I don’t peel actual onions very often, at least not beyond the outer brown layers of skin. I do chop a lot of them by hand. I learned a few years ago that if you cut off the top and the bottom of the onion, then lay one of the flat sides down and slice the entire onion in half, it’s a lot easier to get the last of those thin, tough brown layers off. Once I’ve done that, I can also see the core of the onion and decide whether or not to use it – if it’s an old onion, sometimes it is yellow-green in there as the core tries once again to send a shoot out into the world. We can’t stop growth.
Almost 12 years ago, I left my Baltimore suburban neighborhood of exclusively middle class whites and moved to the largest upper middle class African-American community in the Atlanta metro area. Moving here opened my eyes (and eventually my heart) to a completely different cultural experience. I had never considered myself a racist, but it turns out on some deep levels I was. Growing up in the north in a New York suburb, white folks told countless ethnic jokes. I can remember my grandparents using some horrible ethnic slurs referring to people of other races and ethnicities. I also remember telling them why this wasn’t appropriate. I was, however, exposed to all of this as if it were normal. Judging only by what I see on Facebook, a lot of my high school acquaintances still think it is both acceptable and ok to put that stuff out there, in print, for the universe to validate.
My first few months in Atlanta just going into my local Target challenged every deep-seated cultural norm I had. I was often the only white person in the store, which was an eye-opener to what it feels like to be in the minority. Occasionally, initially, I felt fearful. That wore off pretty quickly – this is, after all, an upper middle class neighborhood. We don’t have a lot of crime here. My neighbors are good, upstanding citizens who want a safe place to raise their children. Amen for common ground. I do remember that for the first few months I couldn’t understand a single thing store clerks said to me. A lot of that was the southern accent. It took a while for my ears to attune to the softness of the language here, to peel off that first layer of armor and to learn how to listen.
There’s a hair or weaving salon in every shopping center here, which initially made me curious. I learned why by listening to my female neighbors talk about the amount of time they have to spend on hair (and nails.) I’ll just say that the majority of white women have no idea what our black sisters go through, and leave it at that. (FYI - If you want some good insights into the African-American female mindset about a lot more than hair, tune your device into “Red Table” sometime. It’s an unflinching education.)
I had to get honest with my habitual white-person-thinking about African-American culture, face my personal unfounded fears, open myself to listening, and learn to trust my neighbors. And the rewards for this have been (surprisingly) warm acceptance in my community, a few highly valued friendships, and the most honest, deep conversations about race I’ve had in my life.
None of this would have happened without pausing, without suspending judgment and losing assumptions, without stripping off layers of myself that were preventing me from facing my underlying unconscious racism, and above all, without real listening. I don’t pretend to be perfect. Of course I can’t viscerally understand the deep wounds of another culture. What I can do is listen without judging, be a witness, ask honest questions, and maybe open the door a crack further to seeing our shared humanity while celebrating our differences. Have I reached the core of this particular onion? Not by a long shot. New shoots of growth are emerging, however. I couldn’t stop them if I tried.
Do you find yourself reacting habitually to people of another culture?
For better or for worse, do you make assumptions about race?
What personal “onion” are you peeling in your own life?