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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reflecting on Racism


I did something kind of weird one day which, of course, surprises no one who knows me.  After moving to my hometown a few years ago, I was at the store one day and struck up a conversation with a stranger.  Knowing me, it probably started with some stupid joke about a sale or an advertisement.  Then, in the middle of it, I said to the man something along the lines of: 

“This may sound strange, but you don’t know how much I enjoy seeing you and talking with you, because you are black, at least, that was the term we used to use, hope it’s okay.  But the point is I have lived in several towns over the years that had much smaller minority populations, and I have missed the interactions with people of different races, so I have really enjoyed just chatting with you today.  Thanks!” 

Another time I was at the store and bumped into my high school gym coach, and we started to visit, catching up a bit on one another’s lives.  He gave me a hug, or I gave him one, don’t remember which, and we each went on to finish our shopping.  He also is of African-American descent. 

Charles, Max, Verdale, Anita, Carmen (male), Debra, Carmen (female), John, Rueben, Mike and his mother Dorothy…those are a few names of friends of mine from childhood.  Some of them used to come to birthday parties at my house.  Some were in scouts with me.  Others were friends in band or at school.  Normal names, normal people doing normal activities.  All of these individuals are, as the phrase goes, “people of color,” although I never really thought about it at the time.  It didn’t matter…at least, not to me.  Each of us is now grown up and moved on or away in life.  I have seen only one or two of them in recent decades.  If I were to attempt a similar list from this time of life, it would have different names.

I have seen some of the obsessive media coverage of the difficulties over in Ferguson, Missouri, and feel sad.  When I was growing up, street protests (riots they were called back then) were every day occurrences in the news from the streets of Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco…only there were more cars being burned, more national guard troops present and more violence.  As I visited with a friend yesterday, we both recalled the school bus that received broken windows and the time tires were set on fire in the street here in town.  She even remembered another school bus being turned over. 

I was also saddened one day when I was visiting with a friend of Mexican descent about growing up here in town.  We were talking about racism, and I mentioned my awareness of the racism against African Americans here in town, but wondered what kind of experiences he knew of among our Mexican population during that time.  (We both knew that there were plenty of stories of racism from earlier times here.)  I was saddened because he was able to tell me some specific episodes during our lifetimes, one of which occurred at a laundromat not far from where I had lived.  That was the first time I ever heard of that fact.  It is too bad.

I’m sorry, I just don’t get it.  I don’t get why race is such a big deal to people.   

I mean, I DO get that individuals of certain races experience hard times because of their skin color, not only here, but other places as well.  Racism IS real.  

I DO get that racism is not merely an American phenomenon nor limited to recent times. 

I DO get that there are some cultural differences among races that affect how we view the world and how we relate to one another.  As an example, I have a hard time understanding a culture in which life is regarded as cheap, as Ho Chi Minh expressed in his willingness to lose 100 of his soldiers for every American soldier.  (Perhaps this is related to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation.)  It doesn’t make sense to me that some of the Middle Eastern peoples hold as their highest goal the destruction of the Jewish people and the nation Israel, just because they are Jewish.  I was unaware of the racism that exists between different groups of Asians until recently when I heard some comments in that regard.  Or again when I learned about the number of people of every skin color enslaved or enslaving others in the past all around the globe, including Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, Japanese, Germans, Aztec or other American Indian peoples…the list is sadly long. 

I guess I’m one of those individuals who just wonders why we can’t all just get along.  On the other hand, I have been divorced, and if we could all just get along, divorce wouldn’t be happening either, would it?

As I watch the events of Ferguson, several thoughts come to mind.  First, it is sad that some of the same struggles still remain that were being fought back in the 60’s and 70’s.  It is sad to see one event so highlighted while others deaths of young blacks are ignored, such as the ones in Chicago for instance.  It is sad to hear the whole episode described in ways that might be exaggerated, or that some may be jumping to inaccurate conclusions and spring into this kind of action without first gathering the facts from all sides.  (There is a verse in Proverbs 18:17 that describes this…the ESV reads:  The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.) 

As facts come out, we may learn there was more behind the episode than we know in all sorts of ways.  And it is sad that individuals in official positions would even need to be questioned or legally charged to be held accountable (though there seems to be a LOT of need for that these days here in America—and in a number of other countries as well, I might add). 

Most of all, I think it is not sad, but reprehensible that opportunists will plunge into moments like this for their own self-aggrandizement or to infiltrate and stir up trouble by looting and provoking (all of which diminish the respect and credibility of the protests).  Sad, sad, sad.

I hope the day will come when there will no longer be felt a need to protest treatment as all people find a welcome place in society and are appreciated for who they are, and so choose to live in respectful and moral ways.  I hope one day some of us will wise up and realize how boring the world would be without variety.  Well, I could go on with dreams that will probably never fully materialize as long as fallible people are involved.  But maybe we each could find a way to make some little part of our world just a little bit better in this regard. And I pray that God will use all these tragic events in Ferguson to make a difference for good not only there, but among other people who are watching.  

As I watch and shake my head, I guess I owe a real gratitude to those friends of my childhood, because the relationships I had with them have laid the foundation for some important lessons in my life.

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