When I was about eight years old my best friend Jodi lived five houses away from me in an idyllic neighborhood in a small New England town. It was the 1980s and thusly perfectly okay for kids to roam the streets unsupervised for hours at a time pausing only briefly at home to scarf down Chef Boyardee with a Kool-Aid chaser. I was the fourth child of five and if I wasn’t wearing my Catholic school uniform I was tom boy'ing it up in hand-me-down blue jeans and baseball tees from my three older brothers. I wore a Dorothy Hamill haircut and spent my free time collecting salamanders and dreaming with Jodi about the cover of our rock album and what it was like to ride in an IRoc-Z. Our neighborhood was chock full of girls my age - something my sister, one year younger than me, and I enjoyed to no end - and teenage boys, a fact that my two oldest brothers exploited. But my youngest brother, Johnnie, was in a literal no-man’s land. He was three years older than me, eleven, and there was a dearth of boys his age to play with. Our Dad worked and our mom was in school so his options were to hang out with us girls - as the teen boys were not having any youngsters around - or to take apart and reassemble all of the electronic devices in our house with a dismal success rate of proper reassembly. The Atari didn’t stand a chance.
One hot summer day I got a phone call from Jodi requesting that I bring some of the fixings for our favorite meal down to her house. We were gourmet savants whose specialty was pickle and mayo sandwiches on toast with a chocolate chip frappe for dessert. I gathered up my supplies and charged out the door and up the street. We always met at the half way mark. Well, that day I ran into Johnnie and Jodi on the sidewalk. They were having some sort of disagreement. This was surprising even though Jodi had a pretty big mouth because Johnnie was easy going by nature. I don’t remember exactly what the argument was about, but I do remember there were some “shut ups” and “you’re so stupid” and “you have no friends” thrown around. Johnnie was furious, crying with anger. Jodi was loud, aggressive and cobra-like. I stood there with the cold pickle jar in one hand and a bag of generic white bread in the other and didn’t know what to do. I surmised things were either going to get physical real fast or wrap up with some mean words. Feeling conflicted and hungry I was hoping for the latter. Seeing my plan for a lusty feast slipping away I stepped in and said something like, “Yeah, John, you’re so stupid. Why don’t you just go home?” He grew even more irate. Cuss words and spit flew out of his mouth in a vitriolic rage. “Come on, Jodi, let’s get away from him. He’s crazy!” I said and steered Jodi’s still-flapping big mouth back down the street toward her house. Johnnie eventually retreated back toward home after a brief barrage of rocks tossed in our direction. Once at Jodi’s we went inside, cooked up our lunch and after a few minutes forgot about the whole thing.
Later that afternoon I returned home. I walked in the door, saw the look on my mother’s face and nearly peed my Levi’s. She had this way of squeezing her eyes super tight and talking through scrunched up lips and clenched teeth that could scorch a brownie faster than an Easy Bake Oven. “Don’t you ever! And I mean EVER - take anyone else’s side over your brother ever again. How dare you?! He is your brother! He is your family!”
“I didn’t do anything,” I protested.
“Your brother got into an argument with Jodi and you took her side over your brother’s. End of story.”
“But you don’t even know what it was about. Maybe he was wrong?!”
“You didn’t know what it was about either. And you probably still don’t.”
“He flipped out. He was so mad.”
“You’re damn right he was angry. You didn’t take his side. Don’t you ever do that again.”
“Okay. Jeez.” I said. “Sorry.”
So it wasn’t right away that I figured out why my mother was so angry with me. My brother was always and remains even now - you know, just my brother. But as I matured I started to understand that some people didn’t see him through the colorblind lens that I did. When I was three years old Johnnie was adopted from an orphanage in Seoul, Korea. He was six years old and came to America, to our family, speaking only Korean and must have experienced culture shock and confusion to a degree which I can only imagine. He and my little sister, who my parents adopted from Vietnam when she was an infant, were two of the few non-white people in our small town. My brother was experiencing things that I wasn’t even aware of or, if I was in some small way aware I didn’t then, and still think I can’t, fully understand the depth of their meaning. Things like getting the nickname “Eggroll” and being teased for being shorter than the rest of the guys. Kids are always assigning labels to one another - his label was always, “different.” I can’t describe the depths of my shame for my actions that day. It was so simple, really. He was my brother and he needed me to be on his side. I wasn’t. I wanted a sandwich. You can’t ever un-see something once you’ve awakened to its truth. My eyes are open now and I can see the discrepancies. Interracial families are more common these days. That is wonderful. But if it makes any sense at all it seems like the acceptance of others is happening at a faster rate than blatant racism is slowing. What happened back then, all those many years ago, wasn’t racially motivated of course. And, I must mention what a wonderful person and friend Jodi still is! But, there are those in our society who are in need of a more level playing field. Afterall, it is only fair that when we run a race we all start at the same marker. And that’s what my mother railed against that day. That is why my mother drilled into me that my brother needed my love and support but more importantly my understanding. We are all adults now. And truthfully, Johnnie is not just my brother, he's one of my closest friends and we live ten minutes away from each other out here in sunny Los Angeles. We have kids of our own and what I hope for my children and all our nieces and nephews is colorblind equality. But, I don’t think you get that without recognizing and fully understanding that the marathon race of equality is different based on the color of our skin and we are not all starting at the same place.
So, when others make a dignified protest and drop to their knee how can we not support them or at least be anything but empathetic? Why the fear? Why the ignorance? The pie has enough slices for each of us to enjoy. There is enough in this world and there will always be enough if we allow ourselves to be led with love and acceptance rather than greed and a fear of lack. If we all were to truly love ourselves and each other, how could we watch another suffer? We couldn’t. We wouldn’t. We would understand. I want my children, my family, to live in a world that is colorblind but that world won’t exist until we all recognize we’re not all running the same race. Luke 12:48 sums it up best, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” My parents put that into practice oh so many years ago, and their example, the gift they gave us all, is really all there is to understand.