Risking Foot in the Mouth Disease

This is the last in my series of blogs on race.  The previous ones are Why Aren’t People Talking to Me?, Do you Think Chinese Girls are Pretty?, and Why Louisiana Hot Sauce Didn’t Go With Chinese Stir Fry.

25 years ago, on a summer urban missions project, I put my foot in my mouth.

“You look like Aunt Jemima,” I said to an African-American friend wearing a bandana over her head.

She looked at me without a smile, “Kathy, it’s because I love you that I will forgive you, but don’t EVER say something like that again.”

Instantly abashed, I knew I had made some huge mistake, but didn’t completely understand why.  Call me clueless.

In the 25 years since, racial reconciliation has been my passion.  But frankly, if you’re going to have multiethnic friendships, multiethnic colleagues, and work in a multiethnic context, you’re going to make mistakes.

A lot of mistakes.

Glenn Kehrein, the former director of Circle Urban Ministries and co-founder of The Rock of Our Salvation Church, an intentionally interracial church, used to say, “Any conflict will become a racial conflict—it can be over the color of this piece of paper, and it’ll be a racial issue.”

Today, on the last day of Black History Month, as I conclude my series of writing on race, I’d like to make a plea for us to listen, dialogue and forgive.  But to MAKE THE EFFORT, even though we offend our friends and get offended in return.

So how do we negotiate the reality that racial issues will arise if we engage in interracial contact?

At Circle and Rock, I learned about intentionally creating dialogue so everything came into the open.  Raleigh Washington, Rock Church’s pastor, held “Chocolate” meetings where Blacks talked and asked questions, “Vanilla” nights, where Whites did the same, and “Fudge Ripple” nights where he (the only one who sat in on both meetings) read everything that came up in both groups, keeping the speakers anonymous, while everyone ate Fudge Ripple ice cream.

When I led the New York City Urban Program, we expanded to “Fudge,” “Coffee,” “Butterscotch,” and “Vanilla” nights with an “All Sundae” night at the end.  The first “All Sundae” night, we couldn’t find coffee ice cream anywhere—which led to lots of angst from all flavors.  We finally found coffee syrup for our next meeting, and even though it was nasty stuff, everyone was happy.

Because everyone was represented.

At our flavor meetings, you could get mad.  You could get offended.  You could have heated conversations.  But keeping secrets wasn’t an option.  And neither was harboring bitterness.  Because Jesus says if we don’t forgive, we won’t get forgiven.

I just spent February vacation week on a family reunion cruise.  The first night, the cruise director, as he interviewed a young Asian child who wouldn’t answer his questions said, “No speakee Engleesh?”

At least that’s what I, and my siblings all heard.

Whew!  I thought, that’s not a very culturally sensitive way to talk to a cruise that’s crammed full of Asian-Americans, 99.9% of whom speak perfect English.

I didn’t know what to do.  I sure didn’t want to spend my hard-earned vacation dealing with race issues.

Eventually, my sibs and I talked.   We decided we wouldn’t write a complaint—if this was a fire-able offense, we certainly didn’t want him to lose his job.  Our goal was to create a teachable moment, so we settled on talking in person.

We tossed around who should be spokesperson—none of us loved the idea of confronting someone on a painful issue—and finally decided  on my sister who was housed in concierge class.  After all, she’d spent the big bucks.

She called, and he was instantly apologetic.  He said he doesn’t recall saying “No speakee Engleesh?” just “Engleesh,” but that the moment the word rolled of his tongue he was mortified, didn’t know what to do and obviously couldn’t take it back.

We forgave him, moved on and had a great time.

If we engage with others across racial and ethnic lines we will mess up.  We’ll say things we wish we could take back.  But if we make the effort to listen well and dialogue, my prayer for us is that we’ll have friends across the racial spectrum.  That so much trust and care will be created that we can say and hear in return, “It’s because I love you that I will forgive you.”

  • http://www.dorothygrecophotography.com dorothy greco

    Great post Kathy. My fear of screwing up has definitely resulted in tentativeness. (see my blog post http://web.me.com/dorothygreco/www.dorothygrecophotography.com/Blog/Entries/2011/3/4_Diversity.html) Here’s hoping I’ll keep risking it and find friends gracious enough to forgive me in the process.

  • http://www.dorothygrecophotography.com dorothy greco

    PS – Actually what terrifies me even more than making stupid mistakes is the possibility of the person I’ve offended not saying anything and simply writing me off until the end times.

  • http://esosweet.blogspot.com erin

    Sometimes its our innocence that causes problems. I can think of situations where I, like you, genuinely did not know I was being offensive. I think sometimes we forget about a person’s heart. If someone wasn’t making a racial slur we need to offer them forgiveness and correction. If someone was intentionally making a racial slur then that is a whole different ball game. Neither is right, but one can be fixed, one is so much deeper.

    Thanks for writing this!

  • Lisa Lamb

    Thanks for this great post, Kathy. Love covers a multitude of sins, and staying in the game in this area gives us a chance to experience a lot of love!


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