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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Black or White

by Casey Peterson (bio)

Image via Tsutomu Takasu.

Last week I attended a junior high track meet that my daughter was competing in. The weather was perfect, the events were moving along quickly, and I was soaking up the fun atmosphere that surrounds track meets as multiple track and field events are simultaneously going. As the one-mile race started, I took interest in a young man in our ward that was running. I remember watching his shy apprehension when he was adopted from Ethiopia by some of our friends, and my respect for him as he learned a new language and new culture. I detected a slight limp as he started the race, a result of a broken leg last year that required a lot of stabilizing hardware to be inserted. However, he confidently sprinted to the front of the pack, and confidently set the pace for the entire race until the last lap when he battled hard against a challenger. The finish was close, he was exhausted, and I was filled with the admiration that comes from watching an athlete give 100%. I sat soaking in the sunshine, sweet memories of track, and appreciation for the growth in the lives of these young athletes.

As the kids filed back up into the stands, my euphoria was shattered as I heard a kid from another school comment to one of the runners, “Good job, you beat the black kid.” Black kid? The term struck me with a repulsive force that my humble and quiet young friend could be objectified by his race. Week after week I see him in church, with his family, and in the community, and I recoiled at a comment that I’m sure wasn’t meant to be offensive or degrading, but nevertheless was divisive.

Michael Jackson once famously sang "I told about equality and it’s true, either you’re wrong or you’re right. It’s not about races, just places, and faces, I’m not going to spend my life being a color. If you're thinkin' of being my brother it don't matter if you're black or white." My young friend is literally my brother, in the gospel and in the family of God. Through his service, his friendship, and through his example, I love him on a level much more foundational than genotype or phenotype.

Occasionally I am asked as a part of my job to report on the demographics of my student leaders, usually by people at other institutions. I can easily categorize them by leadership levels, strengths, and challenges. But having to stop and think of them as coming from different ethnic groups is difficult for me. Though I grew up in Utah, I worked on our family ranch with Hispanics, played sports with Native Americans, and sat in class with several Asian refugees. The mere act of grouping them in that sentence feels defeating and superficial, as I knew them as friends, teammates, and classmates. I was not close to every one of them, but in the same way I wasn’t close to every kid from every race. I’m grateful for a demonstrated and acquired perspective about equality, an equality that comes from giving everyone an equal chance to demonstrate their individuality as a person, and not stereotyped expectations of an objectified race.

I realize equality is an individual effort, and that in many ways it’s easy for me to sit and preach about equal treatment of everyone. My young friend, several of my students, and family members all have faced varying forms of discrimination based on race. I don’t wish to minimize their pain or the reality of their experiences. However, I do wish to remind myself of the dangers of objectifying or stereotyping any person, and thereby forcing needless effort into what Michael Jackson said "spending life being a color." As children of God, it really doesn’t matter if we’re brown, black, or white. In that, Michael was correct.

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