I certainly didn’t think I was a racist or a bigot. I thought I was anything but! I’m nearly 70 years old and I have spent my life judging and condemning bigots and racists, many of whom have been family members. I saw myself as liberal, open minded, tolerant and accepting of all people of any race, color or religious belief. That is until I went shopping with my ninety-two year old mother the other day. We had gone to the mall where I shopped as a young woman. It was the mall my father worked on as a building inspector some fifty plus years ago. It felt like we were going to a familiar place although I had not been there for nearly thirty years. I was struck by all of the changes that had been made but the department store we went to was well known to me and did not appear to be any different than this brand of store in other parts of the country where I had lived. There was no problem so far. As a matter of fact, while waiting in line to check out, a lovely woman with an accent standing in line in front of us offered to my mother to go ahead of her. My mother asked her why she would do this and the woman just smiled and moved out of the pathway to the counter. I thanked the woman and we struck up a conversation. She was pleasant and open and so was I. I learned she was Chaldean and had been living in this country about eleven years. We chatted about children and grandchildren as we waited in line. No problem here. I was happy to have been able to be neighborly and appreciative of this thoughtful person, plus, I learned a little bit about her life and her country.
I ran into trouble though, when my mother and I went to buy socks for my father in the Men’s department. When we went to check out three young Arabic looking men were attending the Men’s department registers. Their English was fair but they had heavy accents and it was apparent that at least two of them were in training. I struggled to identify what I was feeling as I clearly felt anxious and uncomfortable around these young men. I did not hold anything against them personally, I wished the best for them, but I could not deny the fear that was in my heart. Of what, I’m not sure. Perhaps it is as simple as the fear of the unknown. Perhaps it is fear that has been stoked by the media coverage of the violence and unrest in the countries that, to me, these young men represented. I found it interesting that the foreign men generated this fear where the woman did not. Whatever it was, I was sure I would not shop there again unless I had to. The plan was to run back to my comfort zone of white, middle class stores staffed by white men and white or Black women who do not make me feel threatened or vulnerable.
So there it is – my intolerance. I had no real reason to fear those men but somewhere inside me is a belief that I am not safe with some types of people even though they have never threatened me or harmed me. I feel the same way around young black men if I pass them on the street. It’s not them, it’s in me. I grew up in an all white suburb and, as a young person I never socialized with non-white people or people of non-Christian faiths. My life experiences have broadened me somewhat over the years, but today I see I am still an “old white woman” intimidated by “otherness”.
On second thought, I think I will go back to that store. I think I will challenge myself to stretch out of those comfort zones a little bit, if only to grow enough to be able to see the Christ in each one of them. To really be “present”, rather than scared, until there is that connection that reminds me we are all one. I’m not too old to do that!