MORE ALIKE THAN DIFFERENT

MORE ALIKE THAN DIFFERENT

From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

More Alike Than Different

I never considered my race as a barrier to me. In fact, it’s become an asset because it allows me to have broader perspective.

James Kaiser

I met Calvin at Camp Unitown. He was our leader. At Unitown teenagers come together to participate in activities that focus on how we are all more alike than different.

Calvin was 5'7", medium brown skin with “locks” to his shoulders and the teens loved him. Calvin possessed a calmness that made you want to be near him. Where you felt okay to be yourself. Calvin spoke straight from the heart. His voice thundered when he told the group stories about acts of racism.

It was a cold and snowy February in the northern Arizona mountains. About sixty kids attended that weekend. Half came from an inner-city school in Phoenix. The other half were from a low socioeconomic community near the camp. Probably about 40 percent of all the teens there were white, 20 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Native American, and the other 10 percent of the kids were of varied ethnic backgrounds.

They were typical teenagers: loud, unruly, having fun. At first the students didn’t mix with each other. The Phoenix teenagers stayed with their group; the rural kids hung with their friends. Everyone was in their own cliques.

We participated in large groups led by Calvin and broke into small groups of six to eight to share individually. The first evening Calvin led us through a scenario of racial injustice and violence. Calvin’s story appeared so real in our minds that most of the teens were in tears. Tenderly, Calvin assisted the group in personalizing the inhumanness of any kind of prejudice.

One white girl sitting next to me pushed her head into my chest. She was sobbing. When she lifted her head to look at me, her sky-blue eyes were clear and wide and full of compassion. I kissed her forehead.

In the morning we discussed our different heritages. Calvin told us about individual cultures and described admirable qualities about each one. As he expanded on the honorable attributes of varying ethnic groups he would ask students of that ethnicity to stand as he described their heritage. The last group he asked to stand were kids of mixed ethnic groups. Calvin’s voice was passionate. “Here we have brothers and sisters who come from more than one racial background. These individuals came from two parents or parental lines that had different races. Look each one of them in the eyes. See their beauty. Here, my brothers and sisters, is the future of our world.”

By the afternoon we heard and watched each other reveal our best-kept secrets. We all shared. No one was left out.

That night we went through a litany of exercises to demonstrate how we discriminate against each other based on sex. Calvin showed us how the belief systems we had been taught verbally or nonverbally affect us. Surprisingly we saw that the girls were just as guilty as the boys in stereotyping others because they were male or female.

Calvin told the boys to stand in rows so that they were facing each other. The girls made a circle around the perimeter of the room. Then Calvin played soft music on his CD player. The music was from cultures around the world—drums, flutes, chants. The directions Calvin gave to the boys were: “Look into your brother’s eyes. Do not say a word to him. But with your eyes tell your brother, ‘I am there for you. I care for you, and I understand. You don’t have to be tough anymore. You can come to me if you need someone to help you remember your commitment.’”

To the girls he said, “Please silently witness the boys making this commitment to each other.”

Calvin gave each pair of boys time to connect their eyes and silently make their vow. Then he announced, “Change,” and the boys moved up one space to encounter a new person in the row. A few of the “tougher” boys laughed. It didn’t take long, though, for them to honor the seriousness of this event. Outside snow fell swiftly as if to solidify their vows to each other. The girls watched in awe as boys became men that day.

Afterwards, Calvin told these young men to hug every person in the room. With each hug I said a silent blessing. Earlier that day most of these guys had been strangers to me. It felt to me like they each received my blessing with honor.

Now it was the girls’ turn. Calvin instructed us to take the men’s place in the middle of the room. The men encircled us. As Calvin played music created by great women from all around the world, he told us, “Look into your sister’s eyes. See her beauty. Tell her how beautiful she is. Tell her with your eyes, not words. Promise her you will be there for her when she needs you. Remind her to respect herself.”

Powerful emotions built up inside of me as I gave each girl a silent message using only my eyes. I felt such compassion.

Calvin called, “Change,” and I met a new pair of eyes. I looked into brown, black, blue and green eyes that evening; each time I saw beauty and grace. I felt proud to be among these girls, like I was taking part in a sacred ceremony. The snow kept falling.

As the weekend came to an end, I felt like I had grown two inches taller. Before we boarded our buses to go home, we made a large circle and stood in the snow hand in hand. There was no separation of skin colors, schools or cliques. Calvin, with his openness and tell-it-like-it-is manner, had somehow transformed a group of immature teenagers into men and women of integrity.

I thank Calvin for the gift he shared with us that weekend. In my mind he is a real twenty-first-century hero.

Mary Cornelia Van Sant

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