My nickname in high school was “Oreo.” According to my white friends—and later, to my black friends—I was “white on the inside, black on the outside.” This label was mostly a result of the way I talked. I didn’t “sound black,” they’d tell me. I would laugh at this label back in high school, mostly because I didn’t know how else to react. How does one react when outnumbered and trying to fit in?
My laughter, I later reflected, was actually a survival mechanism. It was my form of flight—that of a swift and easy sprint. It wasn’t until years later that the anger, embarrassment and sadness made their ways to the surface of my emotional capacity and lingered long enough for me to notice. For years, I’d been so good at suppressing the negative emotions, afraid of being labeled, once again, as either the angry black woman or, simply, weak and vulnerable. Laughter ensured I was safe. It kept me likable and alive.
This was the tension of my adolescence, one that I felt would never find resolution. It followed me from school back home to my majority-white neighborhood; from my neighborhood to my majority-black track club.
I felt caught between two worlds.
College, in many ways, saved me. I attended a school on the West Coast that was known for its vibrant international student population, and some of my closest friends ended up being people of color who felt the same tension I’d felt growing up: that of navigating two worlds and grasping for a sense of worth and identity. In the safety of these spaces, I slowly came awake to the possibility that I didn’t have to earn an exclusive membership to one world or the other. There was one world made up of many fences, and in a racialized American society that has now found itself inextricably politicized—I’d accidently stumbled across a two-pronged approach to not villainizing or ostracizing anyone on “the other side.”
The secret helps me meet people from many walks of life at all the different fences that have been created all around us. Fences exist between Democrats and Republicans; Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. They exist between police officers and minority groups that feel unseen at best, targeted at worst. They exist between men and women; parents and children; the Church and millennials—the list of fences could go on forever. These fences not only have the ability to create identity crisis, forcing us to think we have to choose one side over the other, but worse, they can—and do—create enemies.
In the beginning, in Genesis 2, there are four headwaters mentioned that flowed from the garden of Eden. One of the headwaters was named Havilah, and there was gold that was mentioned as good. But gold doesn’t become good by just being discovered. There’s a process of heat and refinement required to get it to its most prized state. A lot of great endings to our favorite books and movies pass through some wrestling to get to the good stuff. And so it is with my story and with yours—with any story belonging to any living breathing human being—the value and beauty is so often forged in the tension. At the end of the day, I believe we all possess gold as a part of who we are.
The first prong to this secret, then, is choosing to open oneself up to re-defining gold—that which may be found within others’ stories and realities. As a minority walking amidst majority culture, I’d learned to observe and listen. I’d learned to sift through and appreciate someone else’s narrative, even as I was solidifying and fighting for my own. Early on, this sifting triggered many questions about the space I wanted to occupy. These triggers were laced with anger and confusion. But now, the sifting is an invaluable tool, one through which sand can fall away, allowing gold to remain. The sand never matters in the end—it’s our sometimes-fickle opinions and selfish agendas and personal preferences. The gold is my worth. Regardless of the hate or opposition or disagreement or discord, my worth is what remains.
The trick? Choosing to believe that there’s “gold” in every person on this planet. This is hard to do when we’re surrounded by cringingly critical voices that demand all or nothing as it relates to the causes and ethics we care about. But even in the midst of sometimes hard truth, human worth must also be uplifted in our culture; it must be named; it must serve as the foundation for any ground to be gained or territory to be taken. Even if someone represents everything we oppose, there is gold worth finding, and we must possess a desire to find it.
The second prong of this secret is being willing to give something up. This is the prong most people will abandon because it feels like losing: losing oneself, losing one’s position, losing one’s personal power. But in giving up the gap between another person and myself, I actually gain ground toward something greater. If someone else is willing to give up part of the gap, too, unity is possible—and enemies suddenly look like breathing, bleeding people. Giving up looks like inviting the police over for coffee after Charlottesville (true story) or taking a trip to Israel/Palestine to meet with both Israelis and Palestinians (also true). Giving up does not mean giving up my worth or succumbing to injustice. Instead, it means choosing to give up the space that’s required to purely maintain my need to be right, to win, or to have all of the answers. Giving up is scary and vulnerable, but I truly believe it’s what must be done to achieve the power and potential in proximity.
The truth is, this secret doesn’t protect me. I have story after story of people who didn’t accept me as I’d finally come to accept myself, through micro-aggressions, sexism, racism—you name it. The secret doesn’t magically fix a slew of systemic injustices. But the secret does disarm the vitriol and makes it easier to hold the weight of one’s own uniqueness and value.
Hasn’t our culture tried the opposite? Haven’t we seen enough word-flinging, finger-pointing and story shaming?
The thought is if two people are willing to give up some space and move in a little closer, then connection—and even unity—may actually be possible.
This secret requires a sacrifice. Jesus washed the feet of and broke bread with people who would disappoint and betray Him. He went out of his way on a journey to meet with the others and the outsiders. But what other option do we have? We can stay on our sides and hurl insults and call fouls.
Or we can put down our swords, take a couple steps toward one another and choose to see humanity’s Imago Dei up close.
Ashlee Eiland is a Creative Director and Teacher at Willow Creek Community Church. She holds a master's degree in Organizational Leadership from Judson University and a bachelor's in International Relations from USC. She enjoys reading, writing, speaking, yoga and family fun days with her husband and two kids.