I experienced a wave of culture shock when I first began my job. I have moved from one vaguely Eastern European community to another since birth, from rural Northeast Ohio to rural North Central Ohio back to semi-rural Northeast Ohio. There was a brief stint when my husband and I lived in south Akron, but for the most part we kept to ourselves and our monochromatic neighbors until we moved again. Since my European ancestors invaded a couple hundred years ago, the communities where I’ve landed have been very white—99 percent Caucasian, 97.5 percent Caucasian, 95 percent Caucasian. Everywhere I looked I saw someone like me, except for maybe the occasional “other.”
And that’s what they were to me—other, distant people with different traditions in different neighborhoods from the ones I roamed in. Even the “others” I was acquainted with on teams and in classes were far away from me, louder, laugh-ier, with accents and jokes and styles I didn’t understand. I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood; I grew up surrounded by farms owned by families that had been there since the mid-1800s. Our school district bussed in the “others” from the Park, a plot of community carved out of a neighboring community to avoid desegregation decades earlier.
Because of this background and our surroundings, what we learned of diversity came piped in on the evening news. Black man shoots other black man. Middle Eastern man blows up marketplace filled with others like him. The others are fighting us. The others hate us. The others are not like us. Something needs to be done about the others.
Racism’s roots run deep and grow quick. No one even has to do anything to us for it to be planted; we just have to hear something a parent says or quips or jokes and there grows a weed of hate. “Watermelon, watermelon, Cadillac car,” “Towel-Heads,” and worse, laughed at and said in passing peppered my childhood. As if “they” are nothing like “us.” It didn’t matter what was taught in school or that a few “others” sat with me in classes or performed next to me on football fields. They were different; they weren’t like the others.
Today I work at a college that recruits students from all over the world. The population in my building on any given day is Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Latin American, American, and European. I work with and walk by people whose first language is not English and yet speak it, fluently, more fluently than some native speakers. I work with and walk by people of different skin tones and facial structures, different accents and clothing preferences.
Killing the racism in my brain requires slow chemo treatments or targeted radiation to sniff out the stereotype, the default trigger that says they’re different. For me it’s almost innocent—almost—the broken record of “He’s BLACK, she’s INDIAN, they’re ASIAN” almost funny. Almost. When it begins to sprout its leaves in my mind I have to intentionally grab it by the stem and yank. No. Stop. Wrong.
I’d like to say the dormant racism in my mind is harmless, but like the cancer that slides through blood vessels undetected and lodges in the lymph nodes microscopic and silent, left untended it grows into death. “It’s just a joke!” we might claim. But darkness has its way of spreading, lodging, and distorting the rational mind and changing the healthy, love-centered cells into land mines of fear, hatred, dis-ease.
It would be easier to stay in my Eastern European communities, to take a job where all my colleagues look and act like me, believe like me. It would be easier to let myself continue to think “they” are not like “us,” to breed a quiet skepticism about the goodness and beauty of another type of human, to let the news and talking heads around me dictate whom I should love, whom I should count as worthy of grace, worthy of mercy, worthy of protection, worthy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In that safe zone, “they” don’t matter.
That’s not what Jesus did. Jesus went out of his way, out of his community, out of his family roots and talked to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus broke down barriers and defied the social constructs. Jesus said to be in the world, not of it. To be of the world is to remain tucked in our corners, isolated, convinced we are safe and rattling with fear that the other might enter our world. To be in the world is to lift our eyes from our greedy selves and see the others around us. To be with them. To be love and community. To see the abundance of color, the variety, the complexity of this beautiful body of people.
In our time of violence and racism, bigotry and talking heads telling me how I ought to feel about all the others, I pause. What is there to fear? Jesus reached down to the man who tried to follow him out onto the water and asked him, “You of little faith; why are you so afraid?” Jesus is not asking me to walk on water. Jesus asks me to follow him into his love and to cast that love out into the world. To all. Without fear. I, child of God, have nothing to fear. Operate as one cloaked in love and grace and spread it wide.