The mis-education of a small-town white girl

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I pulled back the blankets exposing his contracted arm and dark chest. He turned his greying head away from me. I told him my name and what I was about to do. I would bath his arms and upper body, then his lower.  I’d help him get dressed and sit at the kitchen table where some nice lady had just made him a meal.  I tried to sound chipper and draw him in.

“What’s your name sir?” I asked while preparing the water.

He muttered his name. I asked nervous questions and he gave gruff answers. He had been a pastor and lived in Phoenix a long time.

The tension was thick. My pale hands in transparent gloves on his deep umber skin, I could feel his bitterness, his skin crawling back, his brow furrowing deeper with every warm, cleansing stroke. The poison, eating at him from the inside burst through when I reached his unpresentable parts, “It’s about time you white people do for us what we’ve done for you for centuries!”  I was taken back.  “Do you want me to stop sir?… I’m sorry.”  I was ignorant of the pain my darker-skinned patient was bearing.

I was raised in a small town in southwest Oregon where the majority of folks are white. When I was an infant my mom placed pictures of black, Hispanic and Native American babies along the wall by my crib. She wanted me to know what babies looked like outside of our small red-neck town. When Cabbage Patch dolls were the craze, she bought my sister and I black Cabbage Patch kids. She tried her best to give us broader ways to think about people within the limits of our little white county.

The first time I met a black person I was in sixth grade. We had moved to Fairfield, California where my dad took a job as a long-haul truck driver, after being laid off from pulling green chain at the mill. One of the girls who quickly befriended shy-and-pale me was a pretty black girl whose name my 44 year old brain does not recall.  I remember thinking she was beautiful and she made me laugh and taught me how to break dance- which I never could do. She laughed at me and I crumbled into laughter too.  I never thought once that she and her family were bearing a burden different than me and mine.

That same small-town white girl wearing scrubs, gloves and a pony tail, was shut in a room with a man burdened by years I had never seen nor heard. At 19, my mis-education was being exposed. Christ in me, barely a babe breathing his grace, compelled me to say, “I’m sorry.” I was sorry.  I didn’t directly do anything to harm the man, but I bore the DNA of those who had lynched and enslaved his kin. I remember wishing in that moment that I could somehow ease his pain. I hated it for him. I wanted him to know a white person who would take the lesser place and honor him.

After some time the man who wouldn’t look at me the day I arrived started talking with me. He told me about his years in the pastorate and the poverty he watched destroy so many young black lives. I remember one conversation at his table after I had helped him get bathed, dressed and lifted to his wheelchair. I don’t remember what brought it up but I said, “You are my brother in Christ sir. It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re black or white or purple.” I was so ignorant. I thought being color-blind meant being free of prejudice. I remember he shook his head- this white girl still didn’t get it.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” I’ve alway thought that meant loving those you see as an enemy. But I think it also means loving those who see YOU as an enemy. I look back on those days as a home health aide in a metropolis of people from all over the world and see how little I knew. I still know little. I’m just more aware of my ignorance. Thinking back to my days in the home of that burdened black pastor, maybe God placed me there to bear a tiny scourging of pain for injuries I did not cause. But surely there he began giving me eyes to see how blind I was. I think that’s what’s needed right now. People like me, ignorant white folks who think of themselves as free of prejudice, who feel defensive because they think they’ve done nothing wrong and yet are being pointed out as the embodiment of racist, privileged and blind culture, need to humble ourselves and love those who may see us as enemies.

At last year’s MLK 50 Conference, Feat LaToria, Lauren Chandler and singers from the Village Church in Texas sang these lyrics:

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Lookin’ through my own eyes.
Now I know, what I didn’t know.
Help me see.
Help me see through your eyes.
I will walk with you.
No matter what it takes.

Most of us will never stand on a stage and sing in hopes of healing wounds. But we can start listening without defensiveness. We can walk with or wash the feet of those who bear a burden we have never known.

2 thoughts on “The mis-education of a small-town white girl

  1. Not sure what you want white people to do? Whip ourselves for what happened to others and feel like we are crap because of that? Why, if we are white, always called ignorant and racist? What is going on in this world? You don’t have to feel ashamed for being white … I’m tired of my children being told they are nothing and racist because they were born white. That man was a pastor and was that nasty? A shame

  2. Lisa, my desire and I believe Jesus’ example to us is to humble ourselves, listen to those we don’t understand, bear burdens, serve and love them… even those who would make themselves our enemies. I am asking us to listen. Just being willing to listen to an angry old black man helped break down some walls, soften his heart and mine. We need more of that!

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