Seeing the Other: Friendship and Race

“Tattoos and no-tattoos can be friends,” my 5-year-old daughter interjects into our small group’s conversation about tattoos on a Tuesday evening.

Yes, I assure her, we can be friends with people who look different from us.

We live in divided and divisive times. We can categorize our neighbors into endless groups. Red states and blue states. Christians and “non-believers.” Protestant and Catholic. Evangelical and mainline Protestant. Blue collar and white collar. Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.

I met my childhood best friend when she invited me to her sixth birthday party, as we stood together on the steps outside our elementary school. She was friendly and open in that way that only young children can be. I eagerly accepted the invitation and began a friendship that would last through high school and into the early years of college.

She was brown-skinned and I was white. Race wasn’t something we ever talked about, unless she brought it up in a joking way. “I don’t like white people,” she sometimes said, “except you and my mom.” She called herself a Nigerian princess.

I remember lots of sleepovers, Michael Jackson dance contests, endless rounds of Monopoly. I remember playing soccer in the Oregon rain. I remember going to see the Dave Matthews Band play in the Gorge, and the time the WOW Hall advertised our theater troupe on the same poster as a Slick Rick show. I remember writing rap songs for the band we started in third grade, and in college when our drunk friend got locked in a dorm room stairwell overnight I remember never laughing so much as I did with her.

I don’t remember ever asking my best friend about race, about what it was like to be one of the only brown-skinned kids in our school. Was it hard for her? If it was, she never let me know. Our high school group was a microcosm of diversity for Eugene, with three of my closest friends being ethnic minorities with immigrant parents from Nigeria, Korea, and Mexico.

Our friendship ended as suddenly and inexplicably as it began, with her one day choosing to stop returning my calls without any falling out or slow drifting away.

In college and beyond, my friendships seem to have become more and more homogenous. We are a 99 percent white, upwardly mobile, advanced degree holding, NPR-listening group of folks. We like to talk about social justice. We have backyard chickens and drink kombucha. We go to church, or used to before becoming disillusioned with organized religion. If we do have tattoos, they are discrete.

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Backyard chickens are so trendy right now! Too bad they attract rats.

I tell myself that my friends are similar to me because I don’t have many opportunities to get to know people who are different. But is that entirely true?

“You are the light of the world — like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.” — Matthew 5:14-15 (NLT)

It’s certainly easier to be friends with people who share similar backgrounds and interests as ourselves. But Jesus calls us to be a light to the world, something I can’t do if I remain cloistered in my kombucha-drinking, NPR-listening corner of the church. For my part, I want to be more intentional about widening my circle of acquaintances to include more diversity of race, religion, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation. Within the Church as a whole, we also need to do a better job of promoting dialogue between Christians with different political views and scriptural interpretations.

I wish I could go back to the openness of childhood, when it was so easy to make friends with anyone regardless of what they looked like or who their parents were. Fourteen years after my friendship with my Nigerian princess best friend ended, it still hurts to write about her. I wish we could go back to being friends like we used to be, but time has changed us, and we can’t ever go back to that place we stood, two first graders on the steps outside our elementary school, fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream without even knowing.

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I wrote this post as part of a series on “Seeing the Other,” for the CitySalt Church blog. 

photo credit: numstead rooster via photopin (license)

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