When I was little, my sister and I used to love playing ‘Guess Who?’ Do you remember the game? You had to flip all of these little face panels up and ask your opponent a series of yes or no questions to narrow down the one person whose card your partner drew. There were primarily male faces and I remember thinking it was unfair how there were only a few women. It made it especially disheartening when you had drawn a woman and your partner inevitably asked you the damning question requiring you to give them the right-away to flip aaaaaaaaaall of those men’s faces down. Drawing a female’s card was bad and even as a little girl I saw the injustice in that.
I still own the travel version of ‘Guess Who?’ and this summer before a vacation I threw it in my bag to play with my 5 year old. When I later dug it out and flipped all of the faces up, I was appalled. Totally sickened. The game I was about to play with my black son had two, TWO, people of color. Did I remember that from my childhood? No, I did not. I was about to play a game with my son that sent the message that whites are more important and, oh by the way, if you’re a person of color you must also look like you’re going to: a) hurt someone or b) bawl. (Both of which, honestly, were probably completely accurate expressions for those characters considering the injustice they were forced to live out on those tiny cards.)
The game was promptly put away and I spent a solid chunk of the rest of my vacation wondering what else I’ve been missing. When I was little, I just wanted to see more female faces because I was a girl. We make sense of our world by what we see around us and I didn’t see myself represented well in the game. I had tunnel vision because I was seeking faces like mine (white, female) which blinded me from noticing how there were even fewer faces of color than female faces. I hadn’t yet had an experience to teach me to look closer. My initial inability to see the lack of color didn’t mean it wasn’t a problem. This is the core issue when people of color say, “Something is wrong with this picture,” and we reply with, “I’m looking at the same picture I and don’t see anything wrong.” We aren’t viewing the image with the same life experiences. We’re looking, but we’re seeing different cards. We need POC to point out to us what we are missing.
This issue played out over the weekend on a grander scale. I just returned from a storywriting/storytelling conference which was as good for my soul as it was for my writing. I spent time learning from some powerful speakers… but I noticed on the first day how the lineup (including the breakout speakers) was starkly devoid of any people of color. When I got back to my hotel room later that evening, I saw there was an entire discussion being held on Twitter about the same issue. The initial tweets were primarily from people of color and the replies were primarily from whites. I’ve got to tell you: It was uncomfortable for me to read them. The white comments were nearly all pushback because they took the POC’s comments to mean their experience was invalid; these POC were personally attacking them and the things they loved which, in this case, was a conference full of speakers they looked up to. (One commenter tried the angle that the conference was diverse because one speaker was in a wheelchair.) Full disclosure: I had to battle through how I should be feeling about those tweets, too. I had to reflect on whether their comments invalidated the powerful experience I was having.
Let me tell you: It doesn’t.
Let me tell you something else: We should be wresting through what people of color have to say. Even when it makes us uncomfortable. ESPECIALLY when it makes us uncomfortable.
Listen, from one white to another, we need to stop discrediting the voices of people of color on the basis that we haven’t experienced what they’re sharing. As whites, we’ve been so wrapped up in a culture holding whiteness as the standard it has made it impossible to see clearly even when we’re staring directly at that which we’re missing. (Remember my ‘Guess Who?’ game?) For generations, we have marginalized minorities and their voices so we don’t even realize when we’re still doing it. I hate how it took having a child of color for me to start seriously seeking out the voices of POC; until it was a concern in my own family I was mostly oblivious. Even after digging in much deeper over the last few years, it was still hard for me to read those tweets about the conference. I admit this with despair but honesty in order to show you how much we are missing the boat by dismissing the grievances voiced by POC. We are continuing to attempt to keep them in the box we have created without realizing we’ve done so because our instinct is to immediately take personal what is being said. We’d prefer not to have to deal with the discomfort of discerning what we should truly be hearing in their message.
Once I could get past my inclination to take their grievances about the conference as a dismissal of my experience, I heard something completely different. I didn’t hear them telling me my experiences at the conference were invalid. I didn’t hear them saying I was a bad person for attending. I heard how it could have been so much richer with the voices of POC. I heard how I should be making an even more concerted effort to seek out voices from walks of life different from my own, from people who look different from me. I heard how I needed to be sensitive of the POC attending the conference and how they were unable to see their own faces reflected in the line up of speakers and I needed to consider the message this sent them.
I am a lover of Jesus, thus, I am a lover of people.
Loving people means looking past ourselves. Consider, would you, how our experiences may not be the best or only way to learn and grow. Consider that the cries of POC may not be spoken in order to personally wound us, but to call out an injustice long held in white Christian circles. Consider how our point of views and our faith may be blessed by broadening our horizons. Consider how our history may have blinded us to the plights of others merely because of our skin tone. Consider looking at the world through a different lens before reacting and responding. And, most importantly, consider seeking out faces different from our own to listen to, learn from, and support.
We were not meant to be divided.
We can learn from each other.
And not everything is about us.