My husband and I are very comfortable talking about racial differences. It’s a daily staple of our lives. He worries about how my pale skin sunburns in literally a handful of minutes and he drives me nuts because when the lights are out, all he has to do is close his eyes and I can’t see him. We don’t see any reason to tiptoe around who we are. It’s an adventure for us to explore how the other experiences the world.
Sometimes we forget other people don’t see it quite the same way. Living abroad as we have the last few years, we’re so used to being the outsiders. A few months ago we met up in Maebashi with some American missionaries. Technically they were proselytizing us. We had been very open that we were content in our current belief system but they had asked to meet anyway and we enjoy good natured debate as well as meeting new people, so we agreed to lunch at the station MacDonald’s.
It was a hot sunny day. We met just outside and as we stood there in the sun, my husband started fussing over whether I was all right in the sun with my still healing sunburn. “You and your superior African genes!” I groused. My husband never burns. Sometimes he gets a red hue to his skin, but it’s an undertone. “It’s not like you ever burn!”
My husband laughed. “But you do, so I get to worry about you.” He dropped an arm over my shoulder and turned me around, pulling me under the shade. The two people we were were meeting looked gobsmacked. “It’s all right,” I said. “We’re very comfortable talking about racial differences.”
Our companions had no comeback. In fact, there was a distinct note of silence. Think foot shuffling, hand rubbing and quick glances anywhere but straight in the eyes. My husband and I quickly filled the silence by discussing seating and the busy ordering area in MacDonald’s. The thought of good old American fries and burgers rescued the moment.
Our companions were good people. They meant the best and they were definitely of the tolerant persuasion, willing to accept people who were different than them, at least to a point. But despite all that, they didn’t know who how to handle face-to face-openness of those differences. So often you hear people preach about tolerance, acceptance and the good points of diversity. But what about interaction with diversity. What about reveling in it? Living in it? It’s not a glass wall to look and say, yes, I’m educated enough to like looking at this. It’s not art on a wall, people!
This is important. It’s not effective and dynamic diversity at a personal relationship level, a group level, and institution or organizational level, unless we can talk about, joke about, handle recognition of differences with humor, grace and dignity. Differences aren’t bad! Being different than the person sitting next to you is awesome. It means you have something special to share, a different angle to bring to talking a problem, a story to tell. But we can’t enjoy all these benefits if we can’t open our mouth and talk about them.