Growing up, I knew one black family. It’s not that they were the only ones I wished to befriend, they were literally the only black family I knew. But the color of their skin was a moot point; it never crossed my mind … until they would turn the conversation toward racism. They would speak of injustice, continued inequality–of blatant abuse. And I would inwardly roll my eyes. We were, after all, living in the 20th century. Sure, there were bigots–there were skinheads living in them there hills. But certainly they were the exception to the rule.
Then I moved to Dallas.
I attended school in Oak Cliff. Just to give you an idea, I worked one semester at a bagel shop in a wealthy suburb. There was a guy who came in to flirt with me and a fellow student nearly everyday. Week upon week he put up with long lines and horrible coffee (we had just got an espresso machine and no one had a clue how to work it), just to chat. One day he asked, “So, where do you live?” “Oak Cliff,” I responded. He laughed hysterically–good one–then realized we were not laughing. He never came back.
Oak Cliff, you see, was not the place for a pasty white person such as myself to be; in Oak Cliff, I was a minority. In Oak Cliff I was glared at, cursed upon, and accused of killing a small boy’s great-great grandfather. In Oak Cliff, there were those who held their children close and walked to the other side of the street at the mere sight of me. In Oak Cliff I finally saw what my friends had talked about.
While I’m thankful for the experience, it actually set me back. For the first time I saw the road to equality remained rocky and uphill; for the first time, there was an issue of color. I didn’t at all know what to do with that …
Race, you see, is not a simple matter.
I’m sure Martin Luther King, Jr. would have agreed. To this day he gets it from all sides. He wasn’t a saint, he raised a ruckus–he gave in too easily, he didn’t stay dedicated to the cause. Perhaps it’s true. Or perhaps he was simply human. Perhaps he wasn’t giving in so much as admonishing the fact that only in focusing on our commonality will we ever overcome our differences.
In The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, James McBride speaks of constantly trying to bate his mother into an argument on race. She wouldn’t budge. Finally, thinking he was ever-so clever, he asked the color of God. Her response: “God is the color of water.”
And there lies the key.
As this day reminds us, we still have a ways to go. We must continue the fight–we must be willing to speak out, and to listen. We must learn to celebrate our differences, and focus on what we share. And we must do so until the color of our skin is no longer a point … until the only thing worth fighting for is the fact that we’re all–red, yellow, black and white–created in God’s image.
It’s as simple and as difficult as that.