I grew up in a small town which was very insulated. It was a predominately white town in a predominately white county. Actually, not just predominately…overwhelmingly: the county is currently a little over 97% white and I’m guessing that figure is down from when I lived there. I am proud to say that my parents, in that environment, tried to instill tolerance for people unlike me. In the process of attempting to instill tolerance, I heard statements like, “There is no difference between us and black people.”
When I arrived in Carbondale at Southern Illinois University I was confronted by evidence that proved those statements fallacious. For instance, the suitemates assigned to share a bathroom with me and my roommate were big, black guys from the South side of Chicago who sold drugs out of their room. These people were not the same as me and they were reinforcing every stereotype that my parents had discounted.
During that first year of college I began to experience race in a different way. It was uncomfortable and troubling. At times, it seemed, the things I had been taught in childhood were lies told out of ignorance. Fortunately, these uncomfortable new truths were not the only thing forming me.
During the course of that first year, and all of my college career, actually, I also met black folk and people of many other ethnicities/cultures who were different in
good exceptional ways. I became close friends with a strong black woman who was a single mother who had come back to school to work on her PhD. Not only was she caring for her own daughter, but she had taken in her infant nephew who did not have a stable home. She was a hard-worker, she was dedicated to her family, she was incredibly smart and she was compassionate: I could understand those things. Another friendship that developed over time was a man, about my age, who is also, now, a pastor in the United Methodist Church. But, unlike me, he was black, from the South, from an urban area, and had sweet dreadlocks. He was so much unlike me in several ways, yet when together we could stay up half the night, with a group of friends, talking about culture, politics, church, and theology.
These relationships were teaching me that I could experience, and, even, celebrate cultural differences and find meaningful commonalities. It isn’t about being the same or different, it is about growing in relationship and celebrating who we are and how we are in relationship with other people.