“Becky’s had more interracial experience than any of the rest of us.” There were thirteen of us, all white, all straight except one gay man, sitting around the table in the bar and grill last night. I still go back to Lincoln, 50 miles from here, where we used to live and where my husband Mike still works, for a book club. The core group are friends of Mike’s since his college days in the early ‘70’s. Last night we discussed Jodi Picoult’s Great Small Things. The book was a great conversation starter about racism. For several of our friends one scene in the book had been a real, “ah-ha” experience. Mostly “liberals” we all think of ourselves as fairly enlightened. But in reading this book several saw their white privilege for the first time.
Driving home I replayed the conversations in my mind and I pondered that thing about me having “more interracial experience.” I grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Omaha. I know now that wasn’t the norm. But, growing up, it was normal for me. When I was ten there were seven 10 and 11 year old girls in our little enclave. Five of us were white, two of us were black. My elementary school was integrated, but not very. Jr. High and High School were more so. My ballet classes had two black students, my church was all white. College and Seminary was about the same. Always I had some black classmates and friends, but I was never in the minority. Fast forward to my ordination day.
My parents had a party after worship to celebrate with friends and out of town guests. I was in the back yard and Daddy brought his portable phone–all the rage in new technology–to me. I distinctly remember standing on the upper terrace of the back yard in my pretty red cotton dress with a wide cut-work embroidered collar. My great uncle, who had moved away several years earlier was calling to congratulate me on my ordination. After the congratulations he said, “but what I don’t understand is why you’re going to go off to Africa now to work with those darkies. It will be a complete waste of your time and your talent. They can’t learn anything, anyway.”
Too dumbfounded to say anything intelligent, the happy elation of my ordination day sunk like a popped balloon. I said, “Uncle Lyman, I’ve got to go now. Thank you for calling.” I hung up the phone, and numb, took it to Dad. “I didn’t know Uncle Lyman’s a racist.” “He’s been one all his life.” my dad said.
Eight months later I was in Kenya en route to work in Zaire through the Division of Overseas Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) after language school in France. Outside of Nairobi, a delegation of six of us missionaries and our mission executive from DOM were taking part in a celebration in a rural community. The community had come together across many tribal and religious differences to build a bakery to create jobs and income for the people, and with that income they had built a school for their children. With our denomination’s help, they put a roof on the school.
The celebration of the roofing was held in a hot meadow near the bakery and school out in the middle of nowhere. Four or five distinct groups from the community were there besides us. We were seated in a U shape. We, the honored international guests, all had chairs. Many people were sitting on the ground. Children from the school were seated across from us on benches from the school house. The celebration went on a very, very long time before there were speeches and an exchange of gifts. Each church represented arrived at the gathering in ceremonial processions. One group jumped as if they were on pogo-sticks. One group ran forward ululating and then retreated, forward ululating, coming a little closer, before retreating again. It took a couple of hours for everyone to be in place and the formalities to begin. Did I mention we were in Kenya? Did I mention it was really, really hot? Did I mention the little children?
Across from us, the children, waiting to sing for the celebration, sat patiently. One little one was about two years old. She kept her eyes on us. I’m sure we were the first white people she had ever seen. The older kids kept whispering to her. She’d turn to listen to them and then turn and look at us. The woman sitting next to me put her hand out in a “come here” gesture to the little one. The older children nudged her, pushed her a little, and cajoled her to “go.” We heard under and around their giggles the words, “mondele, mondele” “white, white.”
Eventually the littlest chorister found her courage and made it all the way across the base of the “U” and stopped five feet back from my welcoming friend. Then with a deep breath and split second motion, the little one swept forward, reached our her beautiful ebony baby hand and swiped the white, white hand of my colleague. She immediately checked to see if any of the white had rubbed off before she high-tailed it back to the safety of her friends who greeted her with gales of laughter.
That’s the story that came back to me on my drive home from Lincoln last night. All day today I’ve been thinking about it. That curious little one. Those ornery older children putting her up to such shenanigans. The pure pleasure of seeing beautiful children being inquisitive children like all children everywhere. Their hi-jinx and playful delight understood in any culture.
Where did my uncle pick-up his racism? Daddy told me others in his family were racist, too. How did that not rub off on my father? What is it that rubs off of me? When I encounter others, do they experience joy and grace and welcome and acceptance? When I reach out my white hands, what am I offering? How do we learn our shared humanity? How do we move past black and white and become a community? How do we meet hand in hand to move forward together?
Reading books that help us climb inside other people’s stories is a start. Even better is making ways to be together, to listen, to rub elbows, to clasp hands, to exchange hugs, to dance with joy and sing each other’s songs, to learn and to celebrate what we can do so much better together than we can do apart.
What rubs off?