Sometimes in life you learn best not from the times that you shine, but from the times that you act like a total ignoramus. It seems that racism and fear of outsiders are on the rise in the U.S.A. With this in mind, I'd like to share two different occasions in which my big mouth revealed my profound racial ignorance. I'm sure there are more, but these are the two that I remember the most.
Ignoramus moment number one: It was 12 years ago. I was working at Steak N Shake training an African-American guy how to make the shakes and the desserts. From what I gathered from our conversation, I could tell that this was a man deeply interested in his African heritage. I also got the sense that he felt that the American dream wasn't all that it's cracked up to be. With pride the man told me that his ancestors were from Nigeria and that he wanted to reconnect with his roots. That was when I said the words that have haunted me ever since, "If you don't want to be an American, why don't you go back to Africa?"
Ignoramus moment number two: It was nine years ago. I was working as a telemarketer. Lessie was an African-American woman around my age that sat a couple of seats down from me. We often talked and laughed about many things to make the day go by faster. One day Lessie got on the subject about people that live in the ghetto. Without giving it much thought I blurted out "Why don't those people just work harder? Then they could leave the ghetto." Lessie went off on me. "You have no idea what you're talking about! You don't know how hard it is to grow up in the ghetto!" Lessie was right.
So why am I bringing this up years later? Today, I'm traveling to Ethiopia to pick up my adopted son. Before we were married my wife told me that she always wanted to adopt from Africa. At the time I didn't think much of it, but after years of miscarriages and fertility specialists we finally decided to adopt. About a month after we started the adoption process, my wife got pregnant and now we have the world's cutest baby, but in about three weeks I'm going to be the father of two boys, a black son and a white son.
Over the past several years I've worked hard to educate myself on racial issues the best that I can. For example: I know that white privilege and institutionalized racism are verifiable realities that exist today despite the claim by many that white people are now the victims. I no longer believe -- thank God -- that the reason why most black people in America vote Democrat is because all they want is a handout from the government. Basic knowledge of history and sociology can go a long way to clear up these misunderstandings, but the problem is that these are things that you get from a textbook.
The real question that I'm pondering is something that I'll never be able to get from a textbook. How do I as a father teach my son to respect his culture (both as an Ethiopian and as a black American), to identify with the black American experience, which means recognizing the historical sins of the past and how they've contributed to the ongoing realities of white privilege and institutionalized racism; how do I do all that without stifling his individual drive to succeed? I want my son to grow up believing that through faith, hard work, and perseverance anything is possible in this great country of ours even though I know that our nation's history of racism has made it more difficult for some racial groups to succeed than others. How do I balance concrete reality with faith, imagination, and a sound work ethic?
I've asked some of my white friends this question. The typical response I get is that while I should teach my son to respect his culture, I shouldn't dwell on the sins of the past and on institutionalized racism today because that would stifle his individual creativity and work ethic. I can understand that perspective, but I think it would be wise to hear from black Americans on this issue. I have a feeling that my question is anything but new and unique to most African-American households. I also have a feeling that there's a broad range of opinion on this issue within the black community. If you're a black American and you'd like to share your experience with me on how you've dealt with racism, both individual and institutional, and how you've overcome obstacles to create a life of meaning and purpose for you and your family, then I'd like to hear from you.
Aaron D. Taylor is the author of Alone with A Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War. To learn more about Aaron's ministry, go to www.aarondtaylor.com. To follow Aaron on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/aarondtaylor. Aaron can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.