on seeing your neighbor

[A personal reflection on racial consciousness]

In my first grade Sunday school class we were all white except for one Black girl. I first awakened to the construct of race when I made made a comment about her appearance to one of my parents. I can’t remember what I said—it was probably something about the color of her skin or her hair—but I remember feeling gently reprimanded for my comment.  

My little brain interpreted—it’s wrong to notice if a person’s skin color is different from mine. So that’s how I navigated my life growing up—I didn’t talk about race. I tried not to see it. To be honest, it wasn’t very difficult to live color-blind because my community was overwhelmingly white. We didn’t talk about the Black community because we didn’t see or hear from the Black community very often. It was easy to assume that we all shared the same resources and opportunities.

In high school, my mom enrolled me in a debate club where I decided to write a speech about “entitlement mentality.” Looking back, I don’t know why I chose this topic. Maybe I’d heard about it on the political talk shows that provided a regular background track to our daily car rides?

In my speech, I talked about the pioneers and their work ethic. I illustrated my message with a story about the Ingalls family from Little House on the Prairie—one of my favorite books at the time. Later in the speech, I talked about the negative way that the welfare system had impacted my own extended family. My speech was built on the belief that success is directly tied to work ethic. Conversely, I assumed that if a person did not succeed, it was because they didn’t work hard.

Each time I delivered the speech, I looked for a kind face among the judges. I always let my attention rest on the kindest face in the room—this practice helped me to stay calm despite my fears about public speaking. During one of my competitions there were three judges—two white and one Black. The Black man had a kind face and my attention rested on him as I delivered. Afterwards, my coach corrected me—“Why did you look at him for so long, Angela? He will think you were speaking at him because he’s Black.”

I felt terrible but I was also confused—why would he assume that I was thinking something bad about him? Is that normal?—I wondered.

Apart from the handful of incidents like the one I’ve just described, I didn’t have to think much about race until college. My sophomore year, I attended a summer leadership retreat. One of the assigned readings for the retreat was on white privilege. The reading included a list of privileges I enjoyed. But I was confused again—it seemed like the article implied that these privileges were bad. I believed they were good things that everyone should have the right to enjoy. I didn’t understand the point of the article.

Around the same time, I was dating a young man I loved very much. One afternoon, we were sitting on the couch in my family’s apartment. We had been together for a few months and my boyfriend asked me, “So, what do you think about the fact that I’m not white?”

I was quiet. “I don’t really know. I haven’t thought about it at all,” I told him. I wasn’t lying. I had gotten so good at the whole color-blindness thing that I hadn’t consciously thought about his race in connection with our relationship. 

“What do you mean?” He seemed confused.

“Am I supposed to be thinking about it?” I asked—also confused.

“Well, it’s kind of important to me. It’s a part of who I am…” he explained.

I’m sad to admit that in that moment, I wasn’t fully tracking with him. But over time I begin to realize what he tried so patiently to tell me: You can only love people if you see them. To see a person—a whole person—you must be willing to consider the ways that race and ethnicity have shaped and influenced them.

I am a slow learner and I didn’t really get it in college. I’m not sure exactly when it clicked for me. Maybe it was while I was living overseas, maybe it happened as I grew in my understanding of trauma, maybe it was a result of conversations I had with friends or because of the books that I read—it’s probably a combination of all of those things—but I know that over time, my perspective has changed a lot.

If I could go back and have a conversation with younger me, I’d like to tell her that it’s ok to notice race. Seeing is a prerequisite to loving. The Good Samaritan walked in the world with a compassionate gaze. He saw his neighbor with an open heart. He saw his neighbor’s wounds and actively responded with the type of care that would cost him something. Jesus tells us, “Go and do likewise.”

I might read little Angela one of my favorite passages from Thomas Merton. The quotation below is slightly edited to include gender-inclusive language 🙂

‘God’s will’ is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. […] The plainest summary of all the natural law is: to treat people as if they were people […] I must have at least enough compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer. And if for some reason I do not spontaneously feel this kind of sympathy for others, then it is God’s will that I do what I can to learn how. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when those who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice. 

Race, culture, ethnicity—these are all powerful, often interconnected, factors that shape us as individuals. We carry the beauty of these gifts, but also the traumas and losses. When you love your neighbor, you have to be willing to enter into all of it with them. You have to be willing to listen, to celebrate, and to grieve—to tend the wounds, to bear the burdens of the other.

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