I spent some time this morning examining the truth of my childhood experiences with race and prejudice. It didn’t take more than a casual assessment of my class photos and yearbooks to realize that while I grew up in one of the most racially diverse states in the union, my personal relationships were mostly with people of European, Asian, or Hispanic descent. My best friends in high school had last names like Rimmer, Santiago, Lakovich, LaPointe, Kubicki, Hotzakorgian, Ostrander, Rebensdorf, Nakamura, Papenhausen, Yamaguchi, and Avila. It took me only a few minutes to page through my high school yearbook of well over 1,000 students and pick out fewer than a dozen black faces. Yes, our class president was African American, and some of my acquaintances were, but I lived in a poor Hispanic neighborhood, worked with migrant immigrants from Mexico, and associated with children who were familiar to me. My best friend was a ranch foreman’s daughter and another friend was the school secretary’s son. Both lived in the neighborhood.
My elementary school photos reflect a similar story. My best friend in the third grade was black and I’ve recounted before that I never truly appreciated our kinship until the day she fell on the playground, skinned her knee, and bled…just like me. It was an epiphany for a young girl and I can still clearly see her pink scraped knee. But accepting someone isn’t the same as socializing with them. Even though Ruby and I spent time together, our parents did not. Nor did my parents socialize with rich parents, Chinese parents, Jewish parents or any other specific group other than the next-door neighbors, whoever they might be in any given location or year. There just wasn’t time, money, or a reason for deliberate diversification of our poor, white, Christian, Southern, experience.
I have to admit I went “away” to high school because my mother refused to allow me to attend a predominantly black inner-city high school. However, it wasn’t the racial factor that terrified her- it was the idea of her only daughter being in a city school where gangs and violence were even more of a factor than in our rural school where girls affiliated with the Mexican gangs kept razor blades tucked into their French twists. When she learned that our corner was the dividing line between the two high schools, she wasted no time telling me which side of the street I would be standing on when I waited for the bus! Of course my hour-long commute only continued for about six months before we moved to Oklahoma, and the problems with campus violence were left behind.
(Note: This was one of twenty groups necessary to list all of my classmates.)
If my racial experiences were limited in California, they were downright non-existent in Oklahoma. Native American was a term I became reacquainted with, but for the most part everyone I saw was “white”, no matter how much Choctaw blood they claimed. And their childhood experiences were so analogous and their relationships so established, that I was the “outsider”. I was the one who experienced a bit of discrimination. I might have had similar skin color, but my speech, vocabulary, interests, and experiences were decidedly dissimilar and I was reminded of that almost daily for the first year.
I have come to the conclusion that one of the reasons why we have so much difficulty embracing racial equality is because we try to have it by ignoring racial diversity. We seem to think that unless we believe that all people are the SAME we are somehow saying they aren’t EQUAL. The news media may interchange those words, but we need not. Same is defined as “not different, exactly like someone or something else”. Well, unless you are someone’s twin you aren’t even going to come close to being exactly like someone else. We all know that two children of the same sex and color raised by the same parents can be as different as though they were snatched at birth and raised by strangers. Equal means “of the same measure, quantity, amount or number; like for each member of a group, class, or society”. That is a worthy, though seldom attained goal. We want everyone in our country to have equal opportunities for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, in 2016 a white, middle-class, educated, attractive woman is still not likely to be treated equally or paid equally to a man with the same qualifications. So why should we be shocked to realize we still have inequality between races or cultures or classes or neighborhoods?
Relationships are established one at a time, for very specific reasons. While it is good and correct and Christian to embrace all people as brothers and sisters and to accept their rights to everything we enjoy, in reality accepting our diversity can be just as satisfying, liberating, and noble as trying to preach a gospel of sameness that God never intended. There is a reason for our uniqueness. As long as I love your uniqueness as much as my own I see no reason to pretend that you are “just like me”.