There’s a restaurant in our town that has the following message on one side of its sign out front: Let’s take back our country! The owner is very politically conservative and believes two of the greatest evils eroding our nation’s character are illegal immigration and a liberal co-opting of foreign cultural and political practices that will strip away what makes us distinctively “American”. The other side of his sign? Best spaghetti in town. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
If you live in a larger city it will be difficult for me to explain to you just how white a place can be. Allow me to make a few factual statements that will help you understand: I literally cannot remember the last time I spoke face to face with a black person in Greenville. The only times I have ever spoken to a Latino person in this town (who wasn’t my daughter or my best friend) have been at the Mexican restuarant. I talk to a Chinese family a couple times a month…when I order carryout. Indians? Arabs? Japanese? Be serious.
The 2010 Census revealed Greenville to be 96.7% white, 1.4% Hispanic, 0.9% black, 0.7% Asian, 0.2% Native American. All other races were either non-existent or statistically negligible. In the year before we brought Yoselin home, another family we know in town also adopted from Guatemala. I did the math – these three children increased the Latino population in our town by almost 2%.
When we aren’t able to spend time around a people group who aren’t like us, it’s difficult to hold an accurate, healthy image of that people group in our heads. We may want to, and we certainly can if we try, but it’s tough. A town with racial homogeneity ends up with subtle, latent prejudices that would counterintuitively decrease if the objects of those prejudices were actually present in greater numbers. Some people are prejudiced because they can be and have never had to confront why they shouldn’t be.
A few years ago in a Bible study a man in his thirties said to me I hate it when I see these illegal immigrants driving around. For once, I wasn’t tongue-tied in a situation like this. Yeah, I said, and since they have Illegal Immigrant written on the back of their cars so you can know for sure, it’s like they’re taunting you. He chuckled, saw the look on my face and realized what was going on, and the smile faded from his.
This is what I need you to know: that man? He’s one of the best men I know. He isn’t racist. He and his wife are foster parents, and they’ve had black children in their home, and he has loved them as his own. He believes God loves every human being on this earth. If a Latino person’s car broke down in front of his house, I have no doubt he would spend the entire afternoon helping the person fix it, and feed them dinner, and go out of his way to be kind, and probably have his own heart changed in the process. He is not racist. He had just allowed an assumption, educated by popular stereotypes and unchallenged by regular experience in his daily life, to be influenced by his political convictions and, because there were no social pressures to prevent it, he spoke out of that ignorance. I love this man. He’s a good person.
In the absence of racial diversity, it only takes the smallest seed of prejudice, conscious or subconscious, to lead a person to hold unhealthy opinions of other people. We do this about more than just racial differences, all of us. When I see people who fit the stereotype of being “white trash”, I assume they are uneducated and narrowminded. Oh, the irony. We all carry a certain amount of tribal defensiveness, whether our tribes align along racial, religious or cultural divides. And if we aren’t regularly bumping shoulders with people from the other tribes and having our sharp edges worn off, we think stupid things, and we say stupid things.
Yesterday one of my readers, Vicki, asked why on earth we were choosing to raise Yosi in this town. She is half-Mexican and grew up in a similar setting and shared the frustration she felt growing up. I appreciated her heart on this, and my own heart aches at some of the alienation and awkwardness Yosi is going to experience. Lyndie and I have considered many times moving to an area with more diversity. Ultimately, we made the decision to stay.
We felt Yosi would benefit more from have an extended family and community around her than being in an area where she might belong more ethnically but lack those things. Her race and ethnic cultural heritage are important, and we want to do all we can to provide opportunities for her to identify with those. Ultimately though, when faced with the choice, we felt it was more essential to her sense of identity and belonging to grow up in a network of close family and friends who love her, cousins to play with, grandparents to spoil her, people we trust who can help raise and nurture her. She needs people who look like her, yes. And we need to do better about seeking them out and providing those situations. But it’s not the only thing she needs. She needs love, and she has that here.