This morning I brushed my hair, pulled on my rain jacket, and ventured out for tea and coffee. As I rounded the corner, I saw a guy in a camo jacket, waiting in line. I wondered if he was local.
Clouds shrouded the mountains on one side of town, but behind the mountains on the other side, just beyond the small boat harbor, the sun lit a stripe of bright sky.
The man in the camo jacket and I struck up a conversation about the weather, and how beautiful it was. I asked, “Are you from here?”
He said that no, he was from Michigan.
“We live in Girdwood,” I said, “just up the road from here. But we lived in Michigan before we moved to Alaska.”
We talked about where Liesl and I had lived (between Flint and Saginaw) and where he lives (in the suburbs just west of Detroit).
And then he launched into it.
He explained that “shaded-colored people” are taking over his neighborhood, “taking advantage of white people’s houses being in foreclosure.” He implied that these “shaded-colored people” were using “connections” to do this. Then he said that the new residents “just don’t have the same character.”
Part of what made my brain explode was his tone of voice. We had established that we had geography in common. He seemed to assume that I would agree with him—maybe because we were both white? He spoke as if he expected I wouldn’t notice the egregious racism in his comments.
There was a time when I wouldn’t have said anything. When fear would have silenced me. When I would have chosen to be polite, rather than to confront.
I’m trying to get over that.
What I said was, “Are you saying that black people have different character just because they’re black?”
I let the tone of my voice be sharp, my face unsmiling.
He started talking about gangs, and people shooting each other.
I changed the subject. I talked about the problem of foreclosures, the failed housing market, our broken financial system built on false promises.
The easy camaraderie of shared geography had disappeared. His order arrived, and we parted company.
Back at the hotel, I sat down with my latte and a muffin. I opened my laptop and clicked on Facebook. Unvirtuous Abbey had posted this: “Don’t judge someone just because they sin differently than you.”
A good reminder.
I was sitting in a loft, just over the lobby, where the wi-fi signal was stronger.
I had already wrestled with my reaction to the noisy tour group in the lobby below me. I knew that bias had contributed to my cranky response. I knew that I had attributed their loudness to the fact that they were Asian, and not speaking English.
Prejudice happens between groups that have a long history together, and between cultures newly encountering each other. It is easy to demonize the other, the stranger, and to assume like-mindedness with those who look and speak like us.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world where everyone is just like me. Frankly, that sounds boring. Difference enriches our lives; white privilege impoverishes us all.
But if we want to create a world of vibrant, harmonious diversity, there’s a lot of hard work for us to do. We have to find the courage to confront prejudice in strangers. Harder still, we have to confront bias in our family and friends. And hardest of all, we have to admit to the judgments that arise within us—unwelcome, unbidden, but present nonetheless.
As Kenny Wiley (a UU young adult, seminarian and blogger) recently wrote, “Things are better than they’ve ever been, and there’s so much more to be done.”
Put an extra shot in my latte. I’ve got work to do.
Image from Nature’s Nectar’s public Facebook page