Before my first semester at college, I registered for classes by phone. I had taken two forgettable years of high school Spanish. The sum total of what I remembered was “Hola, que tal?” which may mean “Hello, how are you?” Nevertheless, the advisor who helped students pick classes assumed my extensive Spanish background would make beginning Spanish boring. He pointed out that I could take care of my foreign language requirement in only one semester.
“The pain is connected by the thread of racism that pervades educational systems, economic structures and institutions like churches.”
On the first day of class, Senor Manuel Ortuno walked in and rattled off several paragraphs in Spanish. Students were responding in Spanish. I did not have a clue what they were talking about. When he got to me he talked for several minutes. He could have been explaining Euclidian geometry, but I responded “Hola, que tal?”
I spent the semester pretending I knew what was going on. The truth only showed up twice – at the mid-term and final exams.
After the mid-term my professor asked in English, “Are you having problems, Brett?”
With all the stupidity I could muster I said, “No, I’m doing fine.”
If I had been honest, I would have admitted that I suffered from an enormous lack of understanding. I had no idea what was going on. If I had been smart enough to recognize that I needed help, it would have made a difference down the road.
Thirty-five years later, I am in Santiago, Chile, a city of 6 million, serving one of the two English-speaking congregations there for the three percent of the population that speaks English. I get lost, and my GPS does not work south of Florida.
I am in a country where I speak only a few words of the language and recognize even fewer. I know Estoy perdido (I am lost), which I use repeatedly.
The people I ask for directions are more amused by my pigeon Spanish than distressed at my predicament. I stop at an outdoor café where a young woman thinks my “Me puedes ayudar? Yo quiero ir a casa” (Can you help me? I want to go home) has got to be the worst pickup line she has ever heard.
Chile uses confusing signage to encourage public transportation. Streets change names every few blocks for no discernible reason. There are two roads named Americo Vespucio. One of them goes to a part of the city I did not need to visit. If I had just been honest enough to sign up for Spanish 1 some 35 years earlier, I would not have gotten lost. I should have admitted long ago that I had no idea what was going on.
“Listening is the most important thing many of us can do right now.”
White people in the United States have been making the mistake I made in 1979. For far, far too long, white people have pretended to understand more than we understand, pretended that the problem is not as bad as it is, and pretended that it is not about us. Now we are lost and do not even know the language to get home.
When people cry out at injustice it is tempting to act like we do not understand what they are saying. We keep our distance from tragedy. We find it easier to act like racism is not as horrible as it is.
The history books are only beginning to be honest about racism in America. From the terror of slavery to lynching, to Jim Crow laws, to separate-but-equal, to the insults of prejudice, to stop-and-frisk and to injustices large and small. The pain is connected by the thread of racism that pervades educational systems, economic structures and institutions like churches. Racism has helped some get rich and destroyed others’ lives. Many of us have accumulated wealth that was supported by discrimination in education, housing and banking. Racism is ingrained in our politics and policies. Thousands of unjust killings have gone unheard and unseen by white America.
But now cellphones have made it harder to ignore the racism that has simmered beneath the surface since our country’s beginnings. We have overwhelming evidence of the dangers of being black in our country. One lawyer’s website has 350 videos of African Americans being persecuted because of their race.
We cannot pretend that these are stand-alone incidences. We cannot argue these murders were unfortunate events attributable to misunderstandings. We have watched the videos, read the articles and seen the protests, and it has shaken us.
Listening is the most important thing many of us can do right now. We need to listen to the long-neglected voices of black sisters and brothers who speak out of extraordinary endurance. We are lost and have a long way to go, but admitting we have a problem is our best chance to find our way home.