At some level, it is hard to say where the line is between expectation and prejudice. You see a white man with a starched shirt, khaki slacks, and short hair and you expect certain things. In so many ways, I am all the things the appearance of a white man with a starched shirt, khaki slacks, and short hair bring to mind.
I grew up in an exclusive suburb. I enjoy playing golf. My family looks like the Cleavers. I attended some of the best schools in our country. I even have voted Republican far more frequently than not. Even so, I’m more than what can be known with a single glance.
In my freshman year of college, I decided to pierce my ear, precisely so that I could be just one step away from the expectations, one note off beat. Over the years, I have so enjoyed the double-take that has come from the discovery of a tiny hole in an earlobe. I remember asking a dorm neighbor shortly after piercing my ear about his opinion. “I totally disapprove,” he replied, and I was stunned, and yet somehow excited that I could so easily change the attitude about my character.
Over the years, the hole – I keep the hole, but seldom put anything in these days, 50 seems old for earrings – has mostly produced amusement in teenagers and provided an opportunity to share the reality of my experience, both its middle America aspects and the experiences that are “against type.”
In seminary, Joy Moore and I lived across the hall from one another. I’m not sure if it was for her the closest she had ever lived to a typical white guy, but for me, it was the closest I had ever lived to a black woman. I guess I had expectations of her; I honestly don’t remember. I guess some of my friends wondered how I could be friends with a black woman. I don’t remember that either. Somehow, all of that is part of the privilege that comes with the weight of expectations. Joy, on the other hand, no doubt had to explain why she would even talk to a white man in a starched shirt, khaki slacks, and short hair. No doubt she wondered about the reality and the expectations.
Somehow, a pierced ear changed those expectations for Joy. The hole in my ear became an opening for us to talk, really talk about life. For me, the note that was off beat was Joy’s presence in a “my” group. (I guess part of privilege is the sense that every group I’m a part of is my group.) It was a theologically-conservative group, and an African-American from urban Chicago just didn’t seem to fit. We were, at the time, part of a covenant group that was trying to live into an accountability and discipleship. We were trying to become a close-knit group; and mostly, it was trying. Maybe that was to be expected from a group whose only shared reality was seminary classes and the faith we proclaimed. I shared the parts of my life that were against type and she shared the parts of her life that were against type as well. Over the years, we have come to understand life from different perspectives.
I would like to think our relationship has brought awareness and I hope some measure of understanding. It certainly has brought an opportunity to encounter a different experience and a willingness to look beyond expectations.