By Kathy Berken
Let’s talk about racism. Jan. 20 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day when we honor the courage and leadership of a man who fought and died for racial equality. I distinctly remember the morning after his assassination on April 4, 1968, discussing political upheaval in a history class at Milwaukee’s Mount Mary College. The city was racially divided and continued to suffer from race-based riots that began the summer before. Plus, 1968 was a year of tremendous worldwide political, social, religious and cultural change. As a typical baby-boomer college student, I was eager for reform.
Although I volunteered at inner-city housing projects and stood alongside racially-mixed groups at demonstrations in the city for a time, I never really immersed myself in any culture other than my own. I wanted to understand, so I’d initiate conversations with people of color asking about racism. Many were surprisingly shocked at my assertiveness. A few years ago I was visiting with a pastor of a racially-mixed parish in Minneapolis who helped neighboring churches of varying faiths and ethnicities work and pray together. After some honest conversation about racism, which I initiated, he stopped suddenly and laughed. “Imagine this,” he said. “A black preacher and a white woman having a rational talk about racism!” “Really?” I said. “Nobody does this?” “Not in the civil tone we just had,” he said. “I guess I’m pretty naïve then, huh?” “No, just different. And brave.”
Sorry, I’m not brave, just inquisitive and perhaps a little fearful. I secretly wonder if my desire for such connections is a form of prejudice. I enjoy intelligent conversations, but I also fear the unknown, so perhaps my fear of people different from me motivates me to erase the anxiety. I shop in neighborhoods with a mixture of cultures and am acutely aware of skin color, clothing, accents and speech patterns. I’ll humbly admit, sometimes I get nervous when so many people who are so different from me are all in one place.
I recently experienced two incidents at Rainbow Foods involving people of color that caused me some intense feelings.
First, a tall black man approached me in the baking aisle holding a can of evaporated milk. “I’m making a sweet potato pie. Do I have to use this or can I use regular?” he asked. I must look like I know about baking, so I explained the difference and he left happy. I smiled, grateful for the mutual trust and random friendly interaction between strangers. But where’s the racism? When he walked up and started talking, I was startled by his no-boundaries approach. My gut response was fear. A million thoughts popped into my head. Was he going to pick my pocket, was he going to ask for money, what did he want? Of course, those fears subsided when I realized that he was just super friendly and wanted to know what kind of milk to use.
The second incident made me cry. After I bagged my groceries, I paused briefly by the exit to tend to my ever-drippy nose. Suddenly, a young Hispanic man appeared out of nowhere. Our eyes met and he leaned closer and asked, “You okay?” I was taken off guard. “Oh yes, I’m fine,” I muttered. He smiled, took a deep breath, said softly, “Just wondering,” and walked on. Then, without warning, I choked and a flood of tears came to my eyes. What happened here? This compassionate young man surprised me, too, but my involuntary crying was probably accumulated relief. He also didn’t want anything from me, didn’t ask for money (which happens a lot here in the cities). I was a minority surrounded by hundreds of people of different ethnicities and colors.
I admit my racism appears in my nervousness, my fear that I’m going to be taken advantage of, my discomfort with all the differences. However, people are people, and this day I witnessed some everyday kindness among strangers. What a wildly simple Christian concept! Still, after all these years since King’s death and despite my varied life experiences, I get nervous. Yet I’m willing to talk about the deeper questions. What are we afraid of? Are we able to talk rationally and honestly about this insidious disease? What do you think?
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)