I didn’t experience race tensions growing up. The rural community I grew up in was almost exclusively white. During my childhood, I remember getting to know only one black woman and her daughter who visited our community from the city. And one fiery black preacher, Ludlow Walker, who packed out our little country church.
I brushed overt racism here and there, often without realizing it. A childhood nursery rhyme in an old reader: “Catch a n—– by the toe.” An author I loved — Gene Stratton Porter of the 1930s — who talked in a derogatory way about the Japanese.
I didn’t think of that little black man running across the page or those deceptive Orientals as real people. They were just stories from a different era, a different world than my own.
Soon after 9/11, I remember going on a train ride after hot summer sun had tanned my dad nut brown. He got that way every summer from working his fields, and I loved how handsome he looked with his black hair and dark skin. But on this particular trip, the security officer paid extra attention to him, checked him twice over. “They thought I was Arab,” Dad said later.
In my adult years, I’ve brushed racism occasionally: in the comments people make, the jokes they tell. Almost always it’s been a product of ignorance or thoughtlessness. Not malice. Not that that makes it OK, but there is a difference between that and intent to harm, which I have also glimpsed.
There is a difference also when you are with the people on the receiving end of racist actions, like when I sat in a van with Native Canadian friends and heard how a police officer had given Robert a hard time for no apparent reason.
“I guess he was racist,” they said gently, offhandedly, in the tone of people who have experienced this before and don’t find it surprising. That felt very different — more unjust — than reading about racial profiling in the news. In the news, one can always think of “reasons” that make “sense,” that don’t have anything to do with the color of someone’s skin or the shape of their eyes.
I was walking the streets of Pittsburgh with Malaysian American friends a few years ago, trailing behind with the woman of the family while her husband and two sons walked ahead. We passed a few people on the sidewalk, and the youngest son came hurrying back to walk with his mom. “I don’t like that man,” he said.
“He pointed at Dad and said ‘f— you.’ ”
The utter injustice of that incident angered me in a way I have seldom experienced. We were minding our own business, enjoying the day, hurting no one. The only possible explanation for a complete stranger’s ire was the color of my friends’ skin. And that is an unfairness that can’t be expressed. It’s not reasonable. It’s not just.
I feel I have little wisdom to offer on racism: It is too large a subject, and I have too little experience. Will more education or new laws make a difference? Or are racist systems too deeply entrenched? Will racism pop out somewhere else under a different guise, like a pimple that moves from your cheek to your forehead?
I believe that while change is never easy, it is always possible. Martin Luther King Jr. gave what was, in my opinion, the greatest speech ever spoken by an American. “I have a dream,” he said. We can, and should, still dream, and we should never stop working to make that dream happen.
We should also heed the further wisdom King shared. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. . . . We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. . . . Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Lucinda J. Kinsinger, of Oakland, Md., is the author of Anything But Simple: My Life as a Mennonite and blogs at lucindajkinsinger.com.