Neighbor to Neighbor

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Can we talk candidly, neighbor to neighbor, man to man? I know we share the same street and belong to the same community association. Our kids are good friends, have grown up together. I know, too, that we are part of the same family of faith, though we worship in different places and in a different style. I see your compassion for those in need and how effectively you and your family minister in the community. We have much in common, you and I, but we do have one enormous difference. You are black and I am white. This is not something we talk much about, other than in jest or humor. We are more comfortable staying in our areas of commonality - home maintenance, issues on the street, ministry talk, that sort of thing. I think we are pretty good neighbors. We always smile and wave and we work together well on community workdays. I think we share a healthy respect for each other and are genuinely supportive of each other's unique callings. I feel like we are there for each other when needs arise - at least to some degree. We are both aware that we view reality through very different eyes - yours through the experience of a black American male, mine through the lens of a male dominated white culture. I think we understand something of each other's worlds (admittedly your understanding of mine is probably greater than mine of yours). Yet for some reason we steer far clear of talking together about how those worlds look.

Do you know that I care (that I am even aware) that you must live every day of your life with the realization that much of our society views you as inferior? Though you have never said a word, I know that your senses are acutely tuned to a thousand subtle (and not so subtle) daily messages that confirm this prejudice. Like the reaction of surprise from whites when they discover your intelligence. And their compliments, meant to affirm, but that in fact reveal their underlying beliefs about "your kind." I know that you have to constantly push yourself to perform at a higher level than your white counterparts just to offset the negative stereotypes that your black maleness carries with it. I see how the security police pay more attention to you when you go shopping than they do to me. And how the teachers at school have treated our children differently, expecting less of yours that they did of mine. I am aware of these inequities and though there has never seemed to be the right occasion to express it, I do care.

What makes it difficult for me to say anything is the mild uneasiness I carry by being born a child of privilege (not that this keeps me from taking full advantage of the perks). Though I do not laugh at racist jokes and though I make a conscious effort to be a corrective influence, I am a male member in good standing of the dominant culture that has created and sustains these inequities. It is more than guilt by association. I enjoy the daily benefits of participating in a system that favors me above you. Perhaps if I could merely acknowledge this to you it would help to open a dialogue.

But there is a much larger barrier between us - one that I hesitate to even admit to myself, let alone to you. My own racism. I am not just a passive participant in a society of inequities. As much as I wish it weren't true, I am a bearer of those attitudes. Did you know that I struggle, too, with prejudice? I carry from my childhood a store of racial biases that I must make conscious and consistent efforts to counteract. My internal work is different from yours, of course. While you have to practice the daily discipline of forgiveness for real and imagined offences against your blackness, I must practice daily vigilance against my own stereotyping tendencies. I cannot imagine how relentless, how exhausting your work must be. Nor would I put my struggle in the same league with yours. But I do struggle, nevertheless. And I do weary of the work. I wish you could know this about me.

I weary of forever being seen as the white oppressor. I weary of the attitudes and looks I receive from black cashiers at the grocery store and from groups of young people that walk by my house. I weary of being judged without being known. I weary of being told lies and half-truths by those who want something from me (or worse, by those who despise me). I understand why those wanting access to my resources are reluctant to tell me the whole story, why they play to the values of their would-be benefactor. I would doubtless do the same were I in their position. But it is tiring, nonetheless, to have to filter every interaction through a screen of skepticism. I tire of disingenuous smiles that conceal resentment and animosity and who knows what all else. It is wearing to live where trust is scarce.

Don't get me wrong. I am not complaining or looking for sympathy. My burden is miniscule compared to yours. And I can always choose to move to a more homogeneous neighborhood where I'll be surrounded by my own kind - just as you can. Then at least we would have a measure of relief from these racial issues that stare us in the face 24 hours a day. We wouldn't have to keep waltzing around these barriers between us, letting on like they don't exist. But then we would never get to really know each other, would we? At least here we have the chance to narrow the divide to something as approachable as a fence between our homes. Perhaps our good-natured humor can serve as an invitation to step across on occasion into each other's worlds. Maybe one day I'll even find the courage to share this letter with you.

Bob Lupton

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