My husband and I recently enjoyed a breezy outdoor dinner at a local café with our three kids and found ourselves having to teach an unexpected lesson. In what has become our normal everyday fashion, we also found ourselves the single black family in a middle-class white restaurant. No biggie. We found ourselves directly across from a quaint outdoor upscale mall with a small group of mostly black teenagers forming in the parking lot. No biggie. Shortly after sitting, we soon found ourselves holding our collective breath and silently praying to avoid embarrassment as the volume of the teenager’s activity grew to a crescendo. Crap.
I fumed inside. My aggravation grew its own volume as I looked at both of my sons and imagined in a rather cartoonish fashion, how this was causing the people around us to reflect on our presence. I started in. My kids would pay the immediate price for the foolishness of the strangers in the distance.
“Let me EVER catch you or find out you’ve been out in these streets cutting up and making a spectacle of yourself like these…”. I paused. I grit my teeth so my lips wouldn’t move and they could sense the vast and dark possibility of repercussions. “You represent your whole family when you are outside. Do you understand?! You represent every little black boy and man!! I dare you to bring shame on….”
My 10-year-old son was understandably puzzled. I had yet to explain to him that society had somehow grown to believe that the behavior of a small group of blacks or even a single black person could hold enough weight to pass judgement on the lot.
I quickly became distracted as the teenage boys began to spar and shout profanities as a few girl’s giggled in strained amusement. I sank as the shame overwhelmed me and swelled onto my husband’s face.
Slowly, a different sadness arose to the surface. I knew my son had every right to be puzzled. Why should the behavior of a few cast a shadow on his own character? He knew he worked hard for his good standing and reputation at his school. He regularly spent recess walking in circles around the old basketball court with a disabled girl from another class so she always felt wanted and included. He shared Bible stories with friends and takes in extra ice cream money from his piggy bank for a classmate he believed was financially less fortunate.
I know he does this and more because his school’s staff happily shares the stories with me. He knows they tell me and it makes him proud. He works for this.
I turned to my daughter who is in middle school, “I know it sounds unfair and in so many ways, it is. You represent so many people with your words and actions. Your family, your friends, your culture. Above all, you represent Christ and the people who call themselves His.” I don’t like the truth, but it’s clarity lightens my load. It’s a bite of the old nature. We make assumptions and sometimes other people pay the price for it or profit from it. People, myself included, make assumptions about you based on who you associate with—like it or not.
I think wisdom would have us mindful to give folks a chance to make their own name. Hold one another accountable for things we have within our control and not much else. The temptation to be presumptuous will arise for all of us. Fight it.
As the discussion drifted, I had to explain the plain fact that you represent who you hang with and they will represent you. Choose your company wisely. When you act foolishly, you don’t know who is watching and someone you care for may pay a price for it down the road. If it begins to feel unfair, you may have chosen poorly or you could be holding yourself accountable for things that are out of your control.
No biggie. Move on and be God’s love to the next available party. Or maybe just take a lonely friend for a walk around the basketball court. At the end of it all, this is the impact that will shape your world.