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How talking to strangers on the bus changed my views on race
As someone who has worked in the field of race relations for twenty-five years, I am utterly amazed that advocacy for “race essentialism” has come to the forefront over the last decade. Race essentialism is the practice of ascribing character traits and experiences to individuals based on the color of their skin. Advocates justify this approach by highlighting how skin color has been used to oppress people in the past as well as in the present, and argue that recognizing one’s “race” is necessary in order to correct for racism and build a more equitable future.
While the advocates of this approach are often well-intentioned, I believe that focusing more on race is counterproductive when it comes to building friendships, forging coalitions, and developing a shared goal of civil human relations. Making skin color an “essential” part of who (rather than what) people are will only drag us backwards. I learned this firsthand nearly thirty years ago, when my own race-essentialist beliefs were uprooted and replaced by a universal respect for my fellow human beings.
Growing up in rural “white” America, I was labeled everything from a hick to a redneck to white trash. I spent a portion of this time—from about ages sixteen to twenty-three—buying into the belief that I was biologically superior because of my skin color. Contrary to popular narratives, this was not a result of bad parenting; in fact, my parents were guiding me in the opposite direction. As devout evangelical Christians, they pointed me towards the theological precept that every human being was created “imago dei”—in the image of God. Because of this belief, my parents tried to teach me that every human was worthy of dignity, value, and respect. But despite their best efforts, I rejected their perspective on this and many other pertinent matters in my life.
Over time, my nascent racial prejudices began transforming into more coarse manifestations, like crude jokes emphasizing exaggerated racial stereotypes. I was cautious about when and where I revealed myself, but as the years passed, it mattered less and less to me. By the time I graduated college, at the age of twenty-two, these beliefs had morphed into what I then considered a more “sophisticated” form of racism that focused on so-called “white culture” and why it was important to be proud of my skin color.
I had studied Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chinua Achebe, but it was difficult to reconcile their brilliance with my own belief in racial superiority. I considered myself a Renaissance Man, and viewed blatantly offensive stereotyping as something done by the “common folk” of my ancestry. I wanted to be recognized as astute, educated, well-spoken, and intelligent, while still being true to my rural subculture and my broader “white culture.”
That’s where race essentialism snuck in. I wasn’t going to be satisfied with gross exaggerations and flawed logic to defend my views. I needed what I perceived as the full force of science, sociology, and racial narrative to construct a bigger, more scholarly type of supremacy: A supremacy that wasn’t based on hatred, but rooted in pointing out what I took to be obvious differences among the “races.” I would argue that it wasn’t hatred to love people of my own “race.” I couldn’t help the fact that antisocial behaviors were more common in people with darker skin than mine. In fact, since there were so many differences among the races, wouldn’t it just be better for us all to stay away from each other, and to create our own racial enclaves where we could live among our own kind?
I sought out people who held similar views, and eventually I was recruited by an organization that only accepted “free born” (i.e. white) individuals. I was on a path to constructing a strong ideological framework that divided all of humanity into a hierarchy of groups based on skin color. These were the ideas running through my mind only a few months before I boarded a Greyhound bus, in January of 1993, to begin a journey around the United States. I was not prepared for how profoundly this journey would change my life.
I began this journey out of embarrassment that I, an American, had seen so little of my own country. So, I spent the next nine weeks traveling over 12,000 miles and visiting over 37 states. I found myself sitting on the bus next to people who I assumed shared nothing in common with me—people with darker skin, people from big cities, people from other states, people who never went to college or even graduated high school. In stark contrast to the race essentialism I had developed over the previous years, I was amazed by the striking similarities I had with these passengers. I was shocked at the level of care and concern people had for me, since I was a cultural and racial outsider unfamiliar with city life or the bus community. I found myself listening to—and telling—stories about where we were from, about loves won and lost, about dreams fulfilled and crushed, about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These stories of our shared humanity led me to develop a bigger, better, and broader connection with my fellow Americans. Throughout the trip, I came to realize that my brothers and sisters weren’t just white people, but every human being. This was a dramatically different way for me to finally see the world.
The bus allowed me the time to sit down and converse with people about important issues. It also helped to ensure that conversations remained civil, as we all recognized that we would have to continue traveling together, even if we weren’t on the same page about everything. We were all trying to get from point A to point B, and had the ability to make that journey as pleasant or as miserable as we wanted. Deep conversations about our areas of commonality led to a focus on shared humanity, pushing race essentialism out of the picture and placing human essentialism at the forefront.
I ended up writing a book about this experience—Bus America: Revelation of a Redneck—and how it caused me to change my perspective on race essentialism. The book allowed me opportunities to speak in K-12 schools across America and to spend time in specific districts working with students from a wide variety of backgrounds, trying to help them process the world and everything in it. My objective from the start was to create a setting similar to what I had experienced on the bus—freedom for people to communicate outside their comfort zones, with others they may normally avoid. My hope is that these interactions assist in busting stereotypes and bringing about a shared sense of humanity, even—and especially—when people disagree.
Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve interacted with thousands of students from a wide variety of backgrounds—black, brown, Asian, Indigenous; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist; tall, short, fat, skinny; unfathomably rich and desperately poor. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with dozens of card-carrying white supremacists, many of whom just needed an informed and respectful challenge to start thinking a little differently. I’ve spent time with many inner-city black and brown women who assumed I—a fifty-two-year-old white man—was their enemy, only to see them shocked to discover how much we had in common. In every interaction, my goal was to seek and find human commonalities on which to build a relationship.
As concepts like “race essentialism” continue to gain traction, my fear is that our nation will lose sight of the fact that we are all human beings, just doing our best to make it from point A to point B. Instead of seeing one another as individuals created in the “imago dei,” we will obsess over arbitrary characteristics falsely imbued with importance by those who are uninterested in finding common ground. But a nation consumed by its internal differences can never unite. Let’s not continue down that path.
Let’s all be bus riders together.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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