2/23/2012 | Share this article: View CommentsBy John ~
It wasn't until I was twenty five that I began to discover that I am white. I had noticed, on occasion, that I didn't look like many of the other kids in my school. There were a lot of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Black, Hispanic and even a few black Panamanian folks in my school along with the other Caucasians like me. In those days, I tutored English as a Second Language (ESL) and enjoyed learning what I could of many other cultures. My folks, on a couple of occasions, allowed foreign exchange students from Japan to live with us. After graduating, I traveled to Korea, Hong Kong and the Philippines even staying in a province for a few months. All in all, I would say that I enjoyed learning about different cultures.
At the age of 25 I was living in Michigan as an enlisted member of the Air Force and working as a medic. The majority of folks on our unit were white but I was also friends with a doctor from Puerto Rico, an airman from Nicaragua, and Judy and Gina who are black women. I was working one night and things were slow. I was at the nurse's station with a bunch of other folks just chewing the fat. I mentioned in passing about a murder that occurred in Saginaw earlier that day and that they guy they caught was in his early twenties. "Was he black?" Gina asked me. I was taken aback. "I don't know. It was on the radio. It doesn't really matter." "Yes, it does," she replied.
She wasn't defiant, hurt, or in any way defensive. She simply stated a fact as one friend to another. The memory of this encounter has never left me.
I fell in love with Judy and later married her. She has never been preachy about race. Like me, she likes people for who they are. Learning about her upbringing was intriguing and sad but her stories never really impacted the way that I thought about people. What did, though, was that over time I began to associate beauty with her. People who look like her are beautiful looking people. Over time, I began looking at the world around me and noticing how very white our society is. Movies are a clear reflection of this. But TV ads, billboards, and other media are also disproportionately white. I never noticed it before I fell in love.
I was in my thirties when, one day, I was watching the news and there were several stories of crimes in a row and the perpetrators in each case were black. The fact really bothered me. Not because I felt that the news was being biased. What bothered me is that I began to feel ashamed and embarrassed, like these men had hurt the black community and not just the individuals they attacked. I suppose that if there were more black scientists, doctors, and other successful working professionals it would not have bothered me as much. But even though there are many such people, they are rarely portrayed in popular media. (Just watch the Oscars this year and count how many ethnic people they show and you'll get a glimpse of what I mean.) I had begun to understand what Gina meant. I am so grateful that she trusted me enough to give me that lesson.
I will never know what it's like to be black. But in the past 20 years I have become aware that black in America does mean something. I have had only the smallest glimpse of what that is. I have also become aware of how ignorant most white people are about race issues in America. For them it is merely an intellectual exercise to talk about race relations. They claim to understand but they cannot even see what it means to be white, let alone what it means to be black or Hispanic or Asian in this country. If I had not fallen in love with a black woman, I'd be just the same. I am fortunate that love has allowed me to see what I would never have seen on my own.
All of this is relevant to this group because I can clearly see similarities here. When I was religious, I thought I understood both sides of the Christian-Atheist argument and I was ready to defend my position. But I had never lived day-in-and-day-out with an Atheist or even thought to do so in hopes of understanding his/her point of view. And so, while I thought I knew, I was actually as blind about religion as I was about race relations.
Having become agnostic, I have gotten a pretty good bead on the Atheist side of the argument in ways I never could as a religious person. Obviously, I have a pretty good bead on the religious side as well. Now that I can see clearly, I realize how blind I was when I didn't love people enough to try to truly see as they see. I used to have all the answers but I never had any insight.
Both experiences in my life have taught me that no one can teach anyone else what they are not prepared to learn on their own. There is no way that I can tell my siblings or parents how utterly blind they are to racial issues. They are decent people and love people of all races but they have no clue how some of their comments hurt people. Nor can I explain to my religious family and friends how oblivious they are about agnostics and atheists.
When the religious begin posting here, I have patience because I know that they are incapable of seeing as we see. No matter how stupid or hurtful their words are, it's hard for me to get truly angry. But I do appreciate those who are trying to understand seeing the world the way we see it. My heart is always pleased when people post their extimonies and look to us for help. I'd be just as pleased if those same people remained religious but made an effort to understand how we see things as well.
If you are new to this journey, you will find that everything about how you see the world is changing and you may find it frustrating dealing with your religious family and friends. That frustration is wasted. They cannot see. It is not really their fault any more than it's the fault of a white guy like me that I didn't understand even the small portion about black America that I can see now. So, be patient and know that there are people here who can see, who feel as you do, and who also are here to help you as you come to grips with the reality around you.