The INVITATION. Unhanding Prejudice.
(The following is a chapter from a finished manuscript which I hoped to publish before year-end, but of course 2020 looks nothing like any of us planned for. So for now I wanted to share his chapter, which feels especially relevant to these days we’re all living. Peace to you all. Dana)
I remember when my three grandchildren met each other for the first time. Two of them lived in Europe and the third in the United States. I received photographs the day they met in Berlin—our one-year-old granddaughter meeting her cousins—one older than her and one younger. In one photo, she was smiling and reaching out to touch the littlest one’s face. In another, she was sitting on a toy donkey with the older one. She doesn’t look like them at all—she’s fair and blonde. Her cousins have dark hair and darker skin. Their language must sound strange to her ears, and hers to theirs. Still their curiosity about each other seemed to override their uncertainty. They seemed to intuitively understand they were connected. The sweet photographs of their introduction made me wonder this.
If we’re born with a curiosity about each other, when and why does it begin to dissipate? When is our curiosity replaced by suspicion and caution? When does prejudice enter in?
When I was in middle school, I was quite curious about the ways other people lived in the world—perhaps because Daddy had a subscription to National Geographic which he gladly shared with me. I was an imaginative kid, and I dreamed up stories with me as the lead character set against those exotic backdrops. I fully intended to travel to all of them one day, so it made perfect sense for me to strike up a friendship with someone in another land–specifically a pen pal in Africa. His name was Mulawala Vaghalsa. He wrote to me in broken English and I remember when he signed off on his letters he wrote, My pen is up and my ink is dry. I remember thinking his life was some magical adventure. Our letters consisted of comparisons of our schools, our friends and our families. I would get his letter with many questions and I would respond as quickly as I could with answers and more questions for him. As a girl growing up in an oilfield town in West Texas, Mulawala’s letters added a layer of diversity to my world that was otherwise missing.
The best definition of prejudice I found is this—a preconceived opinion not based on actual experience.
Based on this definition and because we all have preconceived opinions not based on actual experience, we are all bent toward prejudice it seems. It’s my responsibility to look closely at myself and to intentionally move toward actual experiences that will quite likely render most of my preconceived opinions powerless.
Though I’m still working out the why of it all for me, I’ve followed the breadcrumbs of my own prejudice back to their birthplace, and it seems always to begin with apathy or fear of something I don’t understand or have yet to experience—something that exists outside the little bubble where I feel at home. If I’m so settled in where I am—surrounding myself with people only like me—before I know, I can become suspicious, judgmental and dismissive of those unlike me. I can become hesitant and sometimes even fearful towards those who live differently than me—who think and believe in contrast to me. I can cast a wide net over an entire people group based on the bad behavior of some individuals within that group. I’ve found humans are experts at casting wide nets and forming opinions this way. I believe my prejudice often starts there, so there is where I have to unhand it—in the first moment I feel it rooting around in me.
One day we’ll all live in peace. I believe it. It’s truth to me. I’ve read the words and I’m counting on it. A long time ago, it was predicted one day we’ll live in such a state of peace kids will lead lions around. How crazy is that?
I wish that day was this day. I wish it for my children and grandchildren. I wish it for all of us. I know all the firstborns will roll their eyes when I say this, but I’m a middle kid so you know I just want everyone to get along.
Every now and then, for just a bit, everything lines up and I get a glimpse of peace perfected.
Like on one very ordinary day in Germany—on a train ride to Hamburg.
There were five of us traveling that morning on a two-hour ride from the farm to the city. My son, his wife and their two-year old boy. My husband and me. People boarded and people got off at every stop. Among them, new travelers with different faces than those traveling just a few years before. Different languages rolled off their tongues. They were among the estimated one million refugees who’d made their way to the country—most of them from the Middle East and Africa.
A mother and her two children took the seats directly in front of us. They spoke Arabic to each other as they settled in for the ride.
I’m thankful for the curiosity of kids. Train travel is the grandest scavenger hunt for them, and my grandson was all in as he took a few shy steps up the aisle toward the children. As he inched closer, he silently willed the girl and boy to notice him, and they did not disappoint.
The peace talks had begun.
The little girl was about eight years old, and I guessed her brother to be around five. Once our grandson was on their radar, so were we all.
The girl turned in her seat and found a captive audience in my son. When she learned he was American she was intrigued and all the more eager to show off her English language skills, which were quite impressive. She was animated, strong and a bit feisty, this one. Opinionated too. I was certain she never took no for an answer. Her brown eyes were alive with curiosity, and she was self-confident in her knowledge of just about every subject she talked about.
She wondered about our grandson, who looked very similar to her in color. My son explained to the girl that his wife and boy were partly African. She told us she and her family were from Syria—she said they were refugees. They were in Germany visiting her uncle, but their home was in Malta.
I wondered how far her family had traveled when they left Syria. I wondered if they’d been on foot for much of it. I wondered if they’d been displaced for some days, or perhaps even years, before they found a home. As I wondered all these things, I noted there was zero sign of sadness or hardship on their faces. They seemed none the worse for the wear, though I couldn’t imagine how they’d managed it. I don’t know if I could have been so strong.
The girl continued talking about all sorts of things—silly things. She talked about school, as she tucked her hair behind her ear. She seemed completely self-assured and fearless. She was smart, seamlessly switching back and forth between two languages as she acted as the interpreter for her mother and us. It was a role she took quite seriously.
Over the seat in front of me, I had direct eye contact with her mother. Once when my son asked the little boy a question, his big sister jumped in and answered for him, as big sisters often do. I watched the mother address her girl in Arabic, and I instinctively knew she was telling her daughter to let her little brother speak for himself—the same thing I would’ve said to my own children. When our eyes met, I smiled. She rolled her eyes and shook her head—the universal substitute for the words Oh boy! Kids! What are you going to do with them! Then despite our language barrier we laughed—each of us connected in that moment by the sameness of motherhood—she in her hijab and me in my ball cap. We were sitting close and breathing the same air and sharing the same story for that moment in time, and it was enough. I’m telling you it is enough. It’s all we need to be really okay with each other—to be close enough to see the parts of us that are alike. To venture close in body and heart.
I can’t remember who exited the train first, but before it happened the little girl invited us to visit her family—to stay with them at their house in Malta. She then told her mom she’d invited us. Her mom immediately spoke something to her in Arabic, which she translated to us.
My mother wanted me to tell you it is our way. We’re Syrian and it is our way to invite people. It’s how we are.
I thought about those words for a long time. It’s how we are.
It’s how we all should be, isn’t it? It should be the way of all of us. If we invited people unlike us–people whose differences make us uncomfortable even– to sit at our table and share a meal, I guarantee all prejudice would die on that table.
Her words reminded me of other words. Ancient words.
When I was a stranger you invited me in.
It was an unexpected sermon pouring out of the mouth of a precocious Muslim girl.
I’m convinced what happened on the train that afternoon was the antiserum for prejudice. I formed an opinion based on actual experience, and I knew it was right and true and good because I could feel it in the center of me.
When I let others come near, I see we are more alike than different, and even the differences have their own kind of beauty. When I stand with others on common ground I see them as my kindred. Common ground is a place I’ve found where no prejudice can live. It’s a learning that can only happen when we come out of isolation and go scouting for people and experiences we don’t know. It’s the only way I’ve found to unhand prejudice that tries to live in me. We can’t be afraid to move toward it and correct it.
On the train that day there was an hour of peace perfected—ushered in by the curiosity of my two-year-old grandson who is the most magnificent blend of American, German and African. Quite fitting, I think.
And maybe that’s the answer—maybe it’s how we can unhand prejudice the minute we fill a tug toward it. Maybe we look to our ever-curious little ones and we just do as they do.