Accidental Enemies:  Encountering Otherness

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“NO!  TAP. WATER.”  I was practically yelling.  And my hand gestures were getting...let’s say quite “out of hand.”  But the man behind the counter kept offering me a bottle of water which I knew was not free.  I was in the Mall of Georgia food court, and I love Chinese food. Especially cheap Chinese food.  But I didn’t want to pay for a drink. And the miscommunication was starting to get to me. (Why is it that we talk louder and slower when we think someone doesn’t understand us?)  I assumed the language barrier was insurmountable, and I was on the verge of walking away when the Asian man behind the counter smiled, picked up a pre-made tap water, and said to me in perfect English:  “Here you go, man!”

In Luke 6:2728, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (NIV).  But what happens if we’re the ones who inadvertently mistreat a fellow child of God, accidentally treating them like an enemy?  We need to be honest with ourselves and be careful how we treat others, especially if there’s a cultural or racial difference involved.  We make so many assumptions in this world. The problem is that we don’t realize we’re doing it. I assumed the food court worker didn’t speak English well because of the way he looked, and this must have become so normal for him (white people assuming things about him) that he made a game out of it.  What I did and thought on that day was something born out of unintentional, unconscious racism, a problem I didn’t know I had. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never hated anyone or actively sought to cause them harm because of the color of their skin. But I’ve come to learn that there’s a subtle form of obliviousness when it comes to race that can affect you unawares.  I’m not saying that everyone is racist, but I am saying that race shapes how we think whether we’re aware of it or not.

It’s hard to change your mind when you’re not even aware what you’re thinking.  You see, if you’re part of the dominant/majority race or culture, you can’t see it because you don’t have to.  It’s become so normal that it’s invisible to you. Like going nose-blind to smells in your house or a fish unaware that he’s swimming in water (unless you take him out!).  If you’re like me and white in America, you’ve been swimming in whiteness without even realizing it.

It’s not a liberal or conservative issue.  It’s a human issue. We build up an idea of what “normal” means, and anything that we encounter outside of that narrow bubble, we subconsciously label it as “a bit odd,” “different,” or “other.”  And if you’re not careful, you can unconsciously treat “otherness” as inferior and second-class. It’s easy to see racism that wears a mask or carries a flag at a rally. It’s harder to see unintentional racism that causes you to accidentally mistreat others, to speak condescendingly, to be surprised when people who look differently than you have something in common with you.  I couldn’t see it in my own life until I read an article called “Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism.”   The more I looked into it, the more I read by this same author, the more I realized how she was describing me:  “‘How has your life been shaped by your race?’ This is rarely a difficult question for people of color, but most white participants are unable to answer” (DiAngelo).  I never realized that my race was affecting how I saw and treated others.  Now that I’m aware, I keep coming back to the words of Jesus: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31, NIV).  I don’t want people to make assumptions about me based on the way I look.  I don’t want to be judged based on stereotypes. I don’t want to be treated as “other.”  There’s no room for that in the Kingdom of God.

Lord, may we learn to see others as you see usas your children.

~Justin