I’m sitting at a table inside my local Barnes & Noble, and I’m gearing up to work when I overhear a conversation between two men. The first thing I notice about these men is that they are different. I’m initially smiling at how different they are and how different their communication is. One man is American southern, and he has a distinct Mississippi accent. The other man is Middle Eastern, and I soon learn he’s Jewish. He’s from Israel. He purchases the American a cup of coffee. The American speaks with a compassionate tone. His speech is slow and laid back. The Israeli is energetic and upbeat. He is very intentional and careful in his communication. His accent is noticeable but not heavy.
After a while I learn the reason for their meeting: The Israeli is dating the sister of the American. The American man comforts the Israeli repeatedly, telling him that the family will come around to him. He is explaining that the Israeli is just different and that it will take some time for him to win the family over. I’m smiling at the effort and the honesty this fine southerner shows. The Israeli asks about the father of the girl he is dating, and the fine southerner explains that his dad is absolutely opposed to his dating the sister.
He explains that “you look Muslim.” He tells him to just give his dad some time. He says, “As you win over the rest of the family, Dad will come around, too.” He tells him that if his dad wants to maintain a relationship with his daughter, then he will accept this Israeli. The Israeli must really love this girl; he is almost begging for approval. The Israeli expresses how he completely understands how the dad could be opposed to him, but he wants him to get to know him. The brother says, “Yeah, but you gotta understand how we are raised down here. Our history is just people who look like you want to bomb people and blow stuff up.” The Israeli agrees but explains the difference between himself and a Muslim.
The conversation is truly amazing. I’m captivated by it.
The southerner stops the Israeli as he’s trying to convince him that he’s a good guy. The American says, “Look -- you don’t need to convince me; it’s not like you’re black. If you was black, then I would have a problem with that.” I didn’t expect the conversation to change so quickly. My intrigue changed to anguish, then strangely to pain.
“Oh, no, no, no,” the Israeli says. “I’m not into the black people, either. It’s the way they act. You can’t understand them. You hear them and see them on the phone. The kids don’t respect people. We just don’t deal with them.”
The American chimes in: “I mean, that would just be a no for me. If you was black, then I would have a problem with that.”
Aware that I’m sitting just one table away, the American leans in to describe why he doesn’t deal with “blacks.” I thought, Lord, this is so painful to hear. What should I do? I thought, Should I go over and point out the irony of the conversation? I mean, the Israeli is practically begging the American to see him differently and to know who he is. The American is convincing him to win over the family. He comforts him with the idea that the family will get to know him and eventually forget about his ethnicity and culture. But there is no extension of this same possibility to a black American. Black is out. Black…is out.
I would like to say something redemptive about this conversation. It continues as I near the end of this post, though the topic has shifted to a business start-up possibility. The American tells the Israeli that he is a preacher. He says he believes God would bless their start-up because God blesses the Jews. He tells the Israeli that he will always put God first. He will not work on Sundays. He will always put God first.
I wonder if this preacher thinks the gospel is for me. Does it matter what he thinks about me? I suppose not.
Unfortunately, I have nothing redemptive to say. I don’t have any glorious conclusion. And I’m OK with that. I’m OK to say that with all of the gains made in this country, we cannot change the heart. Still, with all of the stories I cover on a regular basis, I thought I was immune to hurtful rhetoric. I guess I’m not. I spend so much time telling people they are not victims, but strangely, tonight I kind of feel like one -- the victim of negative prejudice.