Sunday, August 7, 2011

Why do we like those who are like us?

      Here goes another entry on a Sunday...perhaps this could be the start of a new tradition for me?  Sundays are a great day for reflection for me.  Perhaps it's the fact that I go to church that leaves me feeling reflective on Sunday afternoons.  Whatever the case, it has been a good week for people watching here in D.C. and I am going to recap for you!
     I live down the street from a high-traffic part of D.C. with lots of shopping, eateries, businesses, and a main metro stop that connects to the metro system.  I am constantly commuting back and forth via bus between my more isolated neighborhood and this so-called 'town square.'  It's not a bad commute and it usually takes around 10-15 minutes one direction with all of the stops along the way.  The only downside is the wait for the bus which can vary depending on what day or what time of day it is.  There are so many characters to take in, however, that I am rarely bored while waiting.  Annoyed perhaps, but bored never!
     So the other day, I was making my weekly trip back from Target when I saw the '12 Tribes of Israel' group standing at the metro stop.  They are a group of young, black men dressed in long tunics preaching and lecturing the unenthusiastic passer-bys.  I had seen them plenty of times before and had always struggled to understand what their message was based on their loud diatribes.  I knew they liked to invoke God's name and I had always assumed that they were reading passages from the Bible.  Today, however, their message appeared a little different as one of them held a colorful poster depicting Jesus as a white man with blonde flowing hair.  This, of course, is a traditional Western depiction of Jesus.  Next to the image in large letters it said, "This is the Devil.  Jesus was a Negro, not a white man!"  My immediate thought was 'Wow, that is racist!'  The neighborhood I live in is majority-minority with blacks and Hispanics making up the majority of the population.  So, they were certainly targeting the right audience with their message.
     Was it racist though?  Upon further consideration, I started to think about the root of the sentiment displayed on the poster.  These young black men wanted to see themselves reflected in the image of the son of God.  Why wouldn't you want to see yourself reflected in a God that you worship?  Why is Jesus so often depicted as a white man and so rarely as anything different?  Based on a New Testament course I took in school and a documentary I can recall, scholars believe Jesus was most likely neither black nor white, but instead more middle-eastern in appearance.  I think it is human nature to want to see someone like yourself reflected whether it be in the God you worship, your family, friends,etc.  Why else do people tend to gravitate and want to help others who look like them?  Perhaps familiarity?  The idea that you must have similar value systems?
     The way I look earned me a favor one rainy afternoon in my neighborhood.  I was running late for my interview with a temp agency when just as I stepped outside, it started pouring.  Of course, this would happen to me when I am already running late!  So I get to the bus stop and wait for what felt like 15 minutes.  Still, no bus.  I start contemplating ways to explain my tardiness to the interviewer when all of a sudden, a random car going down the street pulls off to the side and puts its blinkers on.  Are they having car trouble?  Do they want to give me a ride?  Should I take it if they do?  The driver proceeds to back up to where I am standing at the bus stop and honks the horn.  A young man about my age is driving with his guy friend in the passenger seat and a female passenger in the back seat.  They all motion for me to hop in.  I take them up on the offer and hop into the car.  Normally I would never do this for safety reasons as a young female, but it was broad daylight on a main thoroughfare, I was late for my interview, and there was another female in the back seat.   Kids, don't do this at home!  So, I hop in the car and thank them hoping I am not going to regret my decision. 
     As soon as I get in the car, I notice they are all speaking another language and it smells like ethnic food.  Two of them appear to be East African and I ask them aloud if they are Ethiopian by any chance.  The driver responds that they are all Ethiopian and that they thought I was Ethiopian when they picked me up.  He finds it hard to believe that I am not one of them.  He asks what my ethnicity is and when I reply that I am Indian he exclaims that he has never seen an Indian person who looks like me.  They proceed to all converse in Amharic (the language of Ethiopia) while I nervously check my watch.  I question them about the Ethiopian community in DC which they say is one of the largest in the nation.  As they drop me off close to the interview site, I realize I will be right on time if I walk just fast enough.  As I board the elevator at my final destination, a middle-aged man asks me if I am 'Habesha' which is a way of asking if you are East African.  I tell him no and ask about his background.  He says he is Ethiopian.  I think to myself, 'Wow, I must really look Ethiopian today!'  
     I wonder if my Ethiopian friends would have offered me a ride that afternoon if I had looked differently.  If I had been an older white man, would they have helped me out?  Or perhaps if I looked white, a white family might have tried to help me?  I may be thinking too deeply into this, but I am fascinated by why and how people gravitate to those who look like them.  Perhaps this fascination is due to the fact that I am biracial or rather of a bi-cultural background as my Dad is Indian and my Mom is white.  I grew up having friends from all races and Mom dubbed my high school a mini United Nations.  In fact, I have almost no Indian friends.  I have plenty of acquaintances though.  Even so, when I meet or befriend an Indian person, I tend to have a certain kinship with them that is based on our shared culture.  It is easy to relate to people who have shared experiences to us as it is a common ground to build friendship on.  Still, I wonder how many people miss out on different perspectives by only sticking with those who look like them?

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