When we talk about “otherness,” it’s important to remember that we’re all “other” to someone. My otherness includes the fact that I’m a straight, white, middle-class male who was born in Chicago, raised in the mainline Protestant tradition, grew up in an affluent, all-white Chicago suburb and, at age 77, am certifiably old.
By 2045, over half of the U.S. population will be people of who do not look like me, people of color. Some white people fear this fact — and at this very moment, their fear is being amplified and exploited by people who seek political power.
If you believe as I do that diversity is to be welcomed, not feared, you’ve probably heard some version of this adage:
“The more you know about another’s story, the less fearsome and more human that person becomes.”
It’s equally true that the better we understand our own stories, the more human we become. Revisiting our own experiences with otherness and trying to learn from them is key to becoming the people we want to be. It gives us a chance to live into the best of our stories and transcend the worst.
Here are brief stories of five moments when I learned something important about “the other,” myself, and how we are related. I share them not because my experiences are anything special but in the hope that my stories will encourage you to revisit your own.
Story #1: All four of my grandparents were working-class folks who grew up on farms and had grade-school educations. But there the similarities ended. My father’s parents were people of generosity and grace. My mother’s father was a hard man who had diminished my gentle grandmother’s sense of self.
Sadly, my most vivid memory of my maternal grandfather involves the day he opened his dresser drawer and showed me a prized possession. It was a postcard picturing the charred remains of a black man who had been lynched and burned. I was ten years old, terrified, and wordless. I felt horror and disgust in the face of that photo and of my grandfather — who, in an instant, destroyed whatever bond we had or might have had. Not until I went to college was I able to tell anyone about that experience. I feared that my soul had been indelibly stained by my grandfather’s racism and inhumanity.
Story #2: My memories of my father’s parents are blessedly different. The Iowa farms on which they grew up were not far from the farm of a black man named Sam Bass. During my family’s annual summer visits to Waterloo, we always visited the country cemetery where our ancestors were buried — and without fail those pilgrimages included a visit to Sam Bass’s grave. We’d stand there under the hot sun in the fragrant summer grass while my grandparents told stories about Mr. Bass, as they always called him: stories of his skill at farming, his eagerness to help neighbors in times of trouble, his kind heart, and strong spirit. In effect, we held a yearly memorial service for this good man. I never met Mr. Bass, but to this day he has an honored place in my family’s story.
Story #3: My dad was a Chicago businessman. When I was in high school, he took me to the South Side where I was born, a neighborhood that had become as black as our hometown was white, and as run-down as my town was posh. We walked around for a couple of hours as Dad pointed out the sites of my parents’ early married life and my first year on earth. As we drove home, he asked me how it felt to be there. “Out of place, nervous, and afraid,” I replied.
A year later, Dad and I were walking down Michigan Avenue toward his office on a glorious spring day, in a part of the city that was clean, orderly, and packed with well-dressed white people. A bus pulled up to the curb, and a dozen young black men got off and walked in the front door of the community college they attended. Dad said, “Those young men probably came here from the South Side where you were born. Do you remember how you felt when I took you back there? That’s most likely how those men feel here on the ‘Magnificent Mile.’”
Story #4: I grew up in an all-white suburb and attended a college that had only two black students during my four years there. I never knew a person of color up close and personal until I went to Union Theological Seminary in New York City at age 22. As part of my first-year program, I was assigned to do field work at Riverside Church, a large urban congregation that offered extensive social services and had a sizeable staff. My field work supervisor was a youth minister, one of the best teachers I’ve ever known and an African American. One day, as he began a training session for the Union students working at Riverside, all of us white, he said:
“I want to tell you a story. As you see, I’m dressed casually for a morning of basketball with some of the kids. Later, I’ll get suited up to make a few pastoral calls at their homes. An hour ago, I got on the elevator to go up to my office. Just before the door closed, one of the senior ministers got on. I’ve worked here for a couple of years, but I guess my white brother didn’t recognize me in my civvies. Before he got off, he smiled and said, ‘There’s a clogged toilet down the hall from my office. I’d be grateful if you could fix it this morning.’ We don’t need to talk about this right now. But I want you to remember that story as you go out to work with our kids, many of whom look like me. And I don’t want you to forget it, ever.”
Story #5: My field work assignment involved spending several hours every weekend with junior high students from Spanish Harlem, mixing Sunday School lessons in with sports. I was a privileged, well-educated, young white man with a big ego and a strong sense of mission. Though I had zero experience in the trenches with “otherness,” I was quite certain I knew things these kids needed to know. So I sat them down and gave them talks that might have been OK as comments in a seminary class where everyone knew the big words and was at least mildly interested in the subject. But with these young people, my talks fell far short of OK — so short that they turned the tables and KO’d me.
For five weeks running, they destroyed my lesson plans and my self-confidence in ways well-known to beleaguered teachers — ignoring me, rolling their eyes, whispering, laughing when I tried to restore order, etc. It hurt and hurt big-time, and it was my fault. I was trying to colonize them with ideas that mattered to me but were utterly irrelevant to their challenging young lives, and they were resisting with the only weapons they had.
During our sixth session, I went down for the count: I wept in front of my students, wept long and hard. Then came the miracle: when these youngsters saw the fear and pain hidden behind my bravado, they began to care for me. My lessons made no sense to them, but vulnerability was something they knew from the inside out. Without knowing it, they became my teachers, showing me how shared brokenness can lead to compassion, mutual learning, and community.
Lessons Learned: I don’t want to forget experiences like these, or the endless lessons about “otherness” they have to offer — lessons that served me well when, at age 30, I became a community organizer working on racial justice in Washington, D.C.:
The Postcard Lesson: Racism is brutally ugly, evil, and obscene, in all its forms. If one has been tainted by it, as I was — especially at the hands of a person one is supposed to love and respect — it’s crucial to find some way to scrub off the stain. Even if that means breaking ties with that person.
The Cemetery Lesson: Friendship across racial lines is possible and beautiful, and can pass down the generations just as easily as fear and hatred of “otherness” can. The friendship between my paternal grandparents and Mr. Bass provided me with the soil from which myriad diverse friendships have flowered over my lifetime.
The Michigan Avenue Lesson: Fear of “the other” cuts all ways, and if it goes unattended, it will grow like kudzu and choke out all forms of new life. Once I understand that my whiteness can make people of color feel unsafe, and my straightness can do the same to LGBTQ folks, I have a chance to join in breaking fear’s stranglehold on us before it’s too late.
The Elevator Lesson: Stop making assumptions about “the other,” assumptions that come from the unconscious lenses through which we tend to look at people whom we perceive as “not of our tribe.” Talk to them, learn who they are, and remember what you learn. In the process you’ll learn and remember more about who you really are.
The Spanish Harlem Lesson: Lose the arrogant attitude that “we” know what “they” need to live a good life. Cultivate the humility that opens into a larger truth: I have a lot to learn, and “they” can help me learn it. All I need to do is ask.
What stories about “otherness” do you have to tell, and what can you learn from them about yourself?