I went for a jog last month in the middle of the afternoon. Normally I run early in the morning and I only see a handful of folks. Dog-walkers, early birds leaving for work, maybe a fellow runner or two. So jogging in the afternoon was a whole new experience for me. As I made my way down the street and through our neighborhood, I saw all sorts of people out and about. People planting flowers, mowing their lawns, chatting with friends, playing basketball, running to the playground, running through sprinklers, you name it. And it was the first time in my life, I think, that I have genuinely felt my skin. I didn’t see a single other white person while I was out on my run that day and I was surprised to find that I was keenly aware of it.
Of course I’ve been aware of my whiteness before. But I can probably count the times on one hand and never in such an organic way that didn’t spring from some effort on my part to take notice. It wasn’t an uncomfortable feeling, per se. We live in a diverse neighborhood and it’s common for me to see women in full or partial hijab, turbans, saris, and every conceivable color of skin while I’m out walking or running or playing with my kids. But it’s very rare that I wouldn’t see at least one other white person. And I felt aware of my skin and my body in a noticeable way.
I’m always aware of my body as a woman. Sucking in my stomach. Monthly menstrual cramps. Trying to find a
straightjacket sports bra. Crossing to the other side of the street because I’m alone and there’s a man up ahead whose look is lingering. Crossing my legs in a meeting. Pulling my shirt down to cover my backside when a guy gets on the treadmill next to mine. Clutching my keys between each finger when walking alone at night or moving briskly down the middle of the street rather than on the sidewalk where it’s supposed to be safer so as not to invite harassment or catcalling or assault. Yes, I’m aware of my female body.
But I’m not aware of my skin. I don’t have to be. I’m white so I’m fortunate enough to be around people who look like me in nearly every place and every space I choose to occupy.
So what about those who can’t say the same? Folks like my friend from college, who is always aware of her skin and constantly on the lookout to see if her kids will be the only ones who aren’t white at Sunday School or VBS or on the playground. Think about that. If I took my boys to a preschool where the rest of the class was entirely female, it would give me pause. Or if they were the only preschoolers in a group of 3rd graders in an art class, I would worry about them. Anytime you think your kid is the ONLY one in any particular setting, you fret and you worry and you wonder about your choices. Imagine feeling that for your kids on a daily basis.
Or how about my friend from church who can remember feeling different and standing out because of her skin all the way back in preschool. That’s a LONG time to feel like you don’t fit in. She’s aware of her skin on some level nearly all of the time. Whether it’s being the only non-white person in a group, grappling with something like Seattle’s recent production of Mikado which parodies Asian culture with an all-white cast, or facing ignorant microaggressions on a weekly, if not daily, basis, she always feels her skin in a way that I don’t.
So what’s a white person to do? Why should we care? From a Christian perspective, at least, we should care because we are commissioned to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, right? Romans 12:15. It’s a classic. But how can we hope to do either if we have no earthly clue what a non-white-person’s day-to-day life experience is like? We know that the church is supposed to be living into and pressing toward the vision God gives us of shalom, of the world as God intended it to be, in Revelation 7:9. But we cannot do that if we don’t at least try to understand the experience of those who do not look like us, eat like us, live like us.
And that begs the question of how. How might we go about this? How might we understand something that is so far beyond our own daily experience? I think we can practice solidarity with people who are not like us by sitting in the knowledge that we have had a different experience and thus an easier road. We can sit in the discomfort of that knowledge without trying to alleviate it. And we can find those places where we feel our skin, even in small ways, and choose to occupy those spaces whenever possible.
For me, that means belonging to the YMCA rather than, say, Gold’s Gym. Our local Y is perhaps the closest thing I have ever seen to a fulfillment of that vision of shalom from Revelation 7:9. I have interacted with people from nearly every walk of life at the Y and I feel my skin there in a way that I never felt it at 24 Hour Fitness. It means choosing to live in a neighborhood that is predominantly non-white. And it means sticking around even when things feel uncomfortable and some of your neighbors are moving away for “safer” places. It means choosing to take my boys to playgrounds where they will be the only white kids so they have a chance to feel their skin, too. It means attending a church that is striving to be a place of authentic diversity.
Will I ever “get it?” No. I won’t ever know what it’s like to be a person of color. And I certainly don’t have it all figured out. But it’s vital that we continue to engage in the difficult work of solidarity. It’s vital that we hear the stories and the experiences of people who have to walk a different road. It’s vital that we keep pressing into those spaces where we feel even just a tad bit uncomfortable. Because it’s the only way we can ever hope to genuinely weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. It’s the only way we can ever hope to catch a glimpse of the world as God intended it to be. And in light of current world events, I’d sure like to catch a glimpse, wouldn’t you?