“How often do you wash your hair?” That was the first question I was ever asked from a white person about my heritage. I was about 11 years old and had gone away to Camp Kinawind in northern Michigan. As a city girl, born and raised in Detroit, it was my first time being around people who didn’t look like me. And based on the question I was asked, I wasn’t the only one. I was with a group of girls from my cabin, hiking in the woods. I guess curiosity got the best of them. After I answered the girl’s question, I was then told that hair is the dirtiest thing on the planet. Now I don’t know where she got the anecdotal evidence to back up this statement, but at 11 years old, I just remember feeling like an oddity, unclean and foreign. It was my first moment feeling like an “other.”
“Do you tan?” I’ve been asked this question more than once by a white person. The answer: Yes. I do. Black people do tan. My friend from Argentina, with Scottish and Italian roots, had the hardest time developing a tan. But because she had light skin, she was probably not questioned about how her skin reacted to the sun. And black people can get skin cancer.
“Is this a meeting of the National Association of Black People?” This question came from a young blonde I’ll call April. It was early on in my advertising career, and I had regular contact with April. I was having a hallway conversation with my coworker friends Katherine and Mary. We all happened to be black. I admit, April was always a blunt speaker, but I appreciated a peek inside the inner thoughts of someone from a different background. You see, for people of color, a totally casual day considered a rather insignificant moment is considered an oddity for some. A few white people talking together in a group doesn’t illicit a visceral response from black people. It happens all the time, unnoticed. It’s “normal.” But place black or brown people in the same scenario in a predominantly white environment, and it’s usually noticed. In this highly polarized climate in America right know, it becomes consequently not so surprising we start hearing about a rash of 911 calls about black people just living like everyone else.
“You sure do wait a long time to bury your people!” So this was really a statement with an implied question (in my opinion). This was said by a white woman I considered my friend. I really don’t think she meant any harm in her statement. I think for her it was just so DIFFERENT it seemed “abnormal.” Black Americans usually bury their passed loved ones after about a week. For many in white Americans, it’s usually within a few days. And other cultures bury loved ones within 24-48 hours (“How Different Religions Bury Their Dead” https://bit.ly/2KcZUCp). For my people, we create an obituary that’s in booklet form, sharing pictures, messages, poems. It takes time for the family to gather old photos, time for the printer to print all the copies and money for everything. And the repast. The repast. That’s a big dinner after going to the cemetery that can go on for hours. After my grandma’s repast, we all went to her house and played the music she loved and had a soul train line. Yup. I took a nap in between all the partying. 🙂 But it was how we grieved at the time.
All Americans have varying traditions for numerous reasons. And that’s okay. Not everyone walks in the same space with the same face you look at in the mirror every day. And what seems “normal” or “abnormal” culturally to you is not the same for someone else. Either way is not inherently good or bad, just different. When you visit a foreign country, you don’t normally expect people of that country to do exactly what you do. You EXPECT it to be different. You WANT it to be different. And there’s usually a level of respect for the difference. For Americans, it still seems hard for all races to fully appreciate and learn the nuances. For blacks, we have to learn the mainstream culture because it’s how we are taught, it’s pervasive, expected of us and makes our lives easier. We are bicultural, if you will. And it’s not that we don’t enjoy mainstream culture. Just look to our sports culture and it’s pretty evident we enjoy U.S. pastimes immensely. It’s just that Americans of color are the ones moving through society knowing it’s favorable for us to move between both worlds with ease.
Many people in America are not sensitive to the fact that the default culture is not the default for everyone. Humans usually gravitate to our own experience because it’s familiar and comforting. Individually, we often take for granted that the way we do things is the way everyone does it. And it’s especially easy to do when you’re used to being the status quo of the country. The history of black Americans in this country is relegated to the shortest month of the year and is not vigorously taught in schools across the country. It’s quite strange that the enormous amount of contributions of those descendants of African slaves is whittled down to a paragraph in history books and refers to them as “indentured servants” or “immigrants.” That’s insulting to every hue in the classroom. It’s deceptive and damaging. Sanitizing the history of the country doesn’t keep racism from thriving, and it actually encourages it to grow when it’s obscured.
“Is that where you’re from?” In 1996, I went on a trip to Kentucky with my boyfriend at the time. He was Brazilian. He called himself a white Hispanic. His family originally came from Italy. Just picture a young Sean Penn and that’s pretty much his look. Emerson was fluent in Portuguese and proud of his Brazilian heritage and used to tell me I resembled the women from the region of Bahia. During our trip, we went to some mom and pop shop in a pretty rural part of Kentucky. I bounced in the store with a head full of natural curls that black women didn’t usually wear back in the 90s. The little country store was filled with knickknacks, and I saw a coin collection in one of their glass cases. Nerd Alert: I have a huge coin collection of old and foreign money. As I scanned the coins, I must have asked to see one and the older white Southern gentleman drawled, “Is that where you’re from?” I replied, “No, but my friend over there is from Brazil.” Because Emerson looked like a “normal” American man, he visited the store with no curious stares and questions about ethnic origin.
Questions are good. It starts dialogue. But I think doing a little reading, opening your mind past your own experiences and establishing a relationship with people from different backgrounds can prepare you to make more sensitive observations and judgments. Being aware of conscious bias is a deliberate act. It takes patience and practice because it’s something we are conditioned to do. Consider venturing into a new area to do shopping where there’s a diverse customer base. Visit a location that has some variety or a different culture. Start a conversation with someone at a meetup. You’d be surprised how fun it can be to just breathe in some fresh perspective. When you expose yourself to new people and places, your life becomes enriched. It may feel a little like work at first, but it can turn into a great adventure and journey that changes you for the better.
And guess what? I have an inkling that the Lord really digs diversity. After all, it is His creation: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” From animals to flowers to sea life, there seems to be no end to the variety on the planet, all playing a part in this amazing ecosystem on the earth. God actually says all humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). And Christians are part of a whole body aka the Body of Christ. So when believers in Jesus Christ ignore, avoid or negate another’s existence or community, the Lord is grieved. He is grieved not only for His creation not working as one but also because the grave disconnect keeps His purposes from being fulfilled to its fullness. If America’s churches are silos, we lack what we need from each other to be effective and reflect God’s glory to a dying world. How can we respond with empathy and action to a community in the Body that is suffering when we are isolated from them? And I’m not talking about mission trips to Honduras or Uganda. Those are wonderful ministries that we need, but so often we bypass the vineyard that is in our backyard because it’s intimidating or uncomfortable. But taking a step in faith to reach out to communities in your vicinity can be freeing and a blessing. ❤ ~~THB
“In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile,[a]circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized,[b] slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.” — Colossians 3:11 (NLT)
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by[a] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” — 1 Corinthians 12:12-21 (NIV)
2 thoughts on “The Black Experience: Living in America”
Very nice blog. I agree that we should reach across the aisle and talk to our fellow brothers and sisters no matter the color. Life is just so much better that way.
So true. My life has been so enriched by my friends of all backgrounds. It’s made me a better and more thoughtful person overall. ❤