My Dear Reader,
My sophomore year in college, I had a roommate who, at that time, was one of the most confounding human beings I had ever met. I'm not into naming people on this blog without their permission, so I'll call her Sarah.
Sarah confused and frustrated me, not because she was a bad person, or because she did anything wrong. She confused me because she was a punk rocker. And a Mormon. Usually those two don't mix, and if they do, it doesn't end well.
I remember being very concerned for the welfare of Sarah's soul. It kept me up at night. I heard her dark music, and the dark movies she liked, and the way her clothes were more like costumes than anything, and I was so worried that she was going down some path that was as dark and angry as her taste in, well, everything.
And yet, at the same time, she would go to church with me like it was the most natural thing in the world. And even though I expected her to be ignorant of gospel topics, she always held her own when we talked about it. Actually, sometimes her understanding just blew me away.
You see, I grew up in California, one of the most diverse places you can find these days. I met all kinds of people who lived all kinds of lifestyles. I had friends/acquaintances of every race and religion. Punk rockers? I knew a lot of those. And they had a strong tendency to sit in the halls during church and complain about how their parents forced them to go. And a lot of them were actually pretty awful to me. Not all of them, though. Just a lot of them.
Of course, at the same time, I was in the throes of my Great Battle with Clinical Depression™, and a lot of the dark music was a mirror for what was happening in my heart. I had gone through the worst of it by then, but I hadn't figured out how to manage my condition. When I moved in with Sarah, I was pretty messed up. So maybe it wasn't just Sarah I was worried about. Maybe I felt like I was climbing out of this great, deep hole, and I was worried that Sarah would pull me back into it.
And one day, I don't know how, or why, but I must have said something weird, because Sarah came right out and called me racist. RACIST! I was so shocked that I think I just blinked at her. Sure, she was Latina. I mean, that was obvious. But I grew up in California. I took Spanish in high school, where I was one of three white kids in the class. My parents were both fluent Spanish speakers, who lived in Portugal and Argentina as missionaries. I knew what a bombilla was and how to use it. I could make my own dulce de leche.
I mean, come on. How could I be more accepting of her skin color?
I knew lots of Latinos (still do), enough to know that they all came from different circumstances and had different strengths and weaknesses, just like all other human beings. The idea that Sarah's race could even effect our relationship in a negative way just boggled my mind.
So I knew that I had to tell her. I knew that I finally had to say what I had spent months trying not to say. I told her it wasn't her heritage that bothered me; it was her subculture. And I told her that it wasn't really her clothes, but her soul that I was ultimately worried about.
It's weird, sometimes, how one simple truth can change everything. Her truth, that she saw me as racist, changed my entire perspective of our relationship. Of course she saw my confused expression as a scowl. (I was deeply unhappy with my life. Most of my expressions looked like scowls.) Of course she saw me taking my distance, and saw it as disgust. Of course that was the source of the tension in our relationship.
Only, it wasn't true. So when I shared my truth with her, how I was really feeling, she changed her perspective, too. Instead of being offended, she understood that I just didn't get it. So she explained it. She explained to me why she liked those bands and those specific songs and why Tim Burton was so great to her. She told me that she knew she didn't dress or act the way that other people did at church, but that didn't matter. As long as she followed God's commandments (and she did, that also confused me), she didn't care about conforming to the rest of it.
Sarah and I actually became really good friends. She had a lot to teach me, not just about subculture, but about mental health. She had dealt with a lot of trauma in her life, and she had turned to punk as a way to live out her emotions. She was going through her own stuff, and she had learned a lot, and she was actually really patient with her emotionally broken roommate (me). We had a lot more in common than I had ever expected.*
I honestly don't think I would have ever been able to be the person I am now if I didn't know Sarah. She helped me so much!
And Sarah isn't the only "Sarah" I've run into over the years. I've met other people who were as confusing to me as Sarah was. I still do, really. Sometimes I have to explain to them that that look on my face is not judgement as much as it's a "Huh?" Well, maybe there's a little judgement in there; I'm not perfect, yet (still working on that). It's just that I need to find a way to adapt.
But we all get used to the way we see the world. We like to surround ourselves with other people who see the world the way we do. And then someone comes along that we can't fit in a box, and it breaks that glass box we were in. You know, that glass box that you trap yourself in, without knowing it, where the people you like are on the inside and the other people are on the outside. And then it shatters, and you're not sure that you knew it was there in the first place. That glass box.
Racism can be a glass box. I wasn't racist towards Sarah, but that's because I had met so many people before Sarah, who challenged my perceptions and forced me to change the way I see things. Or the way I was conditioned to see things. Glass box: shattered!**
Sometimes, I wonder if I live in a series of glass boxes, like a Russian nesting doll situation. I shatter one glass box, and I think I'm done. All the people on the outside are now on the inside. I'm free! Until I get to the next glass box, which is bigger and more complex. I walk right into in one day without knowing it was there, and I realize that I have to shatter that box, too. And another box. And another one. Will I ever get out of these boxes?
Is this some kind of glass spaceship, and when I shatter the last one, I'll find myself in the nothingness of space and all of us will suffocate and explode?
Okay, probably not. But sometimes when you're standing in front of your glass box, and you put your hand on the panes, it can feel that way. It's really scary to give up our mindset and open ourselves up to change. But we all have to do it if we want to be better than we are. If we want to really see the world the way it is.
It's funny, now, to think of me inside my glass box while Sarah was in hers. How wrong we were! But we were smart, too, because we were willing to get ourselves out of those boxes and actually see each other.
Hopefully, I will get the chance to truly see many different people.
Regards, best wishes, and unlikely allies,
*Sometimes, I look back on my life and wonder why, after all the pain and anguish I went through, I didn't go through a punk phase. Or a goth phase. Instead, I buried myself in musical theater and science fiction, and refused to wear any other other than blue. That's just weird.
**I'm not saying that I'm 100% un-racist. I don't know that anyone is. It's an ongoing process. I'm just, you know, trying.