SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2005 Personal Memory Ethnographies
Bret Anthony Herzig
Kingdom of Difference
As we drove further and further south the streets looked less and less clean, and the cars were not nearly as nice. The people we passed seemed less and less happy, and there were not nearly as many smiles. This Central Phoenix neighborhood seemed foreign when compared with the suburban North Phoenix neighborhood that I had spent all my life in. When we pulled into the parking lot I noticed a change though. All of a sudden people seemed much happier. There was such a contrast between the people walking into that Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the people less than one hundred yards away walking down the street. People were smiling, laughing, and greeting each other. The parking lot was clean even though the street leading in had been dirty. The sounds I heard were so different. In the distance there was just traffic, some loud music, occasional screaming, babies crying, and the honking of car horns. In the confines of the parking lot, and even more so as we walked into the building, the sounds were so much different. There was no shouting or any signs of malcontent.
The people were so much different as well. The very first thing I noticed about them is that less than half were white. I had never seen so many Hispanics, Blacks, and other races and ethnicities all in one place. My school was mostly all white and so were most of the restaurants I had been in. These people, though, of all different races and backgrounds were now worshipping in the same building after being preached to about God’s Kingdom. Some were from other countries and had been taught about the Bible there before they came, but many families had been in America for generations and had learned Bible teachings here from their parents or from door-to-door ministers. Looking back now, this would prove to be a setting that would teach me quite a bit about other races and what it meant to be different and yet the same. One experience that really stressed the question of differences and similarities and what it meant to be of another race began to unfold after a year of attending at this new place of worship.
As my family continued attending and worshiping there, we became good friends with families from all different ethnicities. One black father started keeping a photo of my youngest brother in his wallet. Each time we walked into the hall I remember him walking up to my brother and telling him, “Curt I am looking for my son; I lost him.” My brother seemed genuinely interested in helping him find his son though my brother was no more than a few years old. But then my brother would be so puzzled when this father would open his wallet and show my brother the picture of himself. My brother would try to explain that he couldn’t be his son, that they were different. He tried so hard to grasp this concept that he was different from the man that stood in front of him and then he had to try even harder to explain it to this grown man that should have obviously known that there was no way this little white boy could be his child.
From my viewpoint as a child of no more than eight years this was a very interesting situation. Not only was there a lot to deal with in the fact that I was not used to being a part of such an intercultural mix of people, but I had also never really been taught what the difference was between those other people and myself. “Was there a real difference?” was a question I constantly wondered to myself. And if so, did that make me better or did that make them better? I was told by my parents and by society that there was no better or worse, just different, but that was a tough concept to reconcile at first. But to watch my little brother trying to go through the same thought process at such a young age made me think about the situation on a different level. Here he had to look at this situation of this diverse group standing around and somehow politely point out that he looked different than this man and therefore could not be his son. What kind of vocabulary would he use for it? He was young and so how would he describe the difference? Looking back, I try, though it is difficult, to look at this whole situation through the eyes of my brother as he was experiencing it first hand:
“Ever since I started going to this church things have seemed a little different. There are so many more people here than I am used to seeing. I have only really known my family and a few friends, but now there are hundreds of people here that I have never seen before. The strangest thing, though, is that there are a lot of people that look way different from me. They have skin colors and appearances that I have never seen before. I don’t know if that is normal because no one else seems to notice the difference. It must just be normal and there must not be any real difference in the people that are black looking and me or even the ones that look brown.
One of the black men is good friends with my mom and dad. But for some reason every time I see him he tells me that he is looking for his son that he lost. But then he shows me a picture of myself. I can’t be his son, because I already know my mom and dad. But he says that he lost me when I was born and maybe my mom and dad found me. I try to explain it that he cannot be my daddy because he is different than I am, but he doesn’t know what I am trying to say. It seems like he would have to see that he is different than me. His skin is black and mine is a light color and they call me white. Is there a difference? Maybe there isn’t if no one notices it and he doesn’t know what I am talking about. And if there is, is he better or am I better?”
This experience raised many questions in my mind that I have thought about on and off even before I stopped to put my thoughts down in words. Why was this something that I have remembered for all of these years? What was it about this situation in particular that has stuck when I have forgotten so many other cultural experiences? This situation was a very unique one for me because it was the first time that I had really had a cultural run-in. Even though I had had dealings with those of other races and ethnicities, this was the first time that the topic had really come to light when speaking to someone that was of another race or culture. It was also the first time that I had seen my brother, at such a young age, have to come face to face with the issue and try to comprehend what exactly was going on. Here were kids that had been intermixed for maybe a year in this cross cultural environment, who now had to step back from it and really define who they were in relation to these others that they had been treating exactly the same as anyone else.
This was truly a miniature version of the exact issues that are debated in racial arenas. How does one treat those of another culture or race? Do we ignore differences or do we deal with them? Are they a problem that we want to avoid or are they something that can make us better by embracing them. Looking back today I can see that there are still no clear cut answers to these questions. Even in business, there are areas where diversity needs to be managed to avoid problems and there are ways that diversity can make things so much better. In general life it seems to be the same. Sometimes you need to be blind to differences and other times you need to take them into account both in avoiding problems and in making the most out of situations. It is strange that as a young child, I had already begun to deal with these important issues that are being taught in college.
The thing that struck me, though, was the simplicity with which the problem of race was handled there in the Kingdom Hall and in the entire organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. There is so much talk about whether multiculturalism or antiracism is better and how should people be treated in order to have equality without forming one culture. This was accomplished beautifully among Jehovah’s Witnesses. All people were set as equal to one another and people took a general interest in each other and showed concern, patience, and unabashed kindness. The effect was that everyone was valued for who they were and this went far beyond race or ethnicity. Rather than classifying someone as Hispanic and leaving it at that, that person was viewed as the entire person. They were a father, a son, an elder among the congregation, a working man, a guitar player, a brother, an uncle, and the list goes on. Each person plays so many different roles in society and so rather than allowing race to be a focus, Witnesses viewed it in its proper place as a part of each person that is to be valued and understood. Perhaps, if the entire world could begin to view race and ethnicity that way, there will someday be true equality while still valuing ones ethnic and cultural background.
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