“I’m really not that scary.” That’s what I thought to myself when I saw the guy run into his house, close the door, and peep through the blinds as I walked by. I almost felt sorry for the guy for being that afraid. If he had taken a closer look he would have realized that I couldn’t have harmed him if I wanted to. Barely breaking 5’, he seemed to be about a foot taller than me, stockier, and with the fear factor at his disposal, he was definitely more threatening. In fact, he seemed to be a grown man whereas I was just about 14 years old and could probably pass for 12. And yet he was the one allowing his fear to grip his senses. Why? Because a black person was in his neighborhood?
WHERE DO I BELONG?
I had a few friends who lived in a new development that, while largely white, had a few black residents. Sometimes I would take their bus home from school and then walk home. Normally I would take the long way around, but this day, I stayed at a friend’s house too late and decided that I would do what I normally wouldn’t do, walk through the adjacent–even whiter–neighborhood to get to where I lived. As far as I knew, there was only one black girl in that neighborhood so I knew that I would definitely stand out, but I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong so I decided to just cut through.
As I walked up the neighborhood streets I read a book figuring that people would feel less threatened by a person reading a book. My plan was to walk toward the black girl’s house and if anyone said anything to me I would just pretend I was going to see her. Even though we weren’t actually friends (I wasn’t cool enough for her.), I figured she wouldn’t deny knowing me. I relied on the thought that if I could get to her house I’d be good to go. A couple of doors down was the house of a new girl who, although she was white, was used to being around black people. Rita’s house abutted the woods that were just before the old railroad tracks that separated our neighborhoods. Her house didn’t have a fence around it. If I could get to Rita’s house, I felt confident that I could just run through her yard and get to my house. If my plan worked perfectly, that would have literally cut a minimum 20 minutes off of my journey.
I was just about 5 or so houses away from the black girl’s house when I saw the white man. Admittedly, I was a little startled at first too. But I took a deep breath and decided to just walk like I lived there. I looked back at my book and kept walking toward him. As I peeped up, I could see him continue to look back at me. It was clear he was nervous. In my mind I started playing out scenarios that ended with us both realizing that there was nothing for us to be afraid of. But as he picked up his pace, I thought about all of the door locks that clicked when I walked by, women grabbing their purses in malls, and all of the other signs I had witnessed that showed me that many white people were simply afraid of black people. What could I do? When he started trotting and ran into his house, I decided to just act like I didn’t notice. I even tried to convince myself that maybe he just needed to get in fast and it had nothing to do with me. But as I passed his house I couldn’t resist the urge to look toward the house. Sadly, he was peeking through the blinds like I had an army with me.
FEAR IS TAUGHT!!!
Now why would a grown white man be afraid of a little black kid? For me the easy answer is shame. Shame is a crazy emotion–if you can call it that– with internal and external implications. People tend to feel shame both when they depart from the social standards that they have internalized as well as when they deviate from their own standards. The most difficult aspect of managing shame is that a person who is experiencing shame typically experiences themselves as being fundamentally flawed. It is such a horrible experience that the person dealing with it often feels helpless in its grips. And because the person cannot make a distinction between being a person who has done something wrong and being a person who is fundamentally wrong, their main way of dealing with the feeling is to escape it by any means necessary. This frequently manifests itself as a complete externalization of anything that stirs up that emotion.
Most people with deeper ties to this country have been taught and believe that blacks and whites are on opposing sides when really we are in the same boat. One day we will need to come to terms with the fact that we are going to sink or sail together. In my opinion, our country has treated black people so poorly because our presence stirs up the unique white American shame. Despite the justifications make, most white people would never trade places with a black person because they know they would not want to be subject to the biases and prejudgments that we deal with on a daily basis. Likewise, I think that white Americans stir up shame in many black people. This is the legacy of slavery that we still haven’t done anything to acknowledge systematically. What we do instead is fear each other and many of us past that fear on to our children.
Well, maybe saying we fear each other is not completely accurate. What I think we fear more than anything is the shame we feel in each other’s presence. Even though we don’t have language that really encapsulates this awareness yet, I can tell you for certain that even as a child I was aware of the influence of what I am presently calling shame. I admit that it felt shameful to even have the thought that I should have to walk around that whole neighborhood just because I might involuntarily scare a white person. Most people can’t even begin to consider how psychologically draining that is–trying to manage the perception of people with irrational fears. Likewise, I imagine that white man probably felt some shame of being afraid of a little child. To think that a grown man has so little control over his mental faculties that he can’t override his programming to fear children. I’d be ashamed if I were him. But I would also take it upon myself to move beyond that programming when it has proven itself to be ridiculous. And this is where our country is sorely lacking in leadership on every side.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Love. That’s it. There’s nothing else I can see working. The Bible teaches that perfect love casts out fear. That’s what we need. We can’t fight fear with fear that’s for sure. And if logic worked I wouldn’t be writing this post. Everyday I pray that I will learn to love myself as God loves me so that I can extend that love out into the world. What else can I do?
In 1 John 4:20 the author calls so called “God Lovers” to task by asking the challenging question of how a person can possibly claim to love God who they cannot see while hating the neighbor who they can see. In fact, it goes so far as to call those who make those claims liars. And prior to this he makes the bold statement that there is no fear in love.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.
If you try to live into the mysteries of the Bible, are you comfortable with being called a liar by your scriptures or are you actively striving to live the truth you profess–even if it means failing daily? And from my perspective, those who justify their fears are in the same liar boat. I’m not saying that we don’t have many justifications for the fears we live with. I’m just saying, if we are actively giving into those fears they will lead us to the darker behaviors. If you disagree, don’t argue with me. Argue with Yoda.
While you think about this, I invite you to participate in this poll I created on Facebook on my Roofless Church Group Page. The content of the poll is below.
According to the logic of 1 John 4:20 (from our own book, mind you) so many of us Christians are straight up liars. Hopefully we are liars in progress though. I know that’s what I strive for daily i.e. in my effort to express my love for God, I challenge myself to increase my capacity to love others. How do you feel about that? The question is to anyone Christian or otherwise who believes that love is the hope for our world.
Are people who claim to love God, but make excuses for hating others liars?