Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It isn't always black and white

As the events of the past week remind us, discrimination based upon race, ethnicity and religion remains present and alive in the United States and in our world. From the heartbreaking execution of Troy Davis to the continued occupation in the Middle East, the headlines are full of stories that threaten to overwhelm our hope and our faith in a grace-filled and loving God.

Such racism and discrimination is not always black and white – neither in its basis upon skin color nor in its media presence. Working with underprivileged German and immigrant children and youth at an after-school program hosted by a United Methodist Church in Berlin, Germany, I am daily reminded of the complexities and intricacies of racism and privilege that allow such systems and individual inequalities to perpetuate. The kids with whom I work are largely of Turkish, Arab, and Roma background and most have been born and raised here in the capital of Germany, but often know little about the city beyond the 1 square kilometer block where the Salem United Methodist Church is located. As a result of their ethnicity, citizenship, and religion, they are largely ‘othered’ by Berlin and German politicians and citizens. They are forced to attend poorly staffed and dilapidated schools, where it is expect from the beginning of 1st grade that these children will neither attend university nor achieve anything outstanding in their lives. However, this oppression is not only maintained by and reflected in the political and educational systems, but is already evident among the kids themselves. Fights will break out on the playground across the street from the church based on incidents that have occurred between the differing ethnic and racial groups; additionally, such violence will often be targeted at the children with little or no family support and those who are friendless at school and on the playground. These simple acts of violence among mere 10- and 12-year olds illustrate how easily the act of ‘othering’ based upon race or ethnicity or religion or social status can be reinitiated, ingrained, and become systematic within our society. When mere children already live within and contribute to this systemic racism, how can such a cycle be broken?

In August, I had the opportunity to visit the American Anthropological Association’s RACE exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute’s Natural History Museum in Washington, DC. The exhibit, “Are We So Different?”, focuses on debunking the sociological and anthropological construction of ‘race’ that has become predominately accepted in our society, when in reality we all share a common ancestry; the racial and ethnic differences evident among our populations today result from natural variations, migration and environmental adaptations. Bringing such a view of race to the Washington, DC public, its tourists and its school groups is an essential beginning in re-framing our understanding of race so that we might also then be able to work to dialogue about race, about racism, and about its intricate and perpetuating foothold in society, not only among our government officials, but also among our children, our colleagues, our friends, and ourselves.

While racism continues to dominate our society, the topic of race and racism is too often cast aside as invisible, just as the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explains in its opening lines: “I am an invisible man…. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact.” We need more opportunities to make race ‘visible’ – to discuss race in the public realm and to dialogue about the consequences of racism in our own daily actions and perceptions, in the acts of children, in the decisions of government officials, and in the judgments of innocence and guilt in the courtroom. As United Methodists, the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church call us to additionally recognize that “racism includes both personal and institutional racism” and to “recognize racism as sin and affirm the ultimate and temporal worth of all persons.” Rather than allowing our eyes to take a “peculiar disposition” to our own inadvertent racism and to systems that sustain racial discrimination, we are called to instead hold our gaze and stand steady to challenge individual acts of racial discrimination and perpetually oppressive systems based upon such discrimination; by gazing into the eyes of the ‘other,’ of the ‘invisible,’ we will find that we are not so different from the ‘other’. And with such recognition, we can then extend our hand to them, a welcoming hand of friendship, a steady hand of solidarity, and an open, Christ-like hand of love. Let us go and do just that.

Michelle Dromgold is a Mission Intern of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. She is currently serving at the Kindertreff Delbrücke at the Salem Gemeinde in Berlin, Germany. There, she works as a social worker with an emphasis on intercultural and interreligious dialogue amongst the children and youth at the after-school program and with local United Methodist Congregations.

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