I grew up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. While that’s certainly not the Deep South, it is definitely redneck country. However, Bartlesville is the headquarters town of a major petroleum company, so there are a lot of educated people there; it’s not your typical rural Oklahoma burg.
My parents didn’t raise me to think much about race. People were people. I had friends of all shades, though most of my friends tended to look like me, and I wasn’t around that many African-American people. The 2010 census puts the African American population of that particular county at just shy of 2.5%. (There are 4-5 times more Native Americans than that in the county, so that’s the more prevalent minority.)
Then I moved to Delaware. For those of you who are geographically-challenged, Delaware is a state about 1/2 way up the the Atlantic coast of the US. I can be in Virginia at the former home of Robert E Lee in a little over 2 hours. It’s not really that far North, and it has a conflicted racial history. In the Civil War we were Northern, but at the same time we were a slave state. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t apply to the slaves in Delaware because it was only directed to Confederate states. Yeah, that’s just messed up.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, Wilmington, DE was under martial law for 9 1/2 months because of the riots that broke out. (Click here for more information about that.) So we’re not talking about racial harmony here. The population of our county is about 20% African American with Wilmington, its major city, coming in at about 58%.
The church my husband pastors reflects this diversity. We are about 40% white, 40% African American, and 20% international. I have never been around a group of people like this anywhere else. We are focused on loving Jesus and in the process we love each other, not denying anybody’s heritage, but letting our identity be primarily as children of Christ. So needless to say, I’ve been around a lot of people of different backgrounds since moving here 16 years ago.
Now back to Oklahoma. Last time I visited the Bartlesville Wal-Mart I looked around at the checkout counter which was bustling with activity, and there wasn’t an African American in sight. At the supermarket here in Newark, (and that’s the suburbs) you can’t find a time at the checkout counter where there ISN’T an African American in sight. It’s a different experience, a different exposure, a different mindset.
I have been in gatherings where people told racial jokes. I heard one man say he was glad he didn’t have a daughter because he just wouldn’t be able to handle it if she dated a black man, only he didn’t put it quite so nicely. In fact, I was a teen at the time, and he asked me to make sure I wasn’t dating any of “them”. I have heard the “N” word thrown around quite a bit. The strange thing is, it often wasn’t used in an openly hateful way. It was just a way of identifying a group of people. The people using it didn’t go around in white hoods burning crosses in peoples’ yards. They weren’t trying to hurt anybody; it was pure ignorance and lack of exposure to what hurt another person might feel from those words. I have heard bigoted statements in Delaware, but I’ll hear more along that line in one week in Oklahoma than I will 5 years in Delaware. Why? I hope it’s ignorance. I hope it’s just living in a white-only world and not interacting on a daily basis with people who don’t look like them.
I would like to tell you a few very basic things I’ve realized and learned during my years of observing life and race relations from these varied experiences.
There is no way of using “the N word” word that isn’t “a bad way”. To say “I used that word, but I didn’t use it in a derogatory way” shows great insensitivity and blatant ignorance. That word represents years, yea even centuries, of oppression, hatred, and outright slavery. Yes, some black people use it, which I don’t agree with either, but that certainly doesn’t make it okay. There is no good that can come of using this word. If it was never spoken again that would be great.
Racial jokes are not funny. Ever.
Black people are not born talking differently, and they are just as smart as anybody else. This seems obvious, but it isn’t always, evidently. I was blown away when a very articulate and educated light-skinned black friend of mine was asked “what nationality are you?” because the person asking (who happens to be a very kind-hearted, though ignorant, person) assumed that all African-American people “talked funny.” Oh my! The strange thing is, to my Delaware-born kids, the person asking that question “talked funny”.
So what to do? The first step is recognition.
The dictionary defines prejudice as “an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge.”
Let me define it a few different ways.
If you see a person of a different skin shade and immediately make assumptions about them, you’re prejudiced.
If you see a person of a different race in a decent neighborhood and you wonder why they’re there, you’re prejudiced.
If people of a different race move into your neighborhood and you wonder what they’re doing there, or hope that maybe they’re just renting, you’re prejudiced.
If you would object to your child marrying a person of a different race solely because of their race, you’re prejudiced. That one goes several ways. Yeah, I went there.
Having “a black friend”, whether they’re your best friend, or your best man, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not prejudiced. It could just mean that you’ve found one exception to the boxes you usually put people in. Some of the most prejudiced people I know have a friend who is black.
These things apply not only to African Americans, but any group of people from Hispanics to Middle Easterners to immigrants from everywhere.
After recognition comes direction. What SHOULD we be doing?
Jesus taught a different way. In John 13:34-35 he said, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” In Matt 5:43-48 Jesus says, “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Christians should be at the forefront of loving others, and that doesn’t just mean people who happen to look like us. If we love others who are like us, that won’t surprise people at all. But if we love people that are different than us, people who we normally wouldn’t associate with, that will make the world stand up and take notice.
The good old Golden Rule goes a long way. If I don’t want to be treated, talked about, or thought about in a certain way, then I shouldn’t treat, talk about, or think about others that way either. Amazing.
I believe that most of the racial problems we have in America are a result of fear and ignorance. The Bible is also emphatic about the subject of fear. How many times have we quoted Psalm 23:4, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”? Even if we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, which I think is a little more extreme than anything we’re dealing with here, we are not to fear. I Peter 3:13 says “Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats.” There are more verses about fear than I have room for here, and not a one of them says “If you are scared of somebody because they’re different, that’s okay. Then you can mistreat them, judge them, and hate on them.”
Ignorance is perhaps the hardest part to conquer because ignorant people don’t even realize there is a problem. A lot of the fear comes from the ignorance and will go away with some widened experiences and expanded knowledge. So that’s where I come in, a white girl trying to bust up suppositions and make us reassess our assumptions. I catch myself occasionally making judgements about people because they speak, dress, look, or act differently than me. When I catch myself doing it, it bothers me and I vow to fix it. It is a process, a constant growth. We all have our presuppositions, but we should fight with everything in us to recognize and combat them.
But how? First, we must acknowledge that we do it. Second, realize Jesus has a different way. And third, intentionally put ourselves in situations where we are around different people. Seek out experiences that expand our minds and challenge our suppositions.
We might be surprised how much alike we all really are. After all, we’re all the same race: the human one.