Are You Race Neutral?

Black-and-white hairstyleLast Friday, the day before an event in Charlottesville, Virginia, which may soon bring down a President, a total stranger and I experienced a profound moment that made the next day’s clashes that much more horrifying, and yet, gave us an insight into how the country might heal.

It’s not your usual rhetoric from social scientists, as helpful as that might be. Our solution is what you might consider “out there” in terms of its underlying philosophy. But if this stranger and I could see, feel, and understand it—simultaneously—isn’t there hope for others whose lives seem, on the surface, to come from completely different cultures? A divide we have trouble crossing?

What unites us? We are human. As human beings, we all possess … hair. As women … it matters to us. A lot. We think about it every morning. We fret over it and we style it and we curse it and we admire ourselves in mirrors when it does what we want it to. And yet—we have a natural divide. Your hair and my hair and her hair and his hair—they are all unique, right? What you have to do with yours to get it into shape, well, it’s something I might not know about.

If this stranger and I could see, feel, and understand it ...

The philosopher/psychologist William James wrote about this in a famous essay titled On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings and it’s one of my favorites. We will never, ever, ever fully understand the “other”—unless we step outside of our insular worlds and ask. Even so, we only have words to tell us and anything we can find in our own experience that relates, roughly, to that description.

I had a need to know something highly personal about an “other,” so that’s exactly what I did. I stopped a total stranger and asked her about her hair. Not so strange you say? It happens in salons? We were shopping in a Target store, completely minding our own business inside the usual silent divide. Still not unheard of? I am white and the woman is black.

Let me back up and confess something I’ve been keeping secret: I am writing a novel. No big deal, except that this time, I’m pushing myself out from behind my personal boundaries into new territory. I’ve been zipping along, giving up a lot of my usual pursuits to dedicate to this new book. Staying home, staying off social media (well, mostly). In fact, I hadn’t left the house for nearly two weeks, a combination of dedication, lack of need, and brief illness. So on Friday, I finally couldn’t put off my Target errands any longer. But first, we needed shampoo so I stopped into the salon that sells it. I met my first stranger.

Those hands! That beautiful skin! Yes!!

I nearly gasped when I saw her reach for the bottle she was about to sell me. Those hands! That beautiful walnut skin! Yes!! Exactly the same color as the character who inhabits my new novel, about whom I needed to know more. I was so overwhelmed by the fact that she was the first person I’d encountered in two weeks and she completely confirmed this thing about which I’d been suffering so much uncertainty. Who am I to write what’s inside a black woman’s head, right?

Dang! I was halfway to my next stop—Target—before I realized I’d blown that opportunity. I could have asked her this burning question Joseph and I had been debating all week long, trying to figure out where I could discover the answer. I texted him, joking, “I’m going to have to stop a perfect stranger and ask!”

Instead, I decided to use stealth. I’d check out the hair straightening products, read labels, in the Target store. Maybe they would answer my question.

But the minute I swung my cart into that aisle, she did the same from the other end and she was perfect. The same beautiful skin tone, dark hair, looking down at the products on the shelf.

I will never know how I found the courage but I had to leap, so I said, “Excuse me? Can I ask you a really weird question?”

She looked up and smiled a wonderful welcoming smile and said something like, “Of course,” and our worlds changed in that moment.

Not only did she understand and immediately answer my question when I babbled quickly, “I’m a writer and I’ve got this character … and well, she’s a black woman and she’s got this hairstyle that is short and straightened and she’s been out in the snow and wet …” but she replied, “I write too!” And she didn’t scold me at all for writing a character so far outside of my experience. In fact, she encouraged me.

...surely we must also book lifetimes in other cultures and races, as much as we book a flight to explore other countries

Instantly, we bridged the divide. A fellow artist. Energy healers. She also does illustrations and edits video. We couldn’t trade the details as fast as the feelings of mutual recognition unfolded. Kindred spirits.

She generously answered my question (yes, my character’s hair will probably go back to its natural curl after an hour in snow and rain).

Meanwhile, to further my embarrassment, my eyes wouldn’t stop watering for joy and relief, and in recognition of this dear soul who seemed like an old friend, and the meeting of whom so astonished me for its perfect timing and synchronicity. How did we ever manage that intricate timing? I was blown away.

We stood in that Target aisle for I don’t know how long, enthusiastically trading thoughts and commonalities and advice, as kindred spirits do. She told me about black women’s hair and I told her about an opportunity to expand her own writing connections. Before we parted, without needing to convince or explain, we exchanged business cards and we both realized that

  1. We were not strangers at all and had probably known one another in previous lifetimes,
  2. We had just experienced one of those planned-ahead, phenomenal meetings that older souls sometimes do,
  3. We are eager to meet again and learn more about each other, and
  4. Kindred spirits come in all colors.

There’s probably a (5),(6), and (7) as well, but this brings me back to the title of this blog post: Are You Race Neutral? It echoes my previous post, Are You Gender Neutral?

This encounter underlined something I had nearly forgotten, something I should have realized when I was feeling insecure about my writing: From one life to another, we not only trade genders and cultures, we also trade races.

Nobody can claim just one race on this diverse planet! We’ve all experienced many lives here, and most likely whoever we might consider to be “other” in our present lifetime could easily have been “us” in the past.

Never mind what ideas your parents implanted in your impressionable toddler years. If you have read this far, you have very likely spent countless lifetimes in bodies on this planet. Were you always what you are now? Same gender, same culture, same race? Silly to even think of, right? That would be so difficult to accomplish, although I wouldn’t say no to anything any more. But how boring it would be! What would you learn from that kind of monotony?

If we trade genders so that we can learn both polarities of the Infinity of which we are a part, then surely we must also book lifetimes in other cultures and races, as much as we book a flight to explore other countries in our present lifetime. And for the same purpose: to learn and grow.

You know it’s true, don’t you? None of us are one culture. We are all race neutral by now. Or striving to become so.

Kindred spirits come in all colors

Let’s not let political or social rhetoric confuse us. We are human beings. And that stranger across from you in the store aisle? She could well be a kindred spirit who arrived at precisely the same place at the same time, by some amazing feat of Cosmic Planning, so that you could reconnect exactly when you needed to in order to spur one another along in your purpose, which is undoubtedly to learn as much as we can and give as much as we can while we’re here.

I am so looking forward to seeing my new friend Roslynn at the next writing event in San Diego! And of course, she’s going to be one of the first to beta-read my new book when it’s finished. She’s promised to keep an eye on my authenticity.

Which reminds me that it’s nearly impossible to accomplish valuable work in complete isolation. And to think I only stepped out my door at that particular moment … to meet a fellow villager on this planet Earth. My gratitude overflows!