On Saturday morning, we hit up a few garage sales hoping to find a few cheap treasures to help fill our soon-to-be home. Instead, I bought an overpriced plate.
After five years of living in China, I was anticipating some sort of culture shock. Three years ago, on our first summer home, it came when I tried buying a pair of pants at Kohls. I walked in, became so overwhelmed with the mounds of options - style, color, brand - that I had to walk out. Josey was shocked to see me empty handed, only three minutes later, but I just couldn't handle it.
This time round, however, it wasn't the pants that bothered me. It was religion.
It's no surprise that Christianity isn't popular in China. Even if one professes Christ, it's with hushed tones and little secret phrases because, if spoken too loud or shared too much, the local police is sure to visit.
I knew America was different because our founding fathers said it would be. But still, the conversations with strangers were difficult to grasp. It started first on our camping trip to Holter Lake, MT when I accidentally sat in a woman's chair on the beach and found myself in a friendly conversation. Earlier I had noticed she was shaking her head and underlining her book (tell-tail signs of a good book), so I asked her about it. "It's amazing," she said, "You have to read it."
"What book is it?" I asked.
"Not A Fan" she replied, then launched into how God doesn't need us to cheer for him but to worship him. She not only assumed I was a Christian, but that I was her type of Christian - whatever that is. She didn't ask any questions about my thoughts, my beliefs, or my faith. She just assumed we were in agreement.
If it wasn't for my kids swimming in the nearby water, I would have left. Not because I didn't want to talk further, but because, like Kohls, I just couldn't handle it.
This conversation has happened several times over the past couple weeks, and it still does, even in the classroom, but I'm beginning to get used to it, expect it even.
Then this weekend happened.
At any garage sale or antique store, while Josey hunts for simple treasures to make our home, I scavenge for used books. And like lake-side conversations, everyone seems to believe everyone else is a Christian who wants to read books on Christian living, how to have a good Christian marriage, how to be good Christian parents, how to pray more, how to pray better, and why Christians should read Christian books. It's more than a little irritating.
Then, we came to the house that sits just a few down from the one we're moving into, an "everything must go!" type of garage sale, including the house. The lady of the house sat in a chair, surrounded by dishes, bags, and a giant calculator, encouraging everyone to buy more and providing deals on everything. We got a pair of steak knives for a dollar and a bin of clothes pins for fifty cents.
Then, I saw the plate. It was behind her, on the floor, and on top of several others. My sister - a beautiful young woman adopted from Ethiopia - saw it too. I didn't know what to do at first, but as the lady was handing back my change, I stepped behind her and said, "I'll take this too."
My sister's eyes grew and the lady stiffened just a bit, "Oh that! Oh, I can't sell that for anything less than five dollars!" Cleary, it was special.
"That's fine," I said, quickly tucking it into my bag, then whispered, "I'll explain later," to my sister.
As we walked I tried to convince myself that maybe I was making a bigger deal than I should because, "Really, it's just a plate," I told myself.
Then I looked at it again. And really, it's more than just a plate.
In one of the latest issues of O, The Oprah Magazine, a powerful photo essay entitled, “Let’s Talk About Race” was published in hopes of challenging "the ways we view race in a masterful way."
"Each of the three photos in the essay shows women or girls of color in a role reversal from the ways in which they are stereotypically seen ― or not seen ― compared to white women or girls."
“I knew that there was a vision to raise questions [about race] without being heavy-handed or mean-spirited,” photographer Chris Buck says about his work. “That’s the way in which I approached the execution and helped them to create the images.”
The article continues.
However, Buck, who is a white man, acknowledged that producing the photos led him to interrogate his own relationship with race, and that the images can mean many things to many people. But he says the photos, at their core, serve as means to help spark a healthy discussion around race and the ways we perceive it (via).
“For white people like me, we need to understand just because we’re talking about race doesn’t mean fingers are being pointed at us,” he said. “To me what’s great is that it’s made conversation. I want people of color and white people to be able to have a dialogue. I don’t want white people to feel like they’re being talked at or black people to feel like they’re being shut down either.”
Which is why the plate is so much more than just a plate. It's a statement, and it's an ending to any sort of dialogue before they even start. It makes black people feel shut down - like a good maid should be - and white people feel how they often feel. Privileged. Can you imagine a black family with a plate of a white woman holding a rolling pin?
“All parties need to feel welcome at the table in this discussion,” he added, “that’s how we move forward and to me, at their best, that’s what these pictures can do.”
I still have the plate. I had visions of my little sister breaking it, of her throwing to the concrete floor or shattering it with a hammer. But she doesn't need to, because she's stronger than a plate.
But, apparently, I'm not. That woman got five dollars for her plate and an affirmation that what she had, what she so boldly sold, was okay. My sister was standing right next to me, in all her blackness, and the lady never even flinched. Because the plate she held with a little black lady holding a rolling pin was okay - it was just art.
And I said nothing. Why? Was I afraid? Afraid of offending the lady who gave me a deal on the clothes pins? Why didn't I say anything?
I really don't know. But as I've considered it, I wonder if the reason I didn't say anything is because I have a history of not saying anything. I can write about it, I can even bark at my students when they show intolerance or ignorance towards others.
But then, I can also say nothing. And I can't get over that.
It's no surprise that America - the world - is a mess. Racial and religious tensions are just as tight and fragile as they've ever been, spilling over and into the streets of our neighborhoods and cities.
Since buying the plate, I've wondered how responsible I am for allowing hate and racial oppression to survive by not making my voice loud enough to confront it. Because although I may brake plates in the safety of my garage, I buy them with closed lips from my neighbors.
And a community is only as strong as its weakest neighbor.
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