When people look back on this time they will say these years were marked by division. It’s humbling to know that I am a part of that, in as much as my great, great grandparents were a part of the story of their time, whether they were immigrants or not. The same as their great, great grandparents ,were a part of civil war aggression even in Minnesota.
Since this is a part of how we all will be remembered I think it is worth while for us all to have an opinion on what we will be remembered by. So the first challenge of this post is to know what I think. And hopefully by the end I will have stirred that up a little!
“I am” the self identity
I am an all American mutt, you could say. My heritage is as wide and varied as all the myriad of people who have made up this history of America. My grandfather was English and Bohemian. From him I got my maiden surname and yellow skintone. My grandmother was Anishanabe. Her mother grew up on the reservation and lied about her heritage to go to school to help her people. My other grandfather was Scotch-Irish. That blend that is so affectionately remembered for their temper. My other grandmother I know little about because to talk about her heritage was to bring up a past she wanted forgotten.
Growing up I loved having a rich heritage and knowledge of where my people had come from. I loved being able to identify myself with “Indians” and English, Scottish and all the history that comes along with these people of the past. “I am” all of these things!
Now, I realize the scope of the tension. It’s debatable whether any of these groups I so long felt a part of would even claim me at all. “Race” has become a term of physical description. Whatever you look like. My sister was the object of discrimination for being Asian, because that’s what someone thought she looked like. Once a man told me I was not Native because my skin didn’t have the right hugh of melanin. So how do we identify ourselves? Am I white?
More than color… culture
The real issue that we are looking at isn’t so much about color, it’s about culture. We all think that because we are all “Americans” that we have the same cultural influences and therefore the same conclusions, but it’s not that easy. My husband and I grew up only a few miles from each other and we were raised in completely different cultures. While we don’t have a lot of the language and understanding barriers that a cross cutural couple has, we miss each other constantly on meaning and understanding of approprite conduct. For example, I was raised in a family culture the prized honesty over peoples comfort. His was the opposite. It is more important to his family members that you feel comfortable than if you are honest with each other. On the other hand, if there is discord with one another in his family they will bend over backward to fix it. One persons tension will dominate the family life until they experience healing. Whereas my family doesn’t care if someone is upset. Actually they think it’s odd if you aren’t upset at someone which makes for a constant tension of family relationships. If my husband and I couldn’t appreciate these differences we wouldn’t last long in a good marriage.
The same is true of our “racial” tensions. If we cannot appreciate that we are coming from completely different cultural backgrounds we will never appreciate another perspective as unique. I feel like this seems really basic, but the effect is so far reaching that we cannot see the real scope of it. How will we help our children to realize this in their relationships?
My grandmother had grown up in North Minneapolis. She was the youngest of 5 kids and the only girl. These are culture shaping dynamics. She was spoiled and well loved by her whole family. Unfortunatly, her experience outside of her family was quite different. She was bullied often for being an “Injun”. Called names, like squaw, almost daily. She was indoctrinated with disdain for her situation. She hated the people who were doing this to her (mostly black girls) and the people who had put her in this “situation” (whites). She finally stood up for herself and was severly beaten by her tormentors.
She bacame a shaper of my mothers culture. Actually, a tormentor herself of the child she had power over. And my mother shaped my culture. A culture of forgiveness because of the love of Jesus. But, their cultural heritage also shaped them in a way that they passed down. I have vivid memories of my grandmother verbally accosting people (in her senility) that had blonde hair and blue eyes. Blaming them for what had happened to her, her family, and all the generations before them. This is what I have heard termed reverse racism by those I had shared the story with. But I have to wonder if any of those people were humans in her mind. Maybe, if any of them had responded with sympathy she could have realized her wrong. Than things would have been different.
Humanity in identity
We forget that the people that have these perspectives, or different cultures, are still bearers of the image of God. Can we somehow change our thinking to reflect who it is that we are actually dealing with? A real person with feelings and experiences. Not just an evil ideology, not just “wrong”. To see a person with a complex history that God has given them. These things advise their thinking about the issues that we come to the table with every day. Until we all can start asking the right questions to reach a helpful understanding and stop assuming we understand where the other person is coming from, these conversations will continue to be messy.
“What is going on?”
While I was in Georgia last year I witnessed one such interaction.
My friend and I were at the park with our kids. They were playing nicely and enjoying themselves. As kids will, they didn’t notice the other stuff that was going on. There were several other people there. In particular were a white family and black family who had some “stuff” going on.
Both the white and black dads were engaging in what I assume is illegal behavior. They both had open alcoholic beverages, and the white dad was also smoking on the play equipment. They weren’t being obnoxious about it, so everyone just went about their business like it wasn’t going on.
Perhaps someone reported them, or perhaps the police officer came by on her own. At any rate a female police officer stopped at the park and took a look around.
Now here is where things got a little crazy.
The white dad quickly extinguished the cigarette and threw the can away when he saw the cop coming. He behaved as if nothing was going on, and stayed at the other side of the park from her.
The black dad did nothing of the sort. He refused to acknowledge the cop was there until she was speeking to him. The woman he was with behaved as if nothing was going on, refusing to even make eye contact with the cop who was asking him to leave. She ended up having to call back up to get the man to leave the playground, and the woman he was with finally spoke to the male police officer who came and agreed to take him home. I don’t know what ended up happening. They left to the other side of the parking lot to finish their discussion of how it was best to proceed. Far away from where I was with my kids. No one was out of control, but the reaction of the people involved was striking.
When I think back over the situation the only person that I could not understand in some point was the man of color. I have to be honest, at first this caused me to judge him. I thought, “what a ridiculous reaction!” And then I stopped and thought about it. He was also the only person I couldn’t put myself in the position of. When it came down to it I could imagine what it was to be a female cop in a small way, or a white man, or the woman of color having to deal with the situation and children and everything, but I couldn’t begin to imagine what it was like to be a that man.
Suddenly, my judgement traded places with curiosity. What was it like to be that man, knowing that he might be targetted for the crime that both he and the other man were commiting? Did it make him hesitate in tossing the bottle to not be the first one to do so? Did he wait a second too long? Did he not care if he was caught? If it’s not this today, it’ll be something else tomorrow. How could I possibly know?
I couldn’t begin to judge this mans motives because I couldn’t begin to understand his position. The importance of having a jury “of your peers” echoed in my mind. Do we know what that means today? I hope so.
When I think back to these experiences that have shaped the way I see myself and those around me I am really grateful. I’m glad I had the grandma I did, and the trip to Georgia, and a faith in the God of the Bible who says all people have a unique worth. I’m so glad that I have the chance to look into this time that I live in and write about being able to see past my own experiences and culture to hopefully understand a little piece of what it is to be someone else. I’m hopeful that this time won’t cause more strife, or polarization of the body of Christ, or confusion for the next generation as people get heated about this. But, that we will be able to look back on these years and the experiences we are having and say they were a beautifully formative time in the history of our country and world. Perhaps, if I can pass this piece of experiencial knowledge on to my kids and share it with whoever I can, there will be a small corner of history that will say that…
This is a wonderfully thoughtful piece. It is so true and reminds me of the Native American image of walking in someone else’s shoes.
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Thanks for reading! I really appreciate experiences that lend themselves to other learning later on.