My church hosts a monthly gathering where we discuss issues related to racial and ethnic justice in America. We’ve had speakers - a young woman brought here from Mexico when she was a year old and who now may face deportation, a Muslim man who was openly accepted on his college campus until a day in mid-September 2001 changed that, an African American member of our congregation who grew up in Chicago. We go around our tables and listen respectfully to each person’s responses to hard questions.
One night, the woman sitting next to me, a woman I’ve sat with and talked with several times over the months, told me that my long, straight hair was a trigger to her. This woman is of “mixed race.” Her skin is light - almost as pale as mine - but her hair speaks to her African heritage. She told me how she was teased in junior high school by some girls with long, straight, blond hair because of her dark, kinky hair. She knew that I wasn’t one of those girls, but still, seeing me, being close to me, brought back painful memories.
I told her about when I was in high school, and I attended a school recently integrated by busing. And there were a couple of African American girls in my classes who were initially curious about my hair. What did I do to make it so straight and long? They actually didn’t believe that it just grew that way. They had never before been close up to someone with hair like mine. They reached out to touch it, and then pulled their hands away as if it were something strange and dangerous. Unfortunately, it did not stop with that. They would come up behind me an pull my hair - in the hall way, in class, during a school assembly. And then there were comments in the locker room before and after gym. Because of my obvious, even stereotypical, “whitenes,” I became a focal point for their feelings of bitterness and anger towards the white race. Feelings that they had every right to have - but maybe not to direct at me.
The message here is not that - news flash! - teenagers can be cruel, especially to those who are different from them. It doesn’t even matter that we vividly remember those experiences with pain more than forty years later. What does matter is that we come together to share our experiences, honestly, lovingly, and that we say “sorry” - even for something that’s not our fault - and forgive each other.