By Becky Ahlberg
The problem with discussions about race relations is that we too often start with the differences and not the things we have in common. It’s easy to make hasty generalizations and base our thinking on stereotypes or other people’s experiences. Depending on where you live, you may not encounter many people who are different from you, and it can be difficult to make a fair and objective assessment of them.
Let me give you an example. In Anaheim, California, where I live, we have one of the most diverse populations in the country. More than 50 different languages are represented in our schools. Fifty-three percent of our population is Hispanic, 29 percent is Caucasian; the rest of the population is split between large segments of Korean, Vietnamese, Arabic, Persian, Ethiopian, and several other smaller enclaves. I am definitely in the minority here . . . if all we’re talking about is race.
However, my experience has been that no matter what ethnic or racial group I encounter, there is much we have in common. Knowing someone—actually having conversation and joint endeavors—breaks down many of the stereotypical conclusions that keep us separated and suspicious.
On any given day I can be in a community meeting with a Lebanese obstetrician who is also president of the Islamic Center in town, working with the African-American director of a collaborating agency, teaching a class of Hispanic mothers, and having lunch with a Korean minister in the neighborhood. I enjoy working with all of them and am grateful to know them.
What really got my attention about this, however, occurred in the early days of My Safe Harbor. At the time, I was the only one really interacting on a regular basis with our predominately Hispanic mothers. They were young; I was old. They had children at home; I’ve had an empty nest for almost 20 years. They spoke Spanish; I spoke English. The need for translation was a given. I was uncomfortable and thinking I should find an Hispanic to do all of this interaction.
Another agency housed in our facility employed a wonderful counselor at that time who was young and Hispanic. One day I told her, “I’ve got to find someone to take my place. It just seems that we would be so much more effective without the old white lady doing the connecting.” She stopped me immediately.
A Positive Relationship
“Becky, PLEASE don’t do that! You need to realize that for many, if not most, of these women, they have never had a positive and personal relationship with a white person. You are debunking so many of their preconceived notions. Just keep loving them and caring about them and stumbling through your Spanish and sharing your experience as a mother. It gives them permission to stumble through their English AND to share their inadequacies, because you’re willing to share yours.”
I will never forget that conversation. It changed my perspective—and how we recruit and train our volunteers. Love is a universal language. We refuse to let the little things get in the way of loving and serving. And it has changed us all.
It’s amazing how much higher the level of patience and grace and forgiveness go when there’s a relationship at stake. When I KNOW you and LOVE you, negative labels get left behind and are replaced with just one label: friend. So much understanding can be achieved because now there is a relationship that allows us to ask hard questions, work through difficult issues, and break down barriers. Now it’s about just “us.”
Yes, it takes time. It takes humility and grace. It’s not always easy . . . but what relationship worth having is? Race “relations” in America are not going to improve until we put in the effort to just have “relations” and start to know and love each other.
Becky Ahlberg serves as executive director of My Safe Harbor in Anaheim, California.