See people as people

If you haven’t yet read the book, Kabul Beauty School, pick up a copy this week. It should be required reading for any Peace Corps Volunteer or development worker living abroad.

In this true narrative, Deborah Rodriguez, known in her beauty salon as Crazy Deb, volunteers for temporary disaster relief in Afghanistan. After arriving with a group of health professionals, Deb starts to question why she, a hair stylist, was put with this group. Not feeling capable of contributing to the plans for clinics and medical care, she ventures out of the compound to make friends with local people. Her honest and sometimes brash interactions with Afghans gets her in trouble initially with her organization but allows her to form deep, lasting friendships with people. This ultimately leads to her launching and managing a beauty school in Kabul, the first since the topple of the Taliban, giving graduating students income for their families and hope for the future.

In a revealing episode early on, Deb is walking with her friend Roshanna looking at all the different people in the streets of Kabul. She starts to ask who these different people are and Roshanna tells her some are Uzbek, Tajik or Nuristani and some are Pashtun like herself. Deb thinks this is odd because she had always thought of Roshanna and everyone else as simply Afghan.

In the book Deb’s heart for all people in Afghanistan burns brightly through the audacious and bold ways she loves people practically, both in her friendships and in her work. Crazy Deb sees people as people.

I grew up in St. Paul, MN going to an elementary school with a large African-American and Hmong population of students. Now, I am a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, boy of Norwegian decent who grew up eating lefse and hot dish. Our family was not exactly a veritable United Nations; however, my school was quite a bit more diverse. I remember as a kindergartener walking to school in the morning holding hands with whomever and never thinking once about the color of his or her hand. Then one day all of that changed.

We were sitting in the corner of our kindergarten room on the carpet having a little discussion with our teacher on being clean; washing our hands, brushing our teeth, those kinds of things. The teacher asked, “What would happen if you never took a bath?” I thought about this—how if you didn’t bathe after playing outside, you would have dirt on you and eventually you would get blacker and blacker with dirt, and so I raised my hand and said innocently, “You would be a black person.”

The teacher snapped.

“Black people have pigment in their skin!” She shouted, “You would not be like a black person. That is a horrible thing to say.”

That day I learned to fear the topic of race, my ears burning with shame as I wondered why different colors made my teacher so angry.

Our education continued throughout those elementary years with more conversations about different people and different cultures. As a white, middle-America boy, those conversations always came with the caveat that I “need to be careful to treat minorities as equal.”

“Treat everyone equal now, especially people who are different than you.” Even at that young age I can remember thinking, “Since we are already equal, why do I have to be so careful to treat them equally?” I learned to see people who looked different than me as different, and though I couldn’t put it into words at the time, it always bothered me.

There is a problem when our cultural education goes so far that we end up focusing on our differences instead of what binds us together as humans.

This can happen with development workers too, who, for very practical reasons receive cultural training in order to be effective within a culture. But sometimes the well-intentioned efforts to be sensitive keep us from focusing on the human level which is the only place where one can truly reach another human being.

I’m not saying unique cultural differences should be forgotten; we should celebrate who we are and who our forefathers were because this can bring us great joy and identity. What I am saying is that we’ve become much too sensitive which has resulted in an emphasis on the differences. This ultimately creates more division as we define people by their culture rather than their humanity.

Today, in the United States, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We share a name, Luther, given to each of us in honor of Martin Luther, the great reformer of five centuries past. Martin Luther fought for the truth that we are all loved by our creator, and from this truth Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for justice amidst the horrendous segregation and discrimination pervasive in his day.

In our day, we still haven’t yet realized a world where freedom rings from every mountaintop. It is my hope and prayer that each day we would proclaim this by the way we treat people—as people. Then maybe some day the dream will come true, where we can walk hand in hand, not because we’ve forgotten what color we are, but because we are defined by our common brotherhood.

imageHow will you help realize the dream?

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