The other side

Published 12:47 pm Saturday, September 17, 2016

by Andrew Book

I am a white male. I have blue eyes and blond hair (though not much is left!). I am fairly tall, not overweight, heterosexual and I have no major physical or intellectual disabilities. I do not have a diagnosed mental illness. I have managed — through little or no action on my part — to avoid the “categories” that often lead to discrimination in this country. I have privilege because of my race and gender, but that privilege has only become apparent to me when I have seen it from the other side.
The other side, for me, was a year spent in rural India. “Rural” means something very different in India — a nation of a billion people. My wife and I lived on the campus of a small school and hospital surrounded by small villages and rice paddy fields, yet we still had a million people within a few dozen miles of us. As far as we could tell, not a single one of those million people was white. As a result, our white skin was what defined us in the community. We could not go shopping and expect to pay a fair price or anticipate going anywhere without stares and finger pointing. We even had small children run away from us in terror because devils are pictured as white-skinned in Hinduism. There is something about being mistaken for a devil based on your skin color that sticks with you. Even though that event was 10 years ago I doubt I will ever forget the feeling.
I hope I don’t.
When we left India and returned to the United States, I became “normal” again, but the experience of seeing life from the other side — if only for one year — forced me to consider that there might be some of the same dynamics at work in my own nation. I had never really considered before that I was privileged based on my skin color, or that others might struggle based on their skin color. I had been taught that we were all equal, and so I had naively thought it must be true because I had never experienced discrimination based on my skin color. While I knew that my experience in India in no way mirrored the racial problems in the United States, I had a new openness to hearing stories of racism in America and recognizing that there might be something deeper than just “isolated” events.
Since we returned, I have lived in several different cities and rural communities, and the racial divides I have seen in all of those places have hurt my heart — both because I can see them more clearly than before, as well as because I don’t have any idea how to help bring healing to our division.
I am open to learning and understanding other people’s lives, but there is no conversation or book that could have helped open my eyes to the reality of racial division and discrimination like experiencing it myself. Of all the experiences I have had traveling (and I have travelled quite a bit), the one experience I would love to share with my fellow white Americans is what it feels like to be seen as a devil — I can guarantee it would change you.
On our final day in India, my wife and I were traveling from the Taj Mahal to the airport in New Delhi. We had rationed our money so we would have just enough cash to get a taxi for the final leg of our trip— and yet none of the taxi drivers would take us for the standard fair. We were exhausted, nearly broke, angry at how we were being treated and deflated. We yelled, we pleaded, we begged and finally one driver agreed to take us to our plane. I have never felt such relief at being treated “fairly.” Looking back, I am grateful for that awful, wonderful feeling because it has helped me to see what others experience.
As a Christian, I know that Jesus “broke down the dividing wall” between people of different races and ethnicities. He made us into one people (Ephesians 2:14). Now we need to figure out how to cross over the rubble and truly be one. I hope you all have an experience from the other side, not because it is fun (it isn’t), but because it gives you eyes to see the world a little more clearly. There is much about the racial divides in this country that I don’t understand, but I will forever be grateful to the little boys and girls who ran away from me screaming because they gave me a taste of the meal that is everyday fare for too many people.

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or