I like to think that I no longer make assumptions about people who are different than me. I take pride in being able to see the good in people, to assume the best if I assume anything at all. I like to think of myself as someone who can be secure in who I am as God’s child and see my fellow human beings as God’s beloved.
But there I was, at the local rec center, trying to get back in the groove of playing basketball at a high level. I happened to be 10-15 years older than everyone else and several shades of skin lighter than everyone else, but I’ve gotten used to that to some extent. I was pleased and assured when asked if I wanted to play in the next game of 3 on 3. As I walked onto the court, I noticed two of the young men, apparently my teammates, look at me with hushed voices and muffled laughter. I distinctly heard the phrase “white boy.” Well, my good feelings were quickly gone. I got defensive, deep down inside. I tried to listen to what they were saying without staring or glaring, which is not normally a good idea in my neighborhood.
At the height of my anger and hurt feelings, my new teammates walked toward me with their hands held out. They politely introduced themselves and asked my name, displaying great kindness and hospitality. Now I was confused. They quickly explained that they had been laughing because this game was about to be like that old movie with Woody Harrelson, White Men Can’t Jump. If you haven’t seen the movie, the plot revolves around two basketball players who play streetball for money. They con other players when the “white boy”, played by Woody Harrelson, walks onto the court and people assume he is not good at basketball. But he is very good, and he and the other character, played by Wesley Snipes, win the games and the money. These new friends said they had seen me shooting, and were about to win this game just like in the movie. They graciously welcomed me, the outsider, into the game.
I laughed on the inside and smiled on the outside, ready to play. We did win the game, but that didn’t really matter. I was taught a lesson. I was won over by two young men. I was the recipient of hospitality and love. I was also reminded that it is far too easy to fall back into patterns of distrust and negative assumptions.
I recently heard Christena Cleveland speak at the Inhabit Conference in Seattle. She pointed to some fascinating research. When we form groups, based on race, age, sexual orientation or anything else, we normally assume that the other group has worse assumptions about us than they really do. We assume that they assume the worst. This very normal mental exercise causes great pain and division in our neighborhoods, churches, schools and daily lives.
At the encouragement of my friend Mark Scandrette, I am trying to pick up a new habit. When I meet someone, I look them in the eye and say to myself, “This person is God’s beloved.” Apparently my tendencies to make negative assumptions are still somewhere inside of me, and I am hoping that God can slowly help me become a person who simply loves.
Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering, this particular white man can’t jump, not even a little bit, not even when I was 18.