This week, as always, I am grateful for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the work he did on behalf of humanity. It’s sad that many of his ideals are still dreams and not reality. Yet without dreams we go nowhere. And it’s a wonderful thing about humanity, that we are idealists for the most part. We believe that things will continue to get better. And usually, it is true.
Changes come slowly, one person at a time. I wish that race was not an issue. If we go back far enough, we are all related, as Brian is fond of saying. We’re all in the Human Race, and it’s a shame that skin color can make us forget that at times.
I personally think that brown skin is infinitely more beautiful to look at, from an artist’s perspective, than beige. (Yes, I’m called “white” and some of my friends are called “black” but I am describing a color of skin here rather than grouping people into cultural groups. Nobody has skin the color of the crayons we call white or black.)
When I work with children, I sometimes describe the multiple colors of skin we have, by using food words. They like deciding if they are chocolate or caramel or vanilla or butterscotch. Some of the kids are called “mixed” which makes it even more special to find a word that fits them… because other words our society uses to describe them do not typically fit. Calling us a family of many flavors makes all skin colors sound equally wonderful. How lovely can that be?
This idea is a little idealistic, again, perhaps. But kids need a safe place where they can feel good, even knowing that the safe place is a bit artificial. They tend to appreciate and even protect that safe place from folks who don’t yet know how special the space is. “My Kids” at Foster inform new kids about my rules (stay in your own space, use only positive words, no talking behind anyone’s back, ask before touching something that is not yours). They make sure my room stays a safe place. I’m proud of that.
Maybe someday we will just discuss race as if it were a visual attribute only… like describing the color of a dress, with no emotional baggage attached. Maybe someday children will have equal experiences growing up no matter what they look like.
I’ve been a minority person several times in my life (I worked as the only full-time “white” staff person at a community center for four years, and I just finished a five week trip to Africa where I was the sole white person in many of the places I visited). However, I had the fortune to grow up as a child/young person looking “right” to the society in which I lived.
I did not have to go home crying to my mother asking why someone did not like me because of how I looked. My mother did not have to do that extra work of letting me know I was wonderful just the way I was, even if someone did not like my skin. I did not lose friends because their parents did not want me to play with them. I grew up in a community where I looked pretty much like everyone else. There were merely 5 black kids and a handful of asian kids, and two middle-eastern kids that I knew… That was in 1970, out of about 800 children. Even with those statistics, four years later our homecoming king was a black football player (he truly was a great kid, he deserved that honor). That school is significantly more integrated today.
I’m lucky that my father worked with people from all over the world. My father was a professor of Communications at Michigan State University, when that field was brand new and there were very few places one could study for a PhD. So he had students from Spain, Israel, Sweden, Nigeria, Australia, Mexico, Costa Rica… to name those that I remember off the top of my head. All who really wanted to be here, studying far from home. All had nowhere special to go for holiday meals.
So these students of my Father’s often joined us at our dining room table for Thanksgiving or Christmas, or any other holiday that came about, and we got to know them all. Holiday dinner at our house became an education. I learned that even though the other kids at school mostly looked like me, there were people who looked different from me and from each other, who grew up differently, spoke a different language, ate different food, and had different customs and things they were proud of. And whose parents loved them just as much as mine loved me. They were more like me than not, no matter how they looked or dressed or what they ate.
I also remember these students telling stories about what it was like to be a child affected by war or injustice. One man was born in Spain during Franco’s reign, and his cultural group was not allowed to speak their native language, under penalty of law. They had to flee Spain for Mexico so that they would be safe to raise the family without fear of death or imprisonment.
Another student remembered that when he was young (in Sweden?) there were prisoner camps near his home, and the adults would boil potatoes and put them in the children’s pockets. The children would go out on their cross-country skis and go to the fences of the camps, and push the potatoes through the grating of the fence so that people inside would have some food to eat.
And my father’s best friend, a colleague in that department, was of Japanese descent. He and his family were locked up by our own government when we were at war with Japan. If I remember the story properly, he met his wife in that camp, when they were quite young. The stories of these camps are not told very often, but it is true that even on our own soil we have been unjust to our own citizens. It is awful to see what has happened when we have allowed our fears and prejudices control over our actions.
These were stories that most other children from Okemos just did not hear. I’m haunted by these stories, but I’m very grateful they were part of my growing up. I had a better sense of the world than most children in my circle of friends.
I’m aware that I was lucky to first withstand the challenges of being a minority person (at work only, not in my community) when I was grown and able to make sense of why those difficulties were happening to me. I’m even more lucky that war has never been in an area where I live… I have never had to worry about my personal safety in such a big way.
I don’t usually discuss difficult subjects here on my blog. However, I just spent over a month seeing a part of the world I had never seen. Truly, people treated me so well that much of the time I forgot that I was a minority person there. Yet it’s hard to talk about a trip of this sort without talking race at one time or another. And unfortunately, it’s an issue anywhere in the world.
It is a sad thing to note that injustice still is a part of life, both at home and away. I’m glad for a day to celebrate the ideals of a man who did make some change. And I’m glad to be an idealist who believes more change can still be part of our present and our future.
It is scary to discuss this subject here, especially since I usually keep this column upbeat and focused on the positive things. However, I once heard Maya Angelou and Harry Belafonte in a great discussion forum, and they both challenged the audience to talk about it.
Talk. Race is an issue, and it’s sad that it is. But how can we get over our issues without working through them? You might ask – how dare I, a white person, talk about this? From the outside looking in? I know I am taking a chance at sounding condescending just by looking the way I look and talking about this as if I know anything about prejudice.
I, afraid as I am about conflict, am taking the challenge I was given by Ms. Angelou and Mr. Belafonte. I care about this subject. I am so grateful I live in a place and time when/where I can have friends who look different than me, who are not from the same cultural group as me. Some of my friends look very different from me. In some countries you might barely talk to people who are not of your group. I’m very lucky in that way. Human Race works as a lifestyle in my personal world.
In my city, neighborhoods are mixed without comment. There is not a central road where you live on one side if you have dark skin and the other side if you are “white.” Some areas here are more mixed than others, but it is the norm to have cultural variety in a neighborhood in Lansing. I’m very proud of my city for that.
I’m happy to be an idealist in a good time and place for idealists. It’s sometimes harder to stay positive than others, but I am grateful for those who did the hard work before me. And I’m glad others have made their ideals a lifetime passion, rather than one column a year on a weblog.
Thank you, Dr. King.