Monday, September 29, 2014
Letter from Harrisburg
Some years ago I had lunch at Clackamas Town Center’s food court with a friend who worked at Macy’s.
A young black man walked by. My friend said, “Hmmm, security’s going to be watching him.”
I said, “Because he’s black?”
She said, “No, because of how he’s dressed.” His outfit included a baseball cap, a loose jacket, and pants with the crotch just above the knees.
I said, “Would security watch Steven?”
She said, “No, because of how he dresses.”
Steven dresses in a mix of farmer, Mennonite and athlete. He is our youngest son, 19 years old, adopted from Kenya at the age of 10.
My husband is blond and freckled. I have skin that, even at the end of summer, a friend described diplomatically as “alabaster.” Having a son with black skin has made us aware of issues we would never have examined otherwise.
I would not, for instance, have given a second thought to whether or not it was right for “security” to watch certain customers more than others or whether a young man in slouchy pants bears the responsibility for the impression he leaves and the scrutiny he invites, or what is just and fair in such a case.
Thanks to our son, I have read about racial issues, followed news stories, confronted attitudes in others and asked many questions.
I also have come to realize that we all make assumptions about people, every day, based on what we can see: color and size, clothing and piercings, evidence of poverty or wealth, facial expressions and behavior. We often judge a whole group by the behavior of a few. We all suffer or benefit because of the impressions others of our age, gender or culture have left.
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at,” the Bible says in an Old Testament story about choosing a new king, and continues, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
The problem is, we aren’t God, so we have only the outward appearance to go by.
As a Mennonite woman, people often assume I possess a level of holiness and gentleness that is far above the reality. In a strange dichotomy, the same people probably look at my son and, based on his age, gender and color, make assumptions as far off in the opposite direction.
I’ve found that the more you examine issues of race, history and people groups, the less you can generalize. The story is always more complicated than it appears at first, and so are the motives of our souls.
I wonder about many things. For instance, if my kids are respected for how they dress and behave, is that a lucky perk for fitting society’s expectations, or is it a natural consequence for good character? Should young people feel obligated to improve the reputation of whatever group they belong to? Should they dress differently in order to be treated with respect? How can we encourage wise behavior without insisting on everyone being just like us?
While judgment by appearance can affect all sorts of people and aim in many directions, the conflicts in America that get the most attention are racial, particularly black versus white.
Plenty of people feel eminently qualified to speak on the subject, and plenty of others think the speakers should be quiet because they don’t have a clue what it’s like to be on the other side.
It’s confusing, especially for someone like me who grew up not only in a predominantly Caucasian part of the country, but in a religious community as well.
Now, with a son from a different background, I am aware, first of all, of how much I don’t know. I’m also extra vigilant about racist jokes and attitudes.
My daughter was once part of a church youth group where the kids would sometimes discuss slavery and how it wasn’t that bad, seriously, and “My great-grandparents had slaves and were nice to them and the slaves were happy.”
“You Northerners just don’t understand,” my daughter was told when she objected.
They had a point, in a way. When you grow up in the North, you might watch a video in the ninth grade of three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and you get the sense that every white person in the South was oppressive and cruel, and every black person was oppressed and brave. But if YOU had lived there, oh my, you would have been heroic and noble, and would have DONE something about it.
Then you visit the South as an adult and realize that things were and are much more nuanced and complicated. People made, and still make, individual choices, and few of them fit into a stereotyped box.
And yet, there’s no question of the general injustice, even if your great-grandparents were nice to their slaves.
My dad’s parents met and were married in Mississippi, back in the early 1900s. One day this summer my dad said, “Now this is very gruesome but it’s something I remember. My father used to say that in Mississippi, if a white man killed a black man, he had to pay a fine of maybe $10. But if a black man killed a white man, a mob would go after him and kill him. They would burn him at the stake. It was terrible. But it’s better now, at least some better.”
Surely, a knowledge of past cruelty can nudge us toward valuing justice today.
Thankfully, Steven has grown up in the Willamette Valley in a happy cocoon where his race has never, to his knowledge, affected his friendships, education, work or activities.
He sacks grass seed like his brothers and cousins, takes firefighter classes in Harrisburg and goes fishing with his friends. His color is a non-issue in these situations.
However, I went a bit crazy with protectiveness when Steven learned to drive. True, this is Oregon, not exactly a hotbed for race-based police brutality. But anyone who reads the news would understand my fears. No matter what it took, I wanted him alive and safe. So, no hoodies when you’re driving, I commanded. Hands on the steering wheel if you’re ever stopped. “Yes, Sir” or “Yes, Ma’am” out of your mouth.
None of us could have predicted what actually happened. Steven has found himself in a variety of scrapes, both literal and figurative, when he’s driving. Almost invariably, he slides out of the situation without any trouble because he’s, “So honest, so polite, so respectful.”
He is praised and affirmed by law enforcement people, over and over — even the time he obviously caused the incident with the signpost and the lady’s car.
His sister shrieks, “AGAIN??? That is NOT FAIR. I didn’t do HALF of that and I got this HUGE FINE!”
I am mystified. Was I misled by dramatic news reports or is this part of Oregon an exception? Or is this simply the same good fortune and charm that helped Steven survive life on the streets as an orphan in Kenya? Or is there another dynamic at work that I’m not seeing?
As I said, racial issues get more nuanced and complicated the more you examine them, and even the nicest of us are not immune to unsavory attitudes and simple thoughtlessness.
Steven went on a road trip to points east last year. It was his first adult venture out of the safety of home and Oregon.
I said, “Did you encounter racist attitudes anywhere?” expecting him to say, “Well, there was this crazy dude in Indiana ...”
Instead, he said, “A bunch of us were hanging out, and this guy told a black joke in front of me.”
Appalled, I was ready to phone the guy’s mother and call fire from Heaven.
Steven said, “Mom, let it go.”
I finally caught on that there was more to the story, and I insisted on hearing it.
“Well, actually, a bunch of us were just joking around, and I had told this racist joke first, about another kind of people, and then he told that one about blacks, and he didn’t really think about me being there, but then later he apologized.”
We had a discussion then, Steven and I. I did some soul-searching and took back what I had wished on the other guy’s mother. Steven was wiser than he had been before, and so was I, and I was humbler, too.
We all need to listen to each other, no matter what we look like and what our stories have been. We all have a bent toward selfishness and unfair judgment, and we need to look beyond the surface, try to understand and be kind.
There is always more to the story. There is always something to learn. There are always things of the heart that we cannot see.