Growing up as a black girl in the United States, I was “taught” a lot of things about people from Africa. The content of the lesson depended on the source. Overall, the understanding that I operated under was this: Africans did not like black people born and raised in the United States because we were not “pure” Africans. Not only did they dislike us, they looked down on us. Because of the way that Chicago is segregated (that’s a whole other blog post!), I never had the chance to prove or disprove this theory.
I recently published a piece about the need for reconciliation between Africans and African Americans. I believe that such a reconciliation would better enable blacks in the United States for racial reconciliation with whites and other ethnic groups. Considering the understanding I’d grown up with, I’m sure you’re wondering how I ended up at the point of publishing this kind of article. Authentic relationships are the key to any kind of reconciliation work, and it was a number of these relationships — one in particular — that helped me arrive at my new understanding.
In the spring of 2008, I started a new job. That summer, our first team training event was lunch at a local restaurant. When I arrived, I did a quick visual survey, to get a feel for who else was on the team. I’ve spent most of my life being the only black person (or one of a small handful), so I’d developed this unconscious habit of sweeping the room in order to determine how to mentally prepare myself. When I saw another black woman in the group, I got excited. As we began sharing our stories, my excitement quickly turned to uncertainty when I discovered that the other black woman in the group, Catherine, was actually Kenyan. By that point in my life, I had developed a great and supportive friendship with a woman whose family was from Kenya. Yet I still found myself worrying that Catherine would not like me because I was a black American. Everything in me wanted to put distance between us and proceed cautiously – the “fight or flight” in me definitely wanted to flee. I’m glad that this is one time I ignored my “instinct” – which was really just fear motivated by stereotypes.
Not only did I sing at Catherine’s wedding in 2011, I was one of her bridesmaids. She and I have been there for each other during the devastating lows of life as well as the breathtaking highs of life. I consider her not only a friend but a sister in the truest sense of the word. When I take inventory of the amazing relationships I have developed with people who don’t look like me, I am grieved at the way so many people are intentionally robbed of this experience because of structural/systemic injustice and the stereotypes it perpetuates.
We grow up hearing all kinds of stereotypes based on things like race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, class, physical/mental health, political affiliation – and the list goes on. If you really want to be a reconciler, it may mean ignoring a “gut” instinct that isn’t really an instinct at all.