We went to see “Hidden Figures” last night. Aside from it being a really, really good movie, it underscored something that’s been on my mind a lot the last couple of years. There’s an exchange between Vivian Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst, and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer. Mitchell says something like, “Despite what you may think, I don’t have anything against you people.” (Wince-worthy words.) And Dorothy replies, “I know you believe that.”
I grew up being told repeatedly and vehemently that God created all people equal—that race doesn’t matter. But we had hardly any ethnic diversity in my rural Catholic school, and I lived 4 miles outside of town, 1/4 mile from my nearest neighbor. When an analytical child is told things in the abstract but never given an opportunity to put them into practice, what actually happens is she develops a complex about them.
I’ve been wrestling with this my whole life, but in the past couple of years—probably because the national conversation about race hit so close to home—I’ve been finding myself awakened in appreciation for not just black culture but all cultures—and simultaneously challenged to confront the reality that I am not color blind. And oh, how I wish I were.
I want so badly to break down the walls that I know exist in my world. I love the fact that Julianna’s classroom is at least half minority. I love that. I love the fact that even our Catholic school is not as whitewashed as what I grew up with. I love that we have priests coming in every year from all over the world to study at the university—and occasionally sticking around. We’ve had a couple of these wonderful men over for dinner, and although I’m sure most of what they shared went in my kids’ right ears and out the left, I’m hoping the exposure will sensitize them, make them more interested in learning about cultures other than their own, once they get old enough to be interested in things beyond superheroes and video games.
And yet I see gaps between races in my little world, and all too often, I’m terrified of stepping across them. I’m afraid that making a concerted effort is just a subtler form of racism. I want to get to know people for who they are–beautiful human beings—independent of skin color.
I’ve debated writing this post for so long. I’ve always told myself no, out of fear of offending people I respect and care about. Then, too, I think a lot of us—white, privileged, and barely aware of the way our race and privilege have shaped our vision of the world—spend a lot of time in fear of being seen as racist. Enough to paralyze any real effort to change.
I want to be color blind, and yet it seems to me that if I really were, I’d miss out on so much richness. Why shouldn’t we acknowledge how cool other cultures are? I’m not just talking about international cultures. I’m talking about people born and raised for generations right here in the U.S. If my husband and I can see clear cultural traits that distinguish his upstate Italian-American heritage from my Midwestern German one, how much other richness are we erasing by lumping minority cultures together—as if there’s only one “African American” culture, or one “Latino” or “Asian American” culture? I’m so curious about them all. Why was social studies so paralyzingly boring in school, when there’s clearly such a fascinating world waiting to be appreciated and enjoyed within it?
My whole life, we’ve been trying to eradicate racism by trying to convince ourselves that people are all the same. But what if we’re going about it backwards?
Maybe I don’t want to be color blind, after all. Maybe what I’m looking for can only be achieved by embracing color and culture, and honoring it as worthy and beautiful. Maybe the key to eradicating racism isn’t pretending we’re all the same, but celebrating the things that make us unique.
Brava. (A little Italian for you 😉
A great book to read is called “Waking up White” by Debbie Irving. It really helped frame things for me, and showed me where I need to grow. SO MANY EYE-OPENERS in there!
One of the things I have learned is that we help our kids by having them see us interacting with people of different races, such as having guests over for dinner! Even though it might be uncomfortable at first, we must lead by example.
I agree, but I think we also have to be careful that we don’t get too impressed with ourselves…I live in a very whitewashed world, and despite the precious exceptions, those exceptions prove that rule. I’m really puzzling over how to make my life less whitewashed, until it no longer seems noteworthy. If that makes sense.
viva le difference! Growing up in New York/Brooklyn/Queens/Long Island, I agree, Kate. We need to cherish as well learn our diversity in action. Part of what’s needed, I think, is to continue to pass on to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren our languages, customs, recipes and to learn about our neighbors’ languages, customs, recipes, etc. While most people I know feel God’s presence in a church or cathedral or synagogue or mosque, and appreciate the quiet and silence of the mystics as primary for spiritual insights, I’ve always felt God’s presence most keenly on the sidewalks of New York City with her variety of sights, sounds, languages, food scents and gestures. I am so very grateful for my upbringing and for being born into one of the holiest of places on earth.
That’s really interesting, Mary Ann. I definitely feel overwhelmed rather than in the presence of God on city streets–but your comment made me think of Mother Teresa only feeling the presence of God when she was working with the poor.