I never saw an African American person in the flesh until I was a teenager. I was a camp counselor and one of my charges was a little black girl. I found myself torn between trying not to be prejudicial one way or the other. But I didn’t know how to feel, how to be. Up to that point, I had only seen African Americans on television or saw them in pictures in a more patronizing way as poor and distant objects of missionary efforts.
It wasn’t that our farming community was racially segregated. It was just the way of things. There were Dutch, German, and smatterings of a few other European nationalities, but mostly Irish and English. I had things in my life that held absolutely no racial meaning for me, but now I wince to think of them. And my children tell all their friends (loving to make me squirm) that their mom called filbert nuts nigger toes and played a dodge ball kind of game, yelling, “Hit the nigger, get a cigar!” I didn’t even know what “nigger” referred to. It was only a child’s game, like hopscotch or French and English. In my last year of high school, a husband and wife teacher team were hired at my school. I never had either of them for a class, but I would see them in the halls. I wanted to feel neutral and accepting, but I didn’t know how to feel.
When I went to college in the States, there were many more black students, and I started acclimating more to racially mixed environments; but when a black student asked me out, I was thrown into conflict again. What did I really think and feel. I struggled with being patronizing in an attempt to prove I wasn’t prejudiced. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to say, “No, I don’t want to go out with you because I don’t like your personality, and you act like a jerk!” With my history and exposure, I did not have a chip in my brain that made sense of the racial tension and prejudice in the world.
As one author that I read wrote, pertaining to the intensity some groups feel toward hate speech, they “just don’t get it.” I didn’t get it for a long time because of ignorance and lack of exposure; the idea of hate speech was not even on my radar. My closest idea of hate speech was probably when a classmate in elementary school stole my paper hat that named the local Conservative running for office. His name was Mahoney. My mate (I’m not naming you Eric!), running through the school yard with my hat, yelling, “Mahoney Baloney, Mahoney Baloney!” put me in tears. I think the tendency today is similar to that experience. It was a long time ago. The country was young. Let’s just all get over it and move on. Why be so sensitive?
The legacy of slavery in the formation of this country and in her successful economy, the betrayal and decimation of the Amerindian population, the theft of much of the Southwest from Mexico in the name of Manifest Destiny is not something to get over as easily as a child’s name-calling and teasing. Some call the founding of this nation Christian, but when exactly did all the founders think and act explicitly as Christ-followers? Was this before or after slavery? There is much to appreciate in their legacy, but also much to question. I would opt for truth in all things; and I would hope my label Christian would really mean following in the steps of my Lord.
Though the descendents of the perpetrators cannot be held responsible for crimes and injustices they did not commit, we can all seek to have a better understanding of the violation of personhood these crimes have inflicted. Public national apologies become more political rhetoric than anything, but if individuals seek to walk in humility, casting aside the arrogance that the past is now meaningless, and if we truly seek to speak of others in the same respectful way that we would like to be spoken of, we will have moved a long way toward racial reconciliation.