Welcoming people into your culture can be eye opening. It is so interesting to hear the things that stick out as unique to those who are visiting. I remember when my parents came to visit me in Malaysia, hearing their reactions to different parts of life in Malaysia that had grown to be insignificant to me. So here I was, in LA (where I had never been before), welcoming 41 athletes, coaches, and leaders from Malaysia to the Special Olympics World Games. Initially there were the expected reactions: huge serving sizes, where's the rice?, sexy advertisements… but there was one observation that continued to resurface.
Each time we arrived to a crosswalk, someone would make the statement, "orang puti saja boleh jalan". Basically saying, only the white man is allowed to cross the street. This became the running joke of the week. Sometimes saying, "oh just Sarah is allowed to cross."
It is funny that this is something that stuck out so much to my group, but this simple observation reveals a much larger truth in our society.
I went late at night to pick up team Malaysia from the airport. As I was introducing myself and learning everyone's names, a police man walked by. One of the athletes looked at me and said, "I know white police like to hit people." Just to put this in perspective for you, Malaysia is on the opposite side of the world. However, news from the US does make its way across the ocean. Here is a girl who just arrived to the US for the first time, and this is the first sentence that comes out of her mouth to me.
Welcome to America.
Only the white man is allowed to cross the street.
In America, we have this understood and unspoken rule where brown and black bodies must stay in their respectively assigned neighborhoods. Problems arise when brown and black bodies cross the street into areas that are understood and unspoken as only for white bodies. White bodies can cross freely into any areas, but the dark bodies get into trouble when they are found to be in places it is believed by the white bodies they should not be.
I wish this hadn't been a lesson on American culture for our Malaysian friends, but inevitably questions surrounding race relationships came up in the 2 weeks. And I explained it as best as I could with the understanding I have, but the reality is that it is so complex and so intregated in our culture that it is hard to even recognize all the ways we have done this to ourselves. The crossing signs are flashing our white privilege in our faces, for crying out loud, yet we don't see it because it has become a normal part of daily life.
You want to know one of the best resources we have for understanding ourselves? Become an observer alongside other observers. Listen to the observations and questions of those whose reality this isn't. We have brothers and sisters who can help us put on a new lens of understanding, who have life experiences that can help inform where we find ourselves as a country. Praise the Lord we have people who can point out to us some things that are really messed up that we have never thought about. It's ok to not have all the answers, but it isn't ok to stop asking the really important questions. And it is most important, in my opinion, to be vulnerable as a country. To be able to admit that there is work to be done and that we don't have all the answers as a closed community of the United States. If we can move to not only listen to the questions our brothers and sisters around the world have, but maybe even go to them for ideas and answers- that is when beautiful things will happen.
Orang puti saja boleh jalan. Bila orang lain boleh jalan?
Only the white man can walk. When will others be able to walk?