Decades ago West Central Illinois farm country was home. All the children I knew lived in a stereotypical family of dad, mom and children, much like that of Dick and Jane in our basal readers. As in those books, everyone we associated with was Caucasian. College didn’t widen my diversity experiences, for it was probably 95% Caucasian also. The few international students and Black students from big cities weren’t close friends. Following college, I took a teaching job in a small town, equally Caucasian.
I’m now embarrassed by the lack of empathy I had for anyone different from me, whether being from a single parent family, coming from poverty or wealth, or being of a different race. Taught that racism was a Southern (not Illinois) phenomenon, I was prejudiced and didn’t even know it. Newspapers at the time identified black criminals by race but did not tell us when a criminal was white. Sunbonnets and long sleeves protected us from becoming too tan, not to keep from getting skin cancer, but because we didn’t want to look Italian. I’d learned to call Brazil nuts and large rocks by terms using the “N word.”
My first teacher in-service day fifty years ago began to open my eyes. High school teachers from several counties joined Peoria teachers for an illustrated presentation by journalist John Howard Griffin. Having written much about racial equality, he had begun a regimen of exposure to ultraviolet light, oral medication and skin dyes to turn his skin black. In 1959 he toured the South by bus and hitchhiking, experiencing rejection from restaurants, hotels and even restrooms, rejection he had not known as a White man. His book Black Like Me was based on diaries of his experiences. I could hardly believe what I was hearing and seeing in his presentation, but it made me consider life from another’s point of view. It wasn’t all about my experience, or lack of it.
Following that in-service I read many other biographies and histories of those from other cultures. I had opportunities to interact with persons from different races and socio-economic groups. Visits to Inupiat gatherings in Nome and Shishmaref (Alaska) as a member of Women of the ELCA also opened my eyes and ears to others. I still pray to be more empathetic of others’ experiences and beg forgiveness from those I have unknowingly slighted or insulted. I’m still working to overcome my prejudices and to see God’s face in all I meet.
What experiences have you had which opened your eyes to another’s reality?
Phyllis Rude is completing her second term on the churchwide executive board. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
Photo by zeeweez. Used with permission.