I remember it like it was yesterday. Praying so hard as a child of eight or nine years that God would make me black. That my skin could transform from boring white to deep, rich ebony. I found nothing lovelier, nor rarer, in my hometown of Great Falls, Montana in the 1980’s. Opening my squeezed-shut eyes, I looked down at my pale arms and sighed.
There was an African American man who volunteered in an after-school program I attended and he was funny and beautiful and I couldn’t help but stare at him in awe. I relished his smiles; his teeth looked so bright white against his dark skin and I felt honored to know him.
Then there was the day when I said the awful thing. He loved laughing and carrying on with us, so I was delighted when one day I thought of a joke that might make him laugh his big laugh. “Hey, do you know why your face is dark?” I asked with a broad smile and a whole lot of foolishness. “Why?”, he asked with some sort of apprehension settling around his mouth. “Because you forgot to wash your face!”, I exclaimed, breathless, waiting for the big guffaw, the high-five at my inventive joke. His eyes dropped to his lap and he turned away from me.
I knew somehow I’d just blown it, somehow I’d hurt him deep, but I didn’t know why or how. I didn’t know people were treated differently or were oppressed or harassed because of their skin color…how would I know, matching nearly everyone I met in rural Montana? I didn’t know the wounds that thoughtless words could lay bare on a bus ride all of a sudden.
He never spoke with me after that, not if he could help it. I wished that I could go back and not try so hard and not hurt him. I wished he knew that I admired him and thought him beautiful and fun and the best sort of grown-up. I wished he would tell me why my words hurt so that I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice; I wished he’d forgive me and smile again.
The years went by and I learned about slavery and the horrors of racism. It all gave me a nauseous twist in my gut. I couldn’t (and can’t) imagine how it would feel to be discriminated, profiled, and treated as less-than because of the amount of melanin in my skin.
As a foreign missions worker in Chile for six years, I can sympathize with being treated differently because of my skin, my eyes, my hair. I was charged more for fruits, veggies, and fish no matter how fluent I could speak or how attuned I was to the going rates. I was treated at times as a resource rather than a person, a means rather than a soul, to whatever end the other person desired (money, influence). I was sexually objectified and became nothing more than legs, light skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair to cat-calling men. My children were stared at; we all were stared at. Sometimes their hair was touched with wonder. But I certainly wasn’t treated cruelly, sometimes the opposite, I was embarrassingly treated as more important than my Chilean girlfriends standing next to me. It all felt so silly to me. The real differences weren’t on the epidermis but in our cultural understandings, our world views, and those differences were indeed complicated. But skin? Skin seemed simple. Why couldn’t people see past the skin and get to know the heart, the soul?
My son in first grade came home and told me that a boy had excluded a girl at recess from playing ball with him, making fun of her for being the “only one with dark skin”. I felt fire rage up my throat and swallowed hard. Kids can be thoughtlessly, or purposefully, cruel, and it can be hard to know where those words were coming from, but my son sure got an ear-full about defending people who are being picked on. That he needs to tell that boy not to say such mean things (I think I even said I wouldn’t have been mad if he had hit the boy in the nose for saying such a thing!), and to tell the girl that she can play with him anytime. The next day he went to school on a mission. He told the boy how wrong his words were; he extended friendship to the girl. I can only pray that she heals from and gets past the words she heard one recess. I can only pray that the wounds don’t fester and that those who are wounding others would have eyes opened and hearts changed.
That the walls between would crumble and that we’d see each other as God sees us, flawed, loved, beautiful.