I had a good childhood. I was loved, cared for, and protected from everything. I had no idea what racial prejudice was. And bias? I thought it was a journalistic term to avoid.
I grew up a farm girl living in the culturally poor Heartland, and very little has changed as I now live in undiversified, small town America. I am a mother to four children, three born to me and one born from a beautiful Ethiopian mother. So obviously, something has changed.
A couple of years after I made two long trips to Africa, a deep love for my son and his people showed me I am unconsciously, racially biased. An unrecognized prejudice had grown from my own personal experiences, perceptions, and attitudes.
This became clear on a Labor Day weekend in Chicago while visiting my brother’s family. After spending a few hours in the car to get there, we needed to stretch our legs in the neighborhood park. We made long upside-down arcs on the swings, played soccer, and took a walk around the dirt path on the park’s perimeter. This path would teach me I was not who I thought I was.
My daughter, niece, and I hadn’t been on the path for long, but we had put some distance between us and the rest of our family. A dark-colored car, with even darker tinted windows, drove by slowly, then stopped. I adjusted my steps, instinctively moving closer to the girls. Just as we approached the car, the doors opened slowly, and four black men carrying fast-food bags slid out of their seats. I told myself this was a normal scene and tried to talk myself into that knowledge, but my body told me otherwise. My heart beat faster, my senses were on full alert, and I definitely picked up my walking pace, all the while talking to the girls “normally,” silently telling myself I should be friendly and keep on moving. In the midst of all of this, I held my breath.
The girls and I kept on our path around the park, making our way back to the rest of our family without incident. Without incident? Why would I feel this way? These were just four men, eating their dinner in the park together. We were just a mother and two children, taking a walk together. Why these questions? Why these emotions?
I tried to justify I would feel the same way no matter what the men’s skin color were. I tried to reason it was because there were four men and I was the only woman with my little tribe. I tried to coax some semblance of rightness for my physical reaction, but there was none. I had an unconscious bias. Something had grown in me over time. It was deep and unnoticed until moments like the one in Chicago, most likely based on the small experiences I had as a white child in a virtually all-white community. The only version of life outside my four white walls was the television. And even with my limited view, I saw what I wanted to see.
This is hard. My family is multiracial with European, African, and Japanese heritage. How can I reconcile this? And how can I, a Christian with a heart for justice and equality, react to what I learned that day? I know I’m not alone here, as prejudice or bias is not only displayed explicitly, so what can we do to reflect the kingdom of God in the way we think and react to those around us?
Pay attention to language. The words we use to describe others should be thoughtful, not superficial (I have never referred to my best friend as my white best friend). The conversations we have with our children and other adults might involve gently or sometimes boldly pointing our speech in a direction that cherishes people as worthy of our love. Words and labels are powerful and should be treated with care.
Be self-aware. We need to know ourselves before we try to diagnose a circumstance or situation. Self-awareness and the time it takes to know the deeper places within us, the places that were developed or conditioned or influenced, requires a long, honest look and a willingness to go there. I’ve learned that sometimes I’m not willing, but God reveals me anyway.
Be sensitive to the story of others. Looking back, it’s painful to admit how quickly I made observations and formed opinions about people I didn’t know. Asking God to reveal and embrace my own story helped form a starting place of sensitivity to new relationships. And as I learned to dig deeper into their stories, I began to understand their pain, my compassion grew, and their pain has started to become my own.
Only God can step into our discomfort, our embarrassing questions, our mistakes and moments we don’t understand, and the inheritance of our circumstances. We must allow him to remind us our true inheritance is heaven with Jesus and our great Father who loves us all. We will take missteps or straddle old fences of insecurity and ignorance, but in the end, we must choose to climb down and follow a straighter path of grace and truth.
That Labor Day in the park, on a worn dirt path, changed me. It exposed me to something I was unaware of, something buried in unconscious places of my mind and heart. Painful as it was, I’m glad for it. I’m learning to see people the way God does, the way I once did as a very young child before life and situation overwhelmed me. Because of this awareness, I can bring a different perspective to the conversation I’m already starting to have with my son—an honest conversation, filled with hard truth and love. These conversations will bear the beginning of healing and change in my small part of the world. How might they change yours?