A young man holds up a colorful zippered case. “Maybe they thought there was money inside,” he says, opening it to reveal the crisp white pages of a Karen Bible. His sister was carrying this, walking home from a worship music practice at a neighboring apartment with another young Karen woman, when three men attacked them. Thorns snagged their flesh as they fled from their aggressors into the woods. They went to the hospital later that day for their injuries.
“Thara, aw may—Teacher, eat rice,” the brother tells me.
“Ya aw may wee lee—I’ve already eaten.”
The mother, father, and younger brother sit at the table eating rice with some kind of fried meat and bamboo shoots. I recognize the younger brother from the guitar class I sometimes assist with at the Community Center.
“You went to the guitar class on Friday, right?”
“Yes. I saw you there,” he says smiling.
“Do you go every week?”
“Yes. Every week.”
I gradually realize that I know the older brother as well. He taught me a Karen praise song just last week while I was visiting another friend’s apartment, but at the time I had thought he was a relative of that family. He talks quickly and calmly in Karen with Tha Htaw, my friend who brought me to their house, I listen attentively as though I can understand. Waiting for a pause in their conversation, I interject,
“I am sorry about what happened to your sister. Let me know if you need anything. Especially a ride to the hospital.”
“Yes, yes. Ok. Thank you.”
I follow Tha Htaw out of the apartment and thank him for leading me there. We walk together towards his apartment several buildings over and I say goodbye to him at the base of the stairs before commencing the ten-minute walk back to the apartment complex where I live. The sun is lazing behind the trees creating a soft white glow in the sky. The temperature is dropping and the cool evening air nips at my exposed arms. I pass by the unoccupied wood and red plastic playground adjacent to Tha Htaw’s apartment, and stroll down the hill towards the gate.
By the mail pavilion at the bottom of the hill there is a large gathering of children. In the center of the circle, a Karen boy stands across from an African-American boy roughly the same age. They are no older than ten or eleven. A slightly taller African-American girl stands between them, asking the Karen boy in slow and simplified speech, “Do you want to fight him?” I slow my pace and watch them conspicuously from the sidewalk, stopping at the corner feeling a sudden sense of responsibility to prevent this from escalating. I fiddle with my phone there for a couple minutes and then decide to take another lap around the building in order to pass the gathering again. As I approach a second time, a bold woman arriving home at her apartment shouts to them, “Go home all of you! You are too smart for all of this! You think you’re too young to go to juvie?”
The children slowly disperse. “Go on! You’re too smart for all of this!” She looks my way for a moment and shakes her head. I watch the Karen boys walk away towards the gate of the complex and the African-Americans in the opposite direction. I walk slowly behind the Karen along the drive leading to the exit. I feel this burning in my heart to dissolve distinctions, yet feel utterly apart from all of this as a silent observer, an outsider.
The white experience is characterized by a particular uncertainty. It is a search for ethnicity. In a town like Clarkston, for me it is an experience of otherness. In the past two generations, my family gradually migrated further and further outside of Baltimore city. As distinctive European ethnicities dissolved into a racial label, white became a unifying color, the absence of color. Thus my people fled the ethnic infusion of the city to seek refuge in a more homogeneous environment.
This is a natural tendency, which becomes perverted when we think in terms of race. The word, “discriminate,” literally means, “to make distinctions.” Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens states, “It especially annoys me when racists are accused of 'discrimination.' The ability to discriminate is a precious facility; by judging all members of one 'race' to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.” Our brains automatically create distinctions between people because of superficial differences. It is part of our instinct for self-preservation. We are meant to know and love our own distinctive ethnicity, and in so doing recognize that this is a universal human experience.
I recognize in myself the need to recover this healthy psychology, to know myself as an ethnic person, a German Catholic American. It is only from this distinctive place that I am able to enter into the human arena, to carry on a corporate desire for preservation. I enter with a desire to do something positive in this place of interethnic tension and to engage in the recovery of my own ethnicity as I am immersed in Karen culture. I seek the knowledge that I am not blind.
A boy on a bicycle calls out behind me, “Here they are!” Several other children on bicycles follow them. I turn to him with a stern face and say, “Leave them alone.” I hear the woman call out from the distance, “HEY! GO HOME!” The children gradually turn back down the drive, and gravity carries them down the hill and they glide away into dispersion among the trees and brick buildings.
My cell phone goes off in my pocket and I look at the screen to see the name of the brother of the girl who was beaten. I am surprised he is calling me already, but assume they need a ride to the hospital or something. I flip open the phone and say, “Hello?”
“Hello. You left your bag at my house. If you have free time, you can come and visit. Next week we will have thanksgiving, worship God at my house, if you can come.”