I shudder when I see the masses walking through the streets, hands fisted and arms raised in a gesture of anger. As a child of God, I ask, “What is my responsibility here? How do I respond with love and caring to protests I can barely comprehend?”
I’d been brought up to believe I was no better than anyone else. I attended an all-white school, lived in the comfort and safety of an all-white suburb. While I held ideals of racial equality, they were never tested.
I warp back to those turbulent days preceding and following the Civil Rights Act, the continuing turmoil as communities fought decades of assumptions. After graduating from high school in 1965, I worked at Syracuse University. I took the bus from my all-white Mattydale neighborhood to James Street, walking six blocks through black neighborhoods to the computer center.
Until the riots, I’d had no fear of walking these streets. Now I passed out-of-work black men who whistled at me or called me names as I passed by their tenements. I didn’t know what I could have done to warrant this kind of disrespect. Why was I hated? I had done nothing to these people.
Since I had no other means to get to my job, I prayed for safety. Within a few months, the riots quieted, and calm resumed. The weather turned colder and the men no longer sat on the sidewalks. I soon left my job to attend a Christian college in the Southern Tier, primarily white, and my ignorance returned.
As a single mom, I lived in a predominantly black apartment complex. My son was best friends with the kid next door. I shared tea with my neighbors. When one of them was expecting a baby, I decided to throw a shower and invited many of the tenants. I ordered a cake, worked hard with the decorations, and looked forward to an evening of fun. No one came but the guest of honor. I was stunned and hurt.
My neighbor explained. “Yeah, we talk outside our stoops. But when a white woman wants to give a black woman a shower, we are not equals. My friends think you’re doing this as way to be superior. Years of whites hating blacks have put us on the defensive. We find it difficult to trust a white person’s motives, even those that may seem kind.”
I could not fathom why my friendship was mistrusted or why my actions were perceived as racism. After a while, my kids were threatened. Once more I felt afraid in territory where I hadn’t felt afraid before. I prayed daily for safety. Soon, I moved from the apartment complex back into a predominantly white area, and my ignorance returned.
Yes, I know now –– though I had never thought of myself as prejudiced –– I am still ignorant. Ignorant of the social separation that exists between cultures, not fully understanding of the centuries of distrust –– of whites against minorities and minorities against whites. Now my prayer is no longer to “keep me safe.” I now pray for understanding of the disconnect that exists.
I do not have a ready answer as to how to breakdown these barriers to equality and understanding. I do believe love conquers a multitude of sins. Love is difficult when unappreciated or mistrusted. If my action is maligned, help me not to retreat into ignorance once again. Through the distrust, let brotherly love continue. I will pray for that day when all people will worship in Spirit and in Truth as one.