One of the most blatant acts of racism I’ve witnessed occurred on a bus in San Francisco, when a passenger boarded, got upset about something, and yelled a slur at the driver. Halfway down the bus, my chest started to burn with a conviction. I had to confront her in some way, but how?
Even in my brief chance to observe the young woman who’d said it, I could tell she’d pounce at the slightest appearance of provocation—an accidental bump, or a look she didn’t like. She seemed like the fool the author of Proverbs discourages one from even addressing. How could I possibly confront her?
Yet my chest continued to burn, as if this conviction would lift me out of my seat and march me to her if I waited too long to speak. As each stop passed, I watched the woman, heart thudding, to see if she would exit the bus. Meanwhile, I begged God for words that would not incite her to fresh abuse.
By the time we reached my stop, the bus was packed, but the woman hadn’t yet left. As I squeezed my way toward the exit, I paused in front of her and took a breath for courage. “You would be more beautiful if you didn’t talk the way you did to the driver,” I said. The compliment seemed to disrupt her default defensiveness. “Oh, I would, would I?” But that was all.
Pausing next by the bus driver, I apologized for the other woman’s words, almost in tears. The bus driver shrugged. “Happens every day,” she said, then closed the door and pulled the bus back into the street.
An ‘Innocent’ Segregation
Until recently, most of my loved ones and friends would identify more with my position in that story than that of the bus driver. Few to none would admit any affinity with the woman I confronted.
I grew up in a middle-class family descended from Polish, English, and other immigrants, in which encounters with blatant racism were rare. In no small part, that’s probably because I grew up in fairly segregated parts of two majority-white states: Washington and Arizona.
Although my dad frequently befriended co-workers from other countries, and relatives on my mom’s side spent decades in Asia, no one ever remarked on the relatively homogenous communities we inhabited. And though the Bible clearly depicts God’s future kingdom as a richly diverse and integrated community, my earliest exposure to His plan for restoration focused more on the absence of sin and death than on how God planned to upend His people’s intensely divided worship.
Segregation seemed to happen by accident and persist in a natural fashion that we could do little to disrupt unless possibly God chose to bring a few other people of different ethnic heritage into our lives. As a home-school student, I read short biographies of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, but not until attending a public high school and university did I learn more about the many deliberate acts that enforced segregation well into the twentieth century. And not until recently did I learn about the redlining policies and predatory loans that ensured segregated neighborhoods and maintained housing discrimination in places from Chicago to the Bay Area, where I now live.