The gift race might have to give

Kids can find ways to play together whatever their differences in background.

Kids can find ways to play together whatever their differences in background.

As I live in South Africa, perhaps the most race-aware country in the world, hearing bits of Ferguson-talk from a distance, I can’t help hoping that perhaps, on the bright side of all this, race is actually a gift if we learn read its lesson.

The whole idea of “race” is an invention, one of the arbitrary lines we draw between our own “dear in-group” and all the other “suspect out-groups.” (Think for example, why is someone with ten white ancestors and one black relative still black, but on the other hand a person has to prove they’ve got enough “Indian blood” to be American Indian? How arbitrary is that?)

Race is far from the only arbitrary line we draw. It is, though, one of the most pervasive, most loaded, and most outwardly visible. That has made it one of the most damaging across the course of history, but perhaps also the one with the most potential to wake us up.

Wake up and see people.

Yesterday I went on a grueling 16 km hike with two other families. We slept in a cave, then left our non-essentials in the cave while we climbed to a mountain peak at the border of Lesotho, carrying with us all our valuables.

As we scrambled on hands and knees to the top of a narrow valley, we looked up to the cliffs to see men from Lesotho peering down at us. They wore the characteristic blankets and head coverings of their country and shouted across the cliffs to each other in Sesotho, a language unlike any I speak. Two men ran down the steep narrow paths toward us, machetes in hand, at triple the speed we were crawling along with eight children in tow.

Suddenly I saw myself in a scene like too many pages in history books. In that scene arrows or bullets would be raining down on the travelers/invaders who were trapped with no way out. The woman behind me quietly informed me she’d had friends robbed on a hike in just such a situation.

That woman’s husband, though, had spent years living in Lesotho as a child. At one he time held four different passports. As we walked, he began explaining bits about Sotho culture for our children. The men with machetes passed and quietly bent to gather bundles of grass to repair roofs. Soon this man and my husband were chatting with a couple of the men in blankets, passing around gummy candies from our stash of snacks.

Ten hours of hiking later, we stumbled back to our cars, drenched with rain and famished. This same intercultural guru struck up a conversation with a Zulu family at their campsite and came back with a plate full of steaming hot barbecued steak, sausage, and wildebeest.

Most people would have walked on past a group of non-English speakers of a different race having their own private party. This guy stopped and saw them as fellow-humans. The rewards went beyond our plate full of delicious calories.

Something we all need

For a lot of people these days, words like “prejudice” and “racism” have lost all useful significance except as “the naughty things we must never do.” It’s hard to come up with any solutions to racism when we’re numb to talking about it.

The need that none of us are numb to, though, is taking time just to see and be seen as human beings. That’s something every one of us craves.

When I ask people what they want to see change in their life time in South Africa, they talk about trust. They use phrases like “see each other.” “Communicate with each other.” “Feel for each other.” “Hear my story.” “Help each other.” They’re not talking just about race. They talk about the deep chasms dividing bosses and employees, one employee and another, neighbor and neighbor, parent and child, government and private sector, teacher and student, pastor and congregation, factory worker and customer, even mother and father of the same child.

We all suffer from the arbitrary line-drawing.

To draw lines is a normal process of learning—we need to organize information and see patterns to make sense of the chaos. But sometimes the patterns we draw make human cages. We use those lines as boundaries for our vision—we decide to understand or care just up to that line and no further. I have heard non-Zulu people here tell me flat out, “It’s a Zulu thing. You can never understand it.”

If we can see how wrong it is to choke a person who’s black but not white, maybe we can also see how wrong it is to let a person work 10-hours for two dollars a day because he’s born in China not America, or assume someone’s full of hate just because he’s part of this or that religious group, or make snide remarks about the overweight coworker with her own sense of fashion.

When have you given up hope of ever understanding another person? Where have you drawn an arbitrary line between yourself and someone else, making them an outsider, a threat, or a person unworthy of concern? What does it look like to see the human beyond that line, and then to wipe that line away?

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