Who Will Be the People to Bridge Racial and Cultural Distrust?
From the Cool Cat Teacher Blog by Vicki Davis
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Someone thought Dad was a poor dirt farmer. Here’s how they tell the story. You see, my father is a farmer in South Georgia. In the past, he’s been involved in various political campaigns in both political parties. One time it was during harvest and Daddy came to hear a candidate speak at the courthouse straight out of the field. Dad hadn’t listened to the candidate before, and neither had many people from our area. As the candidate was introduced, Daddy walked up near the back of the crowd. Daddy was “filthy dirty” as we say in south Georgia. It is likely, knowing Dad, that his shirt was untucked. Probably the only nongrimy part of his body was the whites of his eyes.
Dad, the “Dirt Farmer” Meets the Politician
As the story goes, as Dad walked up, the candidate leaned over to one of the local members of his election campaign and said,
“I’m so glad the poor dirt farmers could make it today. That speaks well for our campaign.”
Of course, everyone knew the man was talking about my Dad. Mouths were open, and uncomfortable looks were exchanged between those who brought him to the courthouse for his “stump speech.”
After the speech, Daddy came up to shake his hand. The man assumed a condescending air that everyone saw as Dad walked up. Daddy shook his hand and then said something like,
“I mentioned your name to Senator [name withheld] when I was on the Hill last week. This year’s farm bill is looking good and I hope if you get elected that you’ll continue to support our efforts to help farmers in Washington.”
Dad added a few more comments that showed he knew some people in Washington, DC and had spent some time there. The onlookers said you should have seen the look on the candidate’s face. In shock, his face changed looks from one of condescension to one of realizing that he had misjudged this “poor dirt farmer” who came late to the courthouse. He was completely floored because his assumptions were wrong. Needless to say, this potential candidate’s gaffe was spread throughout the candidate, and he did not carry our county nor the election.
I know this story well because it was the one they told me often as a child reminding me to treat all people with dignity and respect.
“Whether you’re talking to the janitor or the President, each person deserves your respect,” Mom would say.
When I Was an Intern in Washington, DC
Years later when I served as an intern in Washington, DC for Senator Sam Nunn, I remembered these words from Mom and Dad. I would often see people ignore interns like me as the nobodies that we were. But interestingly enough, often there were people in power — like Senator Nunn — who recognized people “like me” and treated us with great respect.
My encouragement to you today is to remember that every individual is worthy of respect. And be careful of wearing filters on your eyes and only seeing people “like you.”
A Curious Thing That Happened Waiting for the Bathroom at Five Guys
This past Sunday, we went to the new Five Guys burger place in Albany, Georgia after church. But before I tell you my “Five Guys” story, let me tell you a little background so you can relate.
Now, Kip and I go to one of the most diverse churches in South Georgia. At our church, we believe that racial reconciliation begins in the church with showing how we love others. Unfortunately, in the US, according to our speaker this past Sunday, Vance Pittman, 86% of churches are segmented by race or social class each Sunday. In my opinion, it shouldn’t be that way. The church that speaks love should be the first to embrace and show the love of all people.
In fact, recently at church, I was talking to a precious teenager who I’ve mentored about her college choices. She’s a beautiful African-American teen. As a matter of fact, we got to know each other serving together in nursery duty over the years. At the church social several months a go, I sat beside her as she fished and we talked about college choices. She stopped me in the hall several weeks ago the Sunday after the election when everyone was so afraid and said,
“Miss Vicki, I tell my friends that there are good white people out there. I tell them about our church and they don’t believe me. I told them I have friends of all types at church and we love each other and worship together and they say it isn’t true. All I know is what I see and I see good people with all skin types and colors. I wish more of them would believe me. I wish more of my friends would give people with different colors a chance.”
I told her to keep living her life with love and not hate. I told her that I totally understand and that I have people in my life too that “don’t give people with different colors a chance” but that we have to be different and love all types of people and that I believe it is our God-given mission to love all people.
Now, that you understand that I’d just come from a very diverse church where everybody says hello to everybody — let’s go back to Five Guys. So, I’m a “How are you” kinda person. I love to say hello to everybody and smile. I might be the only smile a person sees that day. So, we’re in 5 Guys after church and I’m saying hello to everyone.
Then, as I’m waiting outside the ladies’ restroom, I see a friendly man coming down the hallway towards the hall where I’m waiting. He has to go past me to wait for the men’s room to become available. He’s a “hello how are you” person too!
He speaks to the lady from Five Guys who walks in the hallway out of the serving kitchen.
“How are you sister, I’m so happy to see you. You have a great day.”
Then, a young man comes down the hall and walks just past me and says,
“How are you, young man. Are you doing OK today? You do well in school and have a good day, my brother.”
I turn to him and say,
“Hello, how are you today? I hope you’re having a good day.”
You could have stopped time. He looked at me with a blank face and didn’t say a word. I was shocked. I started wondering if I had something on my face or if I was just a scary looking person. I started looking at my skirt and shoes and wondered what was wrong with me.
Then, a lady came out of the restroom where I was going in and he said to her,
“Hi, sister, how are you? It’s a mighty fine Sunday, dontcha think?”
Just as friendly as he could be. No word to me. I just went into the lady’s restroom and didn’t see him again. I had no clue what was going on until I realized something. All the people he spoke to were African American, and he was too. I’m white.
Is that what it was? Did I not exist because I was a different color?
Now, I’m not pointing this out to say I was treated wrongly. This happening just caused me to wonder and be curious. Having just come from church, we say hello to everybody and everybody is pretty different from us. We’re all different. Different classes. Different races. Different countries, even.
But now, thrown back into the “real world” we were back into the place of being different again. And I wasn’t even worth a “hi, how you.” Let’s say I did have something on my face or was having a particularly bad hair day, I would still think as a fellow human being that I’d be worth a hello. I think the friendly man might have liked me a little if he’d said hello. We were both “Hi how are you” kinda people.
For now, I’ll just shake it off and give him the benefit of the doubt. Who knows why I wasn’t worth a hello. It isn’t for me to guess and I think life is better giving people the benefit of the doubt. He could have had horrible wrongs done to him or his family by people who are white and he sees me as just another “one of them.” Who knows. In the grand scheme of life, someone not saying hello is really not a big deal.
Like the young lady at church, I just found it odd. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t upset. I guess I was just sad.
You see, often we’re all blind – me included. We’re blind to our own biases. We’re blind to the situation of other people and how they see the world. But we must simply begin not only seeing the world through the eyes of our neighbor, but we must begin loving and treating all people with respect. We can’t rush to judgment. We can’t ignore people who are a different color or who are a different social class. Or even, who are a different physical fitness level. (I can make a whole blog post on how differently “thin Vicki” gets treated from “fat Vicki” — it is stunning to become invisible to some people when you put on a few pounds.)
In the end, we’re all people. Fat. Thin. Rich. Poor. Black. White. Hispanic. Asian. We’re all just people.
I just encourage you today as I encourage myself —
- Don’t assume that you are treating everyone with respect.
- Intentionally today say hello to people you don’t usually greet.
- Intentionally consider how YOU treat others.
- Notice the quiet and those left out.
- Notice people who aren’t being greeted by others and be the one to say hello.
- Give people the benefit of the doubt when you seem to be having a disagreement. We all have a bad day.
For the small things do become big things in a culture. I’ve given you several examples here of how we must learn to reach out to those different from us and “be the change we wish to see in the world” as Nelson Mandela says. If “the type” of person who doesn’t usually say hello to you says hello, say hello back.
And let me tell you something, this is not a popular view. People talk about racial and cultural reconciliation, but the peer pressure is to make fun of “the other guy” or to stay away from “the other gal.” Our world is geared to be divisive.
As teachers and as leaders, we simply must be different. We must love all people and show with our actions how the world should improve.
As for me, I’m a hugely flawed individual. Even with this blog post, I’m sure I’ve included biases and things that I said unintentionally. I’ve even debated not posting this because it is such an inflammatory topic.
But I’ll tell you, the unkindness, stereotyping, and lack of civility brewing in our world is going to give us an explosive hothouse of violence if more of us can’t stand up and show with word and deed that all people deserve our respect, attention, time, and best.
May we all reflect upon our actions today and become better people for it.