February 26, 2013
There’s a true and funny story in my family history. My Swedish maternal great-grandfather had a farm near our small town in western Michigan (currently 700 people). Among his regular “acts of kindness”, he liked to greet the train when he knew that new immigrants were coming from Sweden.
One day sixteen year old Signe Peterson was expected to arrive and he couldn’t meet her, so he asked Bill Cook, the carpenter, to go in his place. Bill Cook was the only black man in town. As a carpenter, he worked for many Swedes and was known for speaking perfect Swedish.
So Bill Cook drove the wagon to the train, greeted the young lady in perfect Swedish, as the story goes, and helped her with her bags unto the seat to take her to her destination. Along the way, they chatted, in perfect Swedish, of course. Eventually she looked over at him, paused, and asked “Why are you so dark?”
“Ah, alla Svenskar blir bruna nar de varit har ett tag!” explained Bill Cook.
(Oh, all the Swedes turn dark after they’ve been here for awhile!)
Well, whatever Signe’s surprise, she stayed and became the matriarch of the Peterson family; it’s they who’ve kept this delightful story alive.
Of course this story is funny, but what it puts before us is a feeling of the confusion we might experience when we look at somone who seems just like us but looks very different from us. This has always been the challenge posed by the different races on earth, and genders as well. Whether it’s the shape of the eyes, the color of the skin, features unusual to us, clothes very different from ours, unexpected mannerisms – our eyes are startled. Wherever we live, we’re accustomed to seeing people who look and act predictably like us – we think. Actually, even within any culture, every face is unique! The predictable parts are what we focus on and feel comfortable with. Cultural media presents ideals with which the local citizens identify. When we encounter someone too far from our cultural ideal we’re confused.
Confusion offers an opening, a door to grow beyond the limitations of what we’ve learned thus far. The challenge in meeting someone who looks different from us is to make the jump into feelinga person, rather than just seeing them with the eyes. To feel any person – coworkers, neighbors, strangers – will make us safer in the world , as we will more accurately sense what people are really made of, who is truly a trustable ally and who is not. And learning to feel the inside of a person will make us richer as we find wonderful friends and allies we would have missed otherwise.
Being Caucasian in what has historically been a Caucasian-predominant country I can only talk about the racial and ethnic challenges objectively. Being female, I do at times experience the limiting judgements of gender stereotypes. I know it’s an enormous never-ending challenge for people of non-white races to deal with the unthinking surprise and reactions of some of us white folk. I offer this thought about the gift that people of color offer our closed white culture: to mature, for our own good! For safety. For accuracy in our dealings. For maturity as competent adult humans. And for the richness in friendships that’s available to us.
“It’s only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
From The Little Prince, by Antoine De Saint-Exupery: (p.82)