My wife and I were engaging on one of our favorite activities, our weekly shopping trip to Aldi. We had gotten our cereal, fruit, and other necessities and were heading to the checkout. However, before we made it my ADD kicked in and I decided to go back and grab some other items.When I returned to my wife I noticed that she was talking to an older lady. When I joined my wife the lady responded in a surprised yet excited manner, “this must be him” – I think she was scouting us. As we chatted, the lady, stereotypical of many older women, was quite inquisitive, thought our olive oil was wine, was overbearingly sociable. Our conversation ended by her saying that she was, “very glad that we were in Huntington” and like many “good” Christian women, invited us to visit her church.
Alyssa and I pushed our cart up to the checkout lane, packed our bag and then headed to the car. Then Alyssa filled me in on the first part of her conversation. While Alyssa was walking through the frozen food section she almost bumped into this lady. The cordial, “its Okays” came out and Alyssa assumed that the incident was over. However, the lady had other thoughts. She asked, “Oh are you from the college?”, which is what most of the people in Huntington assume about us. It is a logical assumption: 1) we are young and most of those who are under 25 and live in Huntington are students at Huntington University, 2) when in non business clothes we (I especially) dress more Urban and 3) we are minorities and basically all the minorities that live in Huntington are affiliated with the college.
Post-assumption, Alyssa informed the lady that she was not from the college and that I actually worked at the university. The lady then asked where we lived – I think assuming that we didn’t actually live in Huntington. Alyssa responded by telling her that just moved from Fort Wayne and that before that we lived in Champaign, IL. That is when the great awkwardness began. In an effort to connect the lady responded, “I lived in Chicago”, Alyssa appropriately responded by saying, “Oh, I am from the suburbs of Chicago. The lady, in all genuineness . . . and ignorance said, “What Chianatown?” Alyssa’s face immediately expressed, “are ya serious?”. The lady must have noticed Alyssa’s chargrin because she quickly recanted her statement, “That was a stupid and dumb thing to say . . . but you are Chinese right?” and Alyssa prompted said, “Kinda , I’m Taiwanese”.
The complexity in this situation comes from the lady’s honest naiveté. She has probably never interacted with an Asian-American in Huntington; she was probably nervous and somewhat dumbfounded; she was probably hopeful about the prospect of diversity yet unsure of how to embrace it.
The blessing of this situation, odd as that may sound, is that Alyssa was given the opportunity to offer grace. When dealing with racial issues – reconciliation as a whole – grace must remain preeminent. This doesn’t mean that words don’t hurt, people aren’t insensitive or that people aren’t bitter, but it does mean that as Christians we don’t have the liberty of getting and staying mad at someone. Grace is sometimes difficult. Saying something racially offense – in either its insensitivity or its brazenness – not only brings up all the previous negative incidents of racism , but also the experiences of others, of family, and of ancestors. This is a deep litany of pain. It is much easier to choose the ways of anger or apathy rather than the third way of grace.
The words that this lady spoke were wrong, they were insensate, but Alyssa had the opportunity to show her love despite her shortcomings. What do you think the effect would have been if Alyssa snapped back and said, “NO, I am not from Chinatown? Are you serious?” I believe that would have negatively influenced this lady’s tolerance for diversity and understanding of others unlike her. Alyssa’s face said enough to suggest that the comment wasn’t proper. Let me be frank, Alyssa was upset and she should have been. Grace does not eliminate frustration, but rather channels it to a productive response.
For a great text on this pick up David Anderson’s book “Gracism”