’t say this in a smug “See, I have black friends” way. The corner of the world I grew up in was colorful, so my friendships were colorful. This doesn’t mean I have always been able to clearly see their stories, their struggles, their wounds, their needs. Actually, that has taken me a lot longer than it probably should have.
But I have been learning to see. And I have been reading some portions of history that were most certainly left out of my education. And I am listening to people who live in other places and deal with these things on a far broader scope than I previously imagined. I am no expert–not even close–but the research-hound in me has been unleashed on this matter, and what I am discovering is demanding that I approach current news headlines differently.
And this is where I feel like so much of the world, specifically MY conservative Christian world, is straight up missing the point.
If you are only caught up in all the details of transcripts and autopsies and so on from Michael Brown’s death, you are missing the point.
If your only narrative is the one about police officers doing what they have to do to make it home to their families alive, you are missing the point.
If you are quoting stats about black-on-black crimes and fatherless black households, you are missing the point.
If you are too busy saying looting and rioting isn’t the way to bring change, you are missing the point.
If you are looking at the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as isolated incidents, you are most certainly missing the point.
Our black brothers and sisters are trying to tell us that something is not right. Actually that lots of somethings are not right. And the vast majority of them would agree that looting and rioting are not the answer, but still they are pleading with us to listen to what is behind those actions.
When my children act out, I can write them off as bad or I can find out what is going on in their hearts that is provoking this response. People’s behavior is evaluated this way all the time; why not now?
I think of the apostle Paul writing that we are a body and if one part is hurt, we all hurt. Well, I have black Christian brothers and sisters who are hurting, and even if I cannot fully understand or grasp what is prompting that pain, dismissing that pain is flat out wrong. Throwing around words like “thug” and “none of us were there so none of us know” and “let’s just wait for the facts” is not remotely helpful. It certainly is not loving or compassionate.
We should sit with them in the pain, mourn with those who mourn, and offer our voice to their prayers. Above all, we lay down our agendas and our politics and our limited lenses, and seek to understand.
There is so much more I could say. I had a whole other section about the police side of this after my experience with my husband going through the police academy and pursuing that career path. Maybe it’s another post for another day because this is already crazy long.
In the end, I am shocked by the lack of compassion I have seen on display, even through silence and refusal to engage. Compassion does not say, “Well, yes it’s tragic, but…” And compassion is not quick to find ways to justify the loss of life. So I am saying, pleading, with all my other Christian brothers and sisters, we can do better. We have to do better.