Race Matters

As a young girl, I had the unique opportunity to travel to South Africa. We stayed for a month in December when I was just five years old. My father’s parents and sister had immigrated to South Africa from Britain and it was a rare opportunity to travel to see them. I can still remember the excitement of climbing into the Pan Am jet that would take me to what was surely a land full of adventure. The year was 1971.

Never in my young life had I experienced a place so unlike anything I knew. Growing up in the suburban Midwest of the U.S., my world was filled with snow and concrete, winters lasting long into April with rows and rows of houses lined with sidewalks. South Africa, by contrast, was a land of bright sunshine, vast horizons, beautiful ocean beaches, rugged mountains and diverse landscapes: from the dusty Kalahari Desert to the mountainous coast of Cape Town. Every place was a startling, new discovery of sights, smells, and experiences.

One such experience remains with me to this day. Thirsty after an afternoon at a trampoline park with my South African cousins, we went in search of public drinking fountains. Seeing just such an area not too far beyond where my tired legs could carry me, I ran ahead of the others in order to quench my thirst. Just as I leaned over to drink, a hand grabbed my shoulder and a loud, gruff voice told me not to drink from that fountain. It was for “coloreds” only.

This was the first time, as I reflect back on the event, that my skin color determined my standing in relation to others. I was too young and too thirsty to notice the posted placards on the fountains, or, sadly, to notice that there were only whites on all of the beaches where we frolicked as a family, only white diners in the restaurants where we ate, and only whites in most of the areas and venues we visited. In fact, there were posted designations for “whites” and “coloreds” at all the public places where the two groups might meet. I didn’t understand that apartheid, at that time, was the national policy.

For all the contrasts, here was a similarity between my suburban childhood and my visit to South Africa. Where I grew up, there were only two children of color in my elementary school and one was of Asian heritage. I do not remember any African Americans in the suburban neighborhoods in which I grew up, and there was no racial diversity in my church. This segregation was far less obvious to me than the intentional policies that made up the apartheid system. Yet, hidden or intentional, the effects of a racist system were the same. How could I not conclude, as a young girl, that race determined where one lived, went to school, or worshipped?

A seminary internship working with young children in Atlanta, Georgia afforded me an alternative experience. I would be the only white person in my internship. I was surprised at how readily boundaries seemed to give way to acceptance. I didn’t seem to be as strange to them as they might have been had they visited me in the suburbs of my childhood. Sharing the same curly hair prompted one young girl to ask me if I was a ‘light-skinned black.’ I felt honored that racial differences were not the only thing she saw.

Yet, I would have been blind not to notice that the opportunities afforded to me simply were not available in this place. And while other principalities conspired with racism to decrease opportunity, I knew then that much of what I took for granted did not exist for these young children. A simple, nutritious breakfast—always available to me—consisted of a soda or a bag of tostada chips from the local Taco Bell for many of the kids I met here.

All these experiences—from the suburbs to South Africa to the urban South—reveal aspects of the human tendency to separate and divide. Yet, an alternative narrative is presented in the Christian gospel. The redemption offered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is universally available. The reconciling work of Jesus Christ did not recognize the typical categories of human division and power but reached out to Jew and Greek, male and female, bound and free persons. The apostle Paul reminded the Ephesians that they “were at that time separate from Christ, excluded… and strangers to the covenants of promise…. But now in Christ Jesus you who were formerly far off have been brought near…. For Jesus is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the dividing wall.”(1) The human tendency to separate and divide and control could be transformed to a new impulse, where peace and unity are found in Jesus Christ. But is this just something to hope for in an as yet unrealized future?

F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela could not have been more different but they worked together to help end apartheid in South Africa. Even their most significant differences (that went far beyond the color of their skin) did not thwart their work toward a peaceful transition of power—when most thought bloodshed and violence would ensue. Both men understood that unity and peace were not simply a vision of an other-worldly future, but something that could be undertaken even in the very messy, fraught, and difficult world of the here and now. De Klerk has said that “peace does not fare well where poverty and deprivation reign…. Peace is gravely threatened by inter-group fear and envy…. Racial, class, and religious intolerance and prejudice are its mortal enemies. In our quest for peace, we should constantly ask ourselves what we should do to create conditions in which peace can prosper.”(2)

Many can look at the world around them and despair over human differences that feel insurmountable. There is so much that can engender cynicism and a sense of futility. Yet, for those who would seek a different story, there is a house in which tearing down dividing walls that segregate human beings from each other and from God is the only appropriate response. Built upon the foundation that is Christ Jesus, this house has walls of restoration and renewal, forgiveness and reconciliation, generosity and grace, identity and belonging. No one is shut out and all may come in.

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1) Ephesians 2:12-14, emphasis mine.
(2) F. W. de Klerk, Acceptance and Nobel Lecture, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1994.

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