Questions in Black and White

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When my husband was in seminary, I commuted to Dallas on the train for work. I had to leave the house at 5:50 every morning and spent about two hours riding to my office. Remember how I’m not a morning person? It was rough. I managed to get through it by chatting with interesting people, and one woman in particular has been on my mind of late.

I was a little late getting to the train and barely made it on. I ended up in a different car than usual, and eventually I found myself sitting around a table with an older black woman and a few other young white women about my age. We were all pretty quiet, watching the sun rise as the train sped toward Dallas, and one of the ladies was reading a paper. I noticed the front page headline:

60 percent of black children can’t swim

The sentence was mind-boggling to me. Everyone I knew could swim except one kid from church who was afraid of the water after a near-drowning. I couldn’t pull my eyes from the statistic, but when I finally did, they fell on the black woman sitting across from me.

Even I, the queen of social awkwardness, knew I shouldn’t ask. I argued with myself. I told myself to look it up when I got to the office. I imagined a large can of worms being dumped on the table between us.

But this is me. Curiosity won out.

“Ma’am,” I said, getting the woman’s attention, “I just saw that headline on the paper. Why don’t black kids know how to swim?”

There. I asked it, and I couldn’t take it back. I was ready for her to ignore me or growl at me or maybe something worse. The worms were about the hit the table. Instead she smiled.

“Honey, when I was growing up, we weren’t allowed to swim in your pools.”

I don’t what I expected, but it wasn’t that. The ugly fact was spoken with such a kind tone. My eyes dropped to the table, and I felt heat in my cheeks.

“I didn’t realize that was so recent. That’s…” I remember struggling for words and finally settling on “…messed up.”

“Yes, it wasn’t that long ago, but you’re too young to know.” She told me back then if you were black the only swimming options were lakes or creeks, and they were usually dirty and dangerous. Most black people her age just never learned.

“And if I don’t know how to swim, how am I gonna teach my kids?”

“That makes perfect sense. I feel dumb.”

“You’re not dumb. You just didn’t know.”

She told me more of her experiences growing up with segregated pools, water fountains, and schools. The other ladies at the table asked her more questions, and she answered every one. She was kind but blunt. She didn’t blame us, but she also didn’t spare our feelings. I have never been so grateful for someone giving me grace in my ignorance. I thanked her for talking to me and told her I wouldn’t forget it. She got up for her stop and told me she was happy to help.

“Thanks for asking.”

That conversation made me realize that sin has generational effects. Getting rid of Jim Crow laws didn’t heal hearts or even mend fences. The consequences of segregation were real and lasting, even if I was lucky enough not to feel them. I wondered what else I didn’t know.

Last week I remembered that black woman’s willingness to educate a young white woman on a train and wondered what if? What if we all were willing not only to listen but to ask? What if we started the conversation instead of waiting for the other side? I think I’m fairly normal in that I worry I’ll offend someone of a different race no matter how innocuous my comment or question might be. I debated with myself for two days about whether I should call the woman black or African American and finally settled on black because that’s what she called herself, but I’m still concerned someone will be upset with me. I have friends and family of different ethnicities whom I love and trust, and I know they would tell me anything I wanted to know from haircare to food to politics. The truth is it’s easier on me to not talk about it.

I realized after Charlottesville that it’s not about my comfort. I need to be willing to ask first like I did that sleep-deprived morning on the train. I am once again wondering what I don’t know because I’ve been too afraid to ask. If you are white, I invite you to enter into the awkwardness of talking about race. You’ll have red cheeks and sweaty palms. You’ll feel ashamed, confused, and ignorant. You might want to run away from the conversation. Don’t. Ask your black and brown brothers and sisters about their experiences. So many want to tell their stories if we are willing to listen.

If sin has generational effects so do love and compassion. Let’s start the conversation and change the future.

These little arms belong to a dear friend’s first baby and my youngest shortly after they were born last year.

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” -Philippians 2:4

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