“…in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
Years ago, my daughter came home and said she wanted to run for the office of Eagle High School sophomore class president. I was excited, and I told her to go for it. Then she asked, “Do you think I will be elected?” I asked her why she doubted herself. She said, “We are only three black students in a class of about 500.” I told her students select leaders who have good reasons to lead and have plans for a better future. We discussed strategies on how she would conduct her campaign, developed slogans and spent about four hours practicing a one-minute speech. She was elected to be the class president, and was re-elected for two more years.
It was a shocking realization for me that skin color can be an obstacle for one’s life pursuits. The fact that I am black was not clear to me until 1986, a few days after I arrived in Laramie, Wyo., from Kenya for my graduate studies. In my youth, we referred to people either as Africans (differentiated by tribal names), Europeans, Arabs, Indians or Chinese.
A fellow student, who could not pronounce my last name (the name classmates called me in Africa), needed someone to help him carry something from his car. Several students and I were standing nearby while others walked by. The student called but no one went to help him. Pointing in the direction of where I was standing, he finally said “I am talking to that black man there.” Everyone turned to see the black man. I also turned to see the black man, unaware that the other students had turned to look at me.
Before coming to Wyoming, I can’t recall being in the presence of more than few people of European background. In the first few days, it was a challenge to tell the difference among white male classmates — they all looked the same to me. As such I couldn’t tell whether I knew the student who needed help or not.
My child’s perspective and my own experience came to mind years later when I participated at an event for those who had lost a child — but it was also open for those who have lost any other loved one. The program was held at the Cathedral of the Rockies, Boise. I attended because I knew the organizers and I have also traveled through path of grief. There were people from all races.
Participants lined up and lit candles as they mentioned the names of their loved ones. A parent or grandparent would say a name of his or her child and sit down without saying the color of the child’s skin. A sister or a brother said the name of the departed sibling, again without mentioning skin color. People came from the pews, platform and the choir, too.
I was too moved by the little I knew about the people I had known since moving to Idaho. There was a policeman, writer, librarian and someone who worked at the governor’s office. I then wondered what other life turbulence, divorce, rejection or downsizing had they gone through, experiences that have no respect for the man — devised categories mostly used to devalue others.
Reflecting on that day’s experience and thoughts I realized that these people of different cultural backgrounds and physical appearances also experienced the same joys of life. The source of joy might have been the birth of a child or marriage, graduation or having unexpected visit from loved ones.
There is no color of pain or joy. These ups and downs of life remind us that we are more alike than we are unlike. We are more alike than the superficial classifications based on gender, tribe, age, physical capabilities, race and economic status unfortunately used to subject others into second class of social stratification.
As an individual, you must free yourself from an identity that is tied to things you cannot control. At the same time, it is also important not to let others limit your potential based on what they think about your gender, age or race — this is something you can control. Meanwhile social and biological groupings shouldn’t be your obstacle in enriching the world with your individual uniqueness and potential.
Vincent Muli Kituku is an author and speaker for business organizations, schools and Christian groups. He is the founder of Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope and Caring Hearts High School, a vulnerable girls’ boarding school in Kenya. Contact him at (208) 376-8724 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.