The other day I was visiting my sister and her new baby in the hospital. I was excited to meet her new nurse who just so happens to be from Cape Town, South Africa. I figured we would have a lot to talk about seeing as how I had just returned days earlier. A few minutes into our conversation I gave her a brief overview of the work we were doing in the region, and the ways we were trying to help NGO’s and churches understand and know how to work with those who have been traumatized in townships. I’ll do my best not to miss-quote her, but her response was something like – “could they even receive the help you were trying to offer them? The people in the townships have a totally different value system. They’re like animals, not that I’m comparing them to animals, but they can’t really change. They just have such a different value system.”
I just looked at her and said nothing. I think I was trying to interpret what she was saying, I was hoping desperately that I was misunderstanding her, hoping that it was just a hot button for me since I just returned and she wasn’t saying what I thought she was saying. I was trying to formulate a response and be aware of that fact that my role in that moment was to smile, silently disagree and remember that my priority was my sister enjoying her time in the hospital with her new baby girl.
But, if I was back in that moment in a different context and clarity of mind, I think might have responded differently. I might have asked her to clarify what it is about them that makes them incapable of receiving help. I think I might have told her about Abbie, a black woman who lives in an immaculately clean 200 square foot pinned up home in a township and spends her time with children teaching them, basically for free. I might have told her about Sylvia who lost everyone she loved which drove her to prostitution but she found healing, made different choices and now helps at risk youth avoid her terrible fate. I would have told her several other stories of people who were brought into unthinkable situations in townships, with nothing but what was given to them, and who chose to grow and change and become people helpers against all odds. I would have asked her how she thinks she might have turned out had she been born in a township, but I guess only God knows that.
Animals? Unable to learn and change? No. Fellow human beings born into and placed into terrible situations from the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of one another with all the capacity to become great? Yes. Their blackness is not what fundamentally makes them disadvantaged. Racism, unequal socioeconomic opportunity, lack of education, cycles of violence, poverty, that’s what breaks people.
Differences drives fear, fear drives separation, separation reinforces the cycle and it becomes easy to accept that the other wants the impoverished lives they’re living, that we are fundamentally different with unequal capacity for goodness.
I believe that we can see one another’s humanness only when we interact with the other, and when we do, when there is a shred of good in us we humans at our best will treat the other with kindness. Maybe if this nurse knew Abbie or Sylvia, her value system and unchanging mindset might just do the thing she believes to be impossible…and change.
Would it have made a difference if I said all this to her…probably not. But in a different context I would have said it anyways, just to be a small voice in a small moment for the oppressed. I hope after this hypothetical conversation I would realize that yes, I did misunderstand her and that she too believes that no matter our skin color we are all worthy of the same human rights and capable of good, if but only by the grace of God.