When I studied abroad in Oxford for a semester, I was very aware that I was an outsider. I had the recurring thought, What am I doing here? as I admired Gothic spires twice as old as my country. I wondered what went through store clerks’ minds whenever I asked them for help, and my accent immediately revealed my American nationality. I debated about whether to buy some stylish boots that would help me blend in more with British fashion, since my English roommate said she could tell just by looking at me that I was an American.
Years later, I mentioned this experience to my friend Seretha, who had also studied abroad in Oxford.
“I felt very conspicuous, like I stood out like a sore thumb.”
“That’s funny. I didn’t notice it,” she said.
“Really? Why not?” I asked.
“I’m almost always different here already,” she said. Her black father and white mother gave her distinctively curly hair and brown skin.
* * *
My friend Terrie is from Zambia. When she was a college student in the U.S., she lived with a white family. She called the dad “Papa Bear” and the mom “Mama Bear,” and she referred to their daughters as her sisters. I once saw their family portrait hanging on a wall in their house, and Terrie was included in the photo, her dark skin and braids contrasting with their pale skin and straight hair.
The family had some work done on their house while they were out for the day. One of the workers needed to relay a message to them, but since they weren’t there, he approached Terrie.
“Do you work here?” he asked.
“No, I live here,” she said.
“Okay, well, please tell the owner of the house…”
* * *
My sister Rebecca worked last summer at a camp for inner-city kids, run by a white camp director. It was both fun and exhausting taking care of a few dozen children every day as they made arts and crafts, went hiking, took care of farm animals, and played games.
One of Rebecca’s fellow counselors joked after an especially tiring day that sometimes working with kids made him not really want to have his own.
“Don’t worry,” said the nine-year-old grandson of the camp director. “White kids are better.”
Horrified, Rebecca found his mom and told her what he’d said.
His mom nodded and gave an unconcerned “Uh-huh.”
* * *
It took me a long time to care about racial reconciliation, I’m ashamed to say. I didn’t think it was all that important, probably because almost all my friends were white.
Slowly, I became more aware that not everyone is like me, that there are real cultural differences within my own community, and that I couldn’t assume that everyone experiences life in that community in the same way.
I knew I needed to learn more. I still do. There’s so much I don’t know, so much I don’t even know that I don’t know. It’s easier to assume I do know, based on little bits of information that I’ve pieced together while remaining inside my comfortable, familiar environment.
I was talking with Seretha one day about two African-American women I worked with, how I wanted to get to know them better, but I wasn’t really sure how, and I was a little nervous about it.
“Allison, you have to enter their world,” she said. “Because they already live in your world.”