Moving forward

Originally posted on the Make Peace, Build Community blog.

At the tender age of 18, moving from suburban Illinois to the north side of Chicago did not initially seem like something that would challenge my attitudes about race. As far as I was concerned, race didn’t matter to me one bit. It was the 21st century, my parents had taught me always to be loving and progressive and adamantly anti-racist—and anyway, this was supposed to be a post-racial society, right?

Yet after beginning my studies at North Park University, which is located smack dab in the middle of the incredible racial diversity that is the Albany Park neighborhood, I found myself feeling somehow unprepared for what I experienced. I didn’t dislike it—in fact, I was captivated by it. But it surprised me just how much I noticed it in the first place. Again, I had always considered myself a non-racist person. Yet it occurred to me that I still had some preconceived notions that needed to be addressed. I hadn’t experienced enough racial diversity in my community to know just how I “fit” into it. If I had stayed in my hometown indefinitely, those attitudes may never have been challenged. But I was blessed to stay in Albany Park long enough to figure it out.

Often, people are content to insist—as 18-year-old me was—that as long as individuals aren’t actively racist, racism is no longer an issue. But while racism of past eras was a conscious and painfully explicit hatred, today it’s a little more subconscious and a little harder to quantify, and that makes it that much more insidious. Discrimination is less blatant, yet it still exists. Many people agree racism is still a problem, yet individual racists are seemingly nowhere to be found. The result is that even as people of color continue to break through glass ceilings, many of our communities remain effectively segregated. My suburban childhood neighborhood is one of many such communities.

The recent premiere of critically-acclaimed HBO show Girls, to use just one recent example, was marred by its stunning lack of racial diversity—despite being set in NYC, one of the most diverse cities in the world. In response to this criticism, the show’s writer Lena Dunham stated that she genuinely had not meant offense, but had merely written her experiences from a very deep-down, gut-level place. It’s tragic that even in our supposedly “post-racial” society, even in a world of ever-increasing connections, many in my generation have had so few meaningful relationships and interactions with people of other races that their “default” expectation, their gut-level perception of reality, is still essentially segregated. It’s not so much that we actively hate each other—although sadly, there is still some of that. But for the most part, we just haven’t done a very good job getting to know each other.

Humanity’s history of racial hatred has left us with quite a lot of baggage to sift through. It’s not the sort of thing you can just sweep under the rug and say “that’s over, we can move on now.” People have tried. But it’s obvious that, for the sake of our communities, we still have a lot more work to do.
When I was younger and living in an area where race was a fairly taboo subject to bring up, I tended to view racism as a sort of “on/off” switch. Either you were, or you weren’t. It wasn’t until later that I understood that not being racist involves so much more than that. It’s a constant process of reaching out to other people, re-affirming your belief in our common humanity, and re-evaluating your own individual prejudices and shortcomings. And whatever kind of community you live in, one of the best things we can do for one another is to each engage ourselves fully in that process.

Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, often compared humanity to the flowers of a single garden, in which individual flowers’ varying hues make the whole garden that much more beautiful. I know that we are on our way to truly recognizing that our differences, however big, small, tangible or imagined, are what beautify this world and make it worth inhabiting.

I hope this realization comes soon—and with grace, I think we can help each other make it even sooner.


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