It is universally understood that reconciling conflicts requires humility. It requires exercising the heavy human bundle of vulnerability, sensitivity and forgiveness. In minor personal conflicts demonstrating these qualities can be difficult. In longstanding bitter social and racial conflicts demonstrating these qualities can be nearly impossible. Sensitivity to the “other” is a particular challenge in this bundle.
I was recently in
I left the hotel and traveled to Harmony,
I left the meeting and went to an ice cream parlor to see about chocolate shakes in Harmony. I got into a conversation with the lady working there. I asked if there were any black people that lived in Harmony. She said no. The closest black people live in a town that was about an hour and half away. It didn’t surprise me that there were no black people in Harmony, but I was surprised that she knew where the closest ones were. Then she said that Harmony is a really small town and a lot of the people that live there have been there for generations. She said that she herself had never seen a black person face to face until she was in her twenties and that even now there are very few black people that ever come there. This was a lady in her early 40’s.
In a single day I had seen two sets of people I had never seen before and been a rarity, an “other” myself. On the drive back I reflected on the potential differences in our world views: views of Native Americans on themselves in America, views of the Amish and the complexity their simplicity poses for them, views of a white woman who had never seen a black person until I was in high school and my views on myself as an urban black man. I had never really thought of myself as having a relationship with any of these groups of people. I suspect that being a black man and the child of immigrants, my Americaness is not forefront in my identity. Somehow though, this unusual experience of firsts in
With that experience so fresh in my mind, I find Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s public comments gross. I think he is right in his two principal themes – that a change will come and that different does not mean deficient – but his tone, posture, language and examples, demonstrate a profound lack of sensitivity. The subjects of race, theological tradition and social experience are necessarily difficult to discuss. There is nothing new in that. They are even more difficult to discuss when the objective of the discussion is reconciliation – reconciling disparate world views of different groups of people with limited exposure to one another in a landscape that explicitly treats different not only as deficient, but with contempt.
Reverend Wright’s address demonstrated that he has forgotten that otherness is necessarily a mutually occurring reality. There cannot be just one other. The degree to which one group misunderstands or is simply ignorant of another is often paralleled by an mutual misunderstanding or ignorance. Certainly for me, Native American and Amish people could not be more strange. I have no idea what words, phrases or posture they use to articulate their experience as Americans or what conclusions they draw. I also don’t know what views they have, if any, of black people. As a result, we need to be introduced to one another.
Introducing an unknown element of black identity and world view to the country in the manner of Rev. Wright is not only ineffective, it trivializes the complexity of our experience here. Indeed, it confirms the stereotype held by another white Minnesotan that I spoke to, “a lot folks around here think African Americans are kinda loud and scary.” Introducing some aspects of black identity to groups of people with limited exposure to black people, requires patience and sensitivity to the mutual sense of “other.” Taking this approach is not weakness, it is human courtesy. It avails our neighbors of the treatment we would expect for ourselves. This is how reconciliation works and more importantly how relationships are built. Barack Obama’s rejection of Reverend Wright is an endorsement of this later course – a course that will facilitate my relationship with Native Americans and the Amish; a course that will better help me understand what it is to be an American….
…living under the Obama Administration!!