Tiesha became nervous as Ann and I took her trick or treating through Columbia Heights. "I hope they don't shoot you two!" she said. "Cause if they shoot you then I'll be left by myself, and then they might even shoot me too!"
"No one's going to do that Tiesha," I responded, trying to dissolve her kid fears.
"You just don't know," she replied shaking her head.
As I looked down at this picture-two white women walking with a black child-I was saddened by the perceptive 8-year-old whose concerns weren't childish but far too real for someone so young.
In the few months that I have lived in Columbia Heights and worked with Sojourners, I have been mugged at gunpoint, punched in the face, and harassed numerous times. Other Sojourners Community members have experienced similar assaults; in fact, we've estimated that about nine people in our congregation have been victims of muggings since August.
When I came to intern at Sojourners, I knew it would be more multiculturally and economically diverse than my overgrown white suburban home of Spokane, Washington. In a high school of 2,000 students, I recall about 15 Asians, two Latinos, one Native American, and five African Americans. I was never aware of any tension between us, and the first time I was aware that racism existed was at age 16. That was when I discovered that there were more races than blacks and whites. It was my impression that Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans were also "white."
That was about the time when Neo-Nazis formed a major headquarters in Hayden Lake, Idaho, an hour away. Even now with Mark Fuhrman, witness to the O.J. prosecution, moving into Sandpoint, Northwesterners are shocked at being associated with white supremacy. It seems I found more outright "bigots" in my trips to metropolitan areas like San Francisco.
It took me some extensive study tours throughout Central America and Jamaica to gather what all the socioeconomic frustration was about. It also caused me to think back to the subtle racism minority students in my high school might have experienced. But here in our nation's capital, it slapped me in the face.
I once explained all of this to a D.C. native who told me, "Maybe you didn't know you were racist." I think more likely I was taught in school to be sensitive, fight prejudice, and look beyond skin color, but in most of my hometown, races weren't so clearly divided on economic lines. (That's rapidly changing.)
Last January, I attended a reggae concert at the University of West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. There were about 400 black students, and then there was my blonde head sticking out like a sore thumb. The musicians began rapping about the slave owners who raped their grandmothers and pretty soon several guys started yelling, "White girl, get outta here!" I impulsively flipped around and yelled, "Look, I'm not my ancestors!"
I wished I could have pulled them aside and said, "Hey, respect, man! I'm here to study Rastafarianism and to appreciate black consciousness." I'd love to tell the African-American girls who punched me, "Hey! I live in this neighborhood to build community, not exploit the inner city!" In El Salvador I would have tried to tell them my government never told me my tax dollars were killing peasants...."I know now, and that's why I'm here."
I FIND MYSELF MAKING so many excuses. I'm constantly walking a line with guilt on one side, and defense on the other as I realize that I am the white North American tourist, the college graduate, the socioeconomically privileged middle-class citizen volunteering to live in this frustrated neighborhood. Is the harassment and resentment I experience nearly as bad as hundreds of years of exploitation by my Western "civilization"?
Then again, should I be the scapegoat to make up for this messed up world? In the end, I believe I have been called to such environments not to be punished for who I am or what I represent, but to become sensitive to the pain of this place and attempt to change existing structures.
Lately I get nervous when people walk too closely behind me. I wonder if I'm becoming more cautious or more racist, and I feel sorry for all of us. I think of the young boys who pointed a gun at me for my measly $4: Their faces were so smooth and scared; they hadn't even grown facial hair. As much as I fear their weapon, I hurt for their environment and pray for someone to rescue our cities from this violence.
I would have packed my bags long before now if there weren't glimpses of hope. Every Sunday for five years, a group of Rastas have brought their drums to Malcolm X Park across from the Sojourners magazine office. They bring their children and mates; they drum, dance, and chant, proudly sharing their culture and heritage with the whites and Latinos who join in and are handed instruments and given bear hugs like the one I received the other day. "Peace, Sista!" the Rasta said, joyously squeezing the air out of me.
I attended the Million Man March, expecting to watch from the sides. March leaders asked that non-blacks and women not attend, but I felt welcomed enough by the crowd to stand amongst them and support a day of consciousness-raising and empowerment.
On Halloween, parents stood on the steps of the Sojourners Neighborhood Center with their children and spoke of the days before Sojourners when there was no trick or treating here. Just then a boy of about 10 rode his bike past Ann, Tiesha, and me, chanting the words of American kids acting their age for generations-"Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat!"