I had the privilege today of taking my daughter to her State Honors Chorus event. As the group from our school gathered to wait for the event to begin, I noticed that I was the only white person at the table. I would say that we were the only white family, but my daughter is Asian. As a Chinese person, she is almost always the only Asian around whatever table she is sitting at, so she is used to being a minority.
She comments sometimes about how it makes her feel weird or different. She definitely is aware of her skin color and cultural heritage and how it does and does not fit in with others around her. When she makes these comments we never tell her, “Oh, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.” or “We love you and love makes us all the same.” Because frankly, it is just not true.
In the end she is different and it does matter. It does make a difference.
I know this because of the day that I was a minority for the first time.
As I mentioned in my last post, I had the opportunity to take a three week trip to Ghana, Africa while I was in seminary decades ago. While on the trip, I would stay with host families for a few days at the time learning about their church and life. While with my host family, I was the only white person in the house. Most of the time, I was the only white person in the city. Sometimes I was the only white person for miles and miles.
Let me just tell you something, when you are the only person of your race and culture for as far as the eye can see, you know it. You stand out. Big time. Most of the time I felt like I was so very white I was glowing.
Even though my host family was kind and everyone was very welcoming to me, I still felt odd and left out most of the time. In the whole “which one of these things is not like the other, which one of these things don’t belong” realm of things, I knew the answer was ME.
Sometimes this difference made me feel afraid. But mostly it just made me feel strange and lonely.
Even when I could understand the language everyone around me was speaking, I didn’t always understand what they were saying. There was so much about our cultures that did not necessarily translate.
Like during church when we were supposed to be dancing our offerings up to the altar and the ladies behind me kept encouraging me to “Moooove your hips, love. MOVE them. Like thees!” No matter how they shook their hips from side to side in example or tried to help me shake mine, my hips just didn’t seem to be made for shaking in the same way. I felt embarrassed by my lame white girl dance skills. In that moment, I didn’t fit in, didn’t belong.
Now it would be wrong to suggest that there were no common bonds between me and my African friends or ways in which we spoke exactly the same. During that same service when they prayed the Lord’s prayer in their native language and I prayed it in mine, I felt total communion with these folks born across the world and in a different culture from me. No matter how white my skin was or how odd my accent, our prayer, our God, our faith was the same.
As was our love of family and fun and community and a hundred other things.
But at the end of it all, I will never forget how odd it felt to be the one was was different. Who looked different, spoke different, didn’t get the jokes.
Because I know that even though differences aren’t always bad, they are always REAL.
I have so much respect for those who bravely live their lives as a minority. For those who live in a culture that is not native to them. (And let me just tell you friends, as a whole the USA is a white dominated culture and all our non-white friends to some degree have to translate each day).
I think of the church where I grew up and the one African American woman who sang in the choir and wonder if she ever felt lonely singing all those old English hymns.
I think of the first black families that moved into my all white childhood neighborhood and wonder how much courage and extra energy it took to make neighborly small talk with the white families that surrounded them.
And I think of my daughter and how she bravely faces each day in a family where the rest of the faces look the same in a way that hers does not. And how she constantly adapts to a culture that was not originally her own.
So when you are in a situation where someone is in the minority, please make every effort to be kind to them. And even when you are kind, understand that a part of them might still feel a little different, a little left out.
And take some time to ask and listen for what things are like for them in their native culture. You might learn some pretty cool things. Like how to shake your hips in joy and thanksgiving on a Sunday morning.
This is the first in a two part post on what it is like to be a minority. The second will focus on how that status can help build bridges and work for all our good. These post are all in a larger series on race.
If you would like to join the conversation, PLEASE chime in with your (respectful) comments below. I feel a little ridiculous writing about race relations as a white woman, but feel our country needs to learn how to talk about race somehow so we can get past our barriers and learn to live in harmony and justice. These posts are my effort to help break the ice.