The first time I heard about this song and watched the video, I was uncomfortable. I had been taught to reject the stereotypes portrayed, and it was disturbing to see them in a joyful song. I wanted to dismiss this work and every confronting piece of it. Over the past two years, I have instead cited it and directed people to it as evidence that we are having the wrong conversations about racism. We want to pretend we are not racist and that “the other guy is”–that we are better than he or she because we are above racism. We are effectively stating that we are super-human, if not reckless. As much as we hate to admit this, it is very natural to assess people who we don’t know based on what we think we do know: our past experiences, our education, what we read or hear in the media, etc.
When I had never before met a Japanese person, I immediately called upon my perceived knowledge to: a) determine if I was safe with her and b) see what commonalities I could draw upon to create a connection. Since she was a female, about the same size as I was and was a student at the school I attended, I decided she was safe and that we could talk about school, if nothing else. As we became friends, I was fascinated to learn more about her family’s cultural history and I realized that it was ethnicist of me to assume she was Japanese because of how she looked. In fact, she had been born in the United States. She was American. I have since been more willing to set aside my assumptions when I meet someone new who looks different from me. If we really look at ourselves, we will realize that pretty much everyone looks different from us in some way. My sisters and I share some characteristics of our parents, but they meld uniquely in each of us.
My first memory of meeting a darker-skinned person was when I was a little girl visiting my aunt in Indianapolis. While my older family members shopped, I played in a designated area where no one obsessed over the small chance that someone would take us from it or harm us. We just played–with whoever showed up and was fun to be with.
On the way home, my aunt teased me about my “little nigger friend.” I don’t know if I had ever heard the “N word” before then, and I remember being confused by it. Was that what people with cool pigtails and chocolatey skin were called? It was said with such playfulness that I didn’t realize the word had such an emotional charge outside of our car. I’m still not sure that it was meant, in that context, as anything more than a game that was later repeated when I had “a boyfriend” at the playground or made a new friend. Yet Chris Rock wants me to “own” my ancestors’ racism. In a December interview, he declares “to white people” that we should take responsibility for our dads’ actions. I barely knew my dad. How does Chris Rock know so much about him? It’s probable that my dad was racist, but it’s also likely that Chris Rock’s dad was racist, too. The issue is not so much what we think, but how we let it manifest in our lives.
Last January, I was assaulted by a young black male. He was wearing a hoodie and baggy jeans, and for the first few days after my attack, I scrutinized the young men I encountered who were similarly dressed. Again, I was trying to keep myself safe. During those days, I was not as willing to look for commonalities because that most basic need to feel safe was not yet present again. I was in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) that I have spent nearly a year recovering from. Nevertheless, I was soon able to reconnect with my commitment to understand other people and to connect with them. I chose to first assume that I was safe and second to look for commonalities. This sometimes took real effort and actual communication. I began to make eye contact and start conversations. I imagined them having some of the same fears and internal struggles that I have. I mentally told them I loved them and how much I wanted them to keep growing into the awesome human beings that they were created to be. I chose to not be stopped by visual differences or even silence. That is my invitation to you.
Maybe you’re not yet brave enough to engage in conversation with people who seem dramatically different from you. Perhaps you’re uncomfortable around kids, teenagers, men, women, homosexuals, transvestites, older people, obese people, people wearing religious attire or symbols, etc. I invite you to explore them, trust them, observe them, and send them love. Assume that they–like you–deserve it, want it, get weird about it, and forget to share it. Forgive them. Be with them. You need not say a word. Yet you can, if you want, when you see that smile or familiarity in their eyes. That is you. Smile back, whether with your mouth or your words. This is where the real conversation begins. xo