When you’re the minority

eggsIt’s known as the country of hospitality, and for good reason. Living for 4 1/2 years (1999-2003) in the welcoming but scorching and malaria-ridden African nation of Benin was simultaneously a joy and a monumental challenge. We’ll forever be grateful that they took-in an American missionary family and – despite our failings – opened their hearts to us and loved us. We will always have Beninese soil in our shoes!

For all the positive memories of Benin that I treasure, one negative memory was a phrase we heard too many times to count:

Yovo, yovo, bon soir. Ça va? Cadeau!

Translation: “White person, white person, good evening. How are you? Give me a gift!”

It was a little sing-song that parents taught their children, what they apparently thought was a harmless ice-breaker. Every day Monday through Friday, I’d arrive at the church office to the enthusiastic greetings of a small group of neighborhood children. “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” I knew they meant well, so I’d shake their hands and tell them:

It’s true, my skin is white, but I have a name. It’s Pastor Crofford. What is your name?

I’m a teacher, so I was confident I could gradually teach a proper greeting to a group of little boys and girls, and they responded well. No longer was I “yovo.” Little-by-little, they called me “Pastor.” But around town was a different story. Outside of restaurants? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” Walking down the street? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” Arriving at one of our new churches? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” And it wasn’t always just children; sometimes adults also called you “yovo.” I’d remind myself that it didn’t matter, not to be so sensitive. But when it’s happening for the 10th time in one day, it’s like a grain of sand in your shoe on a long walk. It might be small, but it starts to grate you. You begin to wonder: 

Is the only thing about me that’s worth mentioning…my skin color?

Somewhere down in my soul, a seed of resentment quietly sprouted and took root. “You’re a Christian, a missionary no less!” I would preach at myself, but like fighting the Borg, resistance seemed futile.

One Sunday night we had a Bible study. Missionaries from various churches gathered at the house of an American diplomat. We always supsected that high-ranking U.S. Embassy personnel like “Rick” (not his name) lived in an involuntary bubble, but Rick confirmed our suspicions. He’d already lived in Cotonou for over a year. A week earlier, he’d been drafted to run in a 5k, representing the U.S. mission. We asked him how he’d done. He’d run well, but many had called out to him from the sides of the route, so he asked us:

What’s with this “yovo” thing?

We burst into laughter. We’d known about it since our first day in the country.

My wife, Amy, had a chance to chat with her adult English students, a dozen or so upper-class and well-connected Beninese. “What do you think of Benin?” they asked. She complimented them on the many things we liked, but got brave. “There is something you should change,” she remarked. “Get rid of the ‘yovo, yovo, bon soir’ chant. Ex-pats hate it.” It was an eye-opening moment for them. They thought the chant was welcoming; we saw it as a nuisance, a constant reminder that we were “other.”

Before we left the country a year later, we noticed fewer children were chanting it. When I visited Cotonou again four years later, the chant was gone!

Living in two West African nations for nine years forced me into a skin-color role reversal I never would have otherwise known.

In the New York state Erie Canal town where I attended school as a youth, African-American students – or “Negroes” as was commonly said then- were rare. Likewise, the college and seminary where I studied were almost entirely white. After seminary, I pastored a church in a Midwestern town that until 1948 had maintained two hospitals, one a well-equipped facility for white citizens and a separate (and inferior) hospital for black citizens. Our ministerial association had only white pastors, though there were some small all-black churches on the “other side of the tracks,” far away from our all-white churches.

My experiences in life until age 30 had been as a white person living in a white world. I had zero experience being in the minority. It’s hardly surprising then that I had no way to interpret the seemingly over-the-top comment of an African-American pastor who guest lectured in class one day. The only black man in the room speaking to a room full of white seminarians, he bravely observed (paraphrased):

Whether you acknowledge it or not, everyone in this room is at least somewhat racist. You can’t help it; that is the way you’ve been shaped by your white culture.

That was until I lived in West Africa. Only then, as a white raft adrift in a sea of black, did I have some appreciation of what it means to be perceived through the narrow lens of skin color. One of my Ivorian students admitted: “When we were little, our parents told us that when white people sleep, coins fall out of their ears.” I laughed! Maybe this was the tooth-fairy legend garbled? “No coins in my ears or on my pillow,” I assured him.

But when do seemingly harmless stereotypes mutate into something more sinister?

In the United States, white supremacist ideology is pernicious because it stubbornly rejects what God has revealed, that all human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). It thrives on discredited notions of eugenics, that there are superior “races” and inferior “races” rather than a single race, the human race. Contrary to the Apostle Paul, who taught that we are “one in Christ Jesus” no matter our gender, our nationality, or whether we are slave or free (Galatians 3:28), the twisted thinking of racism conditions children to fixate on the minor differences that divide us rather than celebrating the major similarities that unite us.

Sometimes the seeds of discrimination are planted subtly. When I was five or six, I’d sometimes watch public television. (It was “Sesame Street” or a similar educational program.) Three colorful round shapes appeared on the screen, and one square one. The catchy jingle?

One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.

It’s only in retrospect that I’m appalled by the lesson since little boys and girls have no way to process it. How would I have felt if I were Bruce or his sister, Julie, the only two African-American students in my class of twenty-five at elementary school? The sub-text was clear: I’m not like the others, so I don’t belong. 

This was public television, but shouldn’t Christian churches do better?

I loved my childhood church. At church, I learned many good things, including what it means to love God, but it’s not all that I learned. One adult, “Steve,” (not his name) would tell jokes at church at the expense of black people. His prejudiced yarns drew nervous chuckles from his grown-up listeners, but no one challenged him publicly.

Or how about the pastor who a few years ago – after a missionary service where they’d responsed well to the report of our work in Africa – walked us to the parking lot. He advised us to turn right out of the parking lot and not left. Why? “You’ll want to avoid the ‘bad part of town.’ ” The pastor drove off, but when he was out of sight, we turned left anyways, driving into the “bad part of town.” (It looked fine to us). For an hour, we enjoyed a tasty meal at a restaurant, the only white customers yet welcomed by the smiles of two dozen African-Americans who seemed to enjoy the food as much as we did.

Once, my fellow bank-teller during a lull in the drive-thru lamented (in all seriousness) that black men were “out to sleep with white women.” I mumbled a half-hearted protest, but uncomfortable, changed the subject.

NileCrocodile

Racism is pernicious because – like a crocodile – it lurks just below the surface of the human heart. You never know when it’s going to surface, clamp down on a victim and drag them under. Like the person who sees the splinter in the eye of her sister, not realizing the board she has in her own (Matthew 7:5), we must constantly bring ourselves before the Lord and ask God to examine our hearts, to “see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:13, NIV). We must sing the old Methodist hymn: “It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

When all your life you have been part of the majority group, it’s tough to put yourself in the shoes of the minority.

Yet if my experience in West Africa of being a minority teaches me anything, it reminds me that my “default” position should be to give credance to the complaints of minorities and not simply shrugging: “There they go again, playing the race card” or dismissing charges of prejudice out-of-hand as exaggerations.

Change came when the Beninese took our “yovo, yovo” complaint seriously, and started teaching their children a different way of interacting with expatriates. How about us, as white Americans? Are we willing to listen, to allow minorities to point out our blind spots, and to adjust our behavior accordingly? May we be willing to pray, as Jesus taught us: “Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others…” (Matthew 6:12, CEV). And once forgiven, may God grant that we become the Lord’s agents of reconciliation.


Image credits

Eggs — Keira Hamilton, on Linked-In

Crocodiles — CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66978

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