It was the early sixties when racial tensions in the south were hot and restless. I had not been exposed to such racial issues. My Idaho neighborhood all looked the same; brown heads, red heads and blondes. I had friends and family members from the Mexican community, but only knew one black family that lived in our town. In my view, people were meant to get along. We did as far as I knew. Racial discrimination may have happened, but it was never a part of my small world.
On many train routes during the sixties dining cars were limited. Passenger trains had scheduled hour meal stops. Directions to few cafes were announced and available within a short radius of the station. It was before the growth of fast food chains so choices were limited. Passengers debarked for an hour lunch or dinner break. We became familiar with the stops on a our long journey to San Antonio. It was a new travel experience for this young Idaho girl: a north-south, cross-country train ride to San Antonio, Texas traveling with her mother.
As an innocent eleven-year-old, I witnessed my first experience of segregation. It happened in the only cafe we were directed to dine in at our train meal stop. It was the black uniformed GI, the quiet soldier who sat directly across the aisle from us, who was turned out of the cafe. I was in direct view of the angry owner’s eviction.
In total dismay, I rushed out of the cafe and ran after the young man. Shocked and crying, I asked what he wanted to eat; he politely dismissed it, but I insisted on bringing him something to eat.
I went back to my unsuspecting mom who was left wondering what just happened. It was then, at that shocking moment, I knew I had been deeply affected by skin color discrimination. I couldn’t understand it. The full significance grew as I became older.
I tasted the humiliating pain of segregation and I knew I did not like it. I ached inside with seeing the dismantling of human dignity. And I felt indignant.
When we experience the pain of discrimination, we are confronted just how we choose to live. Do we become dismissive, combative, or do we stand up to what we know is just and right? We will always have a choice.
This one childhood experience affected the many opportunities I took to be embrace the better choice. I began to learn about other cultures, to relate to other races and those different from myself.
It is amazing what one learns with experiencing life from other perspectives: life with other cultures. It stretches one, out of comfort levels. It changes our limited perspective into a broader life experience.
My stretching came as an adult. We had recently moved into the Washington D C area and we soon became acquainted with our neighbors. The husband was Nigerian and the wife from The Republic of Guyana, South America.
We were invited to a holiday party which we accepted to attend. Upon arrival, we met dozens of their friends and work associates. The clear distinction was we were the only white couple there. That moment of awareness is when we experienced the reality of being the minority. Although we had a brief moment of awkwardness, we used it as a learning experience.
We taught our children to accept people for who they were, not by the color of their skin. We continued our acceptance and building diverse friends. We accepted them into our home, eating at our table and sharing life with our family. I continue to make that choice today.
Perhaps the greatest gift I have received in embracing diversity is my enlargement of my own family. My two children have interracial marriages. I have four lovely Hispanic grandchildren and two West Indian black granddaughters. And recently, a foster African American granddaughter. I love the enrichment of diversity. I love my UN family.
Maybe it is time to finally learn to shake ourselves from complacency. Loosen the tightness of our own family and established friends and expand inclusion of others that are different. Share our rich human resources. It is amazing the creative ideas, the strengths, the compassion to influence we can give to one another for our mutual good.
If only we could lay aside our prejudged minds of racial separation. Let’s be the tipping point of change so needed for reconciliationin in this sad day of recent racial tragedies. Be generous in acceptance and love, the many things we need . . . to heal our hearts and land.