by Rod D. Martin
April 21, 2013

We need to remember — and some of us just need to learn — how sensitive some people still are about race: not in the “chip on shoulder” sense many imagine (and sometimes encounter), but in the downtrodden, fear of rejection sense that wearies the soul and brings lifelong hurt. You’ll see what I mean.

I spoke yesterday to over 500 members of the Tennessee Republican Assembly at their state convention. It was a lot of fun, and thankfully, I was very well received (I had to follow Rand Paul: no easy thing!).

Afterward, a very large crowd came up to speak to me, and I received people for quite a long time. One of them, was a beautiful young lady. I don’t know anything about her except what I’m about to tell you.

Now mind you, this was a relatively integrated crowd. There were actually quite a few people present from a variety of minorities, which was a real blessing: it’s good to see more and more people coming together behind the things we believe without regard to race.

I had just spoken on reaching out to your neighbor, building bridges by making friends. She came up to me and said, “Thank you so much for that. Before, I felt really uncomfortable coming here. Now I’m really glad I came”

I had no idea what she was talking about. So I asked, “What made you feel that way?”

Her eyes dropped, and with her right forefinger she swept down the bare skin of her left arm: “you know”.

No, I didn’t know. Until then I’d taken her for white with a tan, and not even much of that.

But she felt it intensely, despite there being many people of more than one race with darker skin than hers just feet away. What was almost imperceptible to me was as big as the whole world to her.

Which requires us to ask: why?

It’s worth remembering, first, that everyone is self-conscious to a degree, and thus everyone needs some kindness and understanding, usually more than you realize. The nature of a fallen world is that we are all broken, all disconnected. And speaking as the father of daughters, women frequently feel this even more strongly than men, and assume everyone sees in them some “flaw” which no one else perceives. I have seen truly striking women believe themselves ugly, usually because some man close to them had torn them down, or at least failed to affirm them. It’s very sad to see.

But there’s certainly nothing wrong with having slightly — or vastly — darker skin than a Scandinavian; and generations of white women have baked themselves on beaches and in tanning booths to achieve the latter of those things.

No, fifty years after King’s “Dream” this young lady still feared that a room full of white people would look down on her, possibly even act hurtfully. And that’s just tragic.

I grew up in an integrated world. There were occasional unkindnesses to be sure, but racism was universally thought wrong, at least among our generation: it just isn’t 1963 anymore. Blacks and whites openly dated in my rural Southern high school, though parents still disapproved; other races carried no history and thus no discomfort or awkwardness at all.

Even so, there remained that tendency to self-segregate: blacks to one side of the dining hall, whites and other races to another. It wasn’t ugly — people came and went freely between the two groups — and it generally seemed from our (white) perspective that it represented just one more of junior high and high school’s cliques.

Did it feel so innocent to them? Does it now?

What I said in my speech stands: all these needless barriers, all these misunderstandings — frequently unknown to at least some of the parties — could go forever away if we would just act like Christians are already required to do. Love your neighbor, we are taught, which certainly must mean at least meeting him. Why can’t we cross the street, knock on a door, ask a new friend to dinner? Watch the game together? How hard is it really?

Republicans now fret openly about losing the Latino vote, losing single women, losing Asians, having long since lost most blacks. Why not quit worrying about that sort of thing and start just making friends?

How hard can it be?

Sounds overly simplistic, doesn’t it? But there are many more white Christians in America than all blacks or all Hispanics. What if all of us just set out to befriend — to love — one or two? We could change the fruit of centuries in the blink of an eye.

Something changed for the young lady I met yesterday. I got to be part of that. Where will her new affirmation, her new courage, lead her? I have no idea. But it feels — and is — a lot better to be part of the solution than to be part of the problem.