“I dare you.”
When I heard this challenge I was sitting on my purple Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle with a cracked banana seat on a narrow dirt path that ran alongside my friend Paul’s backyard in Anchorage, Alaska in the mid 1970’s.
It wasn’t much of a path. It was just a strip of grass that had been beaten down a little more than the rest of the yard, but the end of the path, where it went past the back part of his parent’s yard, was frightening to a couple of 7-year-old white boys.
Paul lived on a cul-de-sac at the end of our block and across his back fence was a scary, mysterious neighborhood called “Green Acres”. And unlike the TV show from the mid-60’s, this Green Acres was largely a black neighborhood.
Paul was daring me and a few other boys to ride our bikes past the back fence and into Green Acres as far as we could and come back.
God only knew what could happen if we took him up on his dare.
I’m sure in our young imaginations we pictured that roving gangs of bigger black boys would surely pounce on us and beat us within an inch of our lives for daring to invade their turf. If they didn’t get us, surely their parents would snatch us off the street and we’d never be seen again. We knew this only because we didn’t know any better and could imagine it because they were different. Different was scary. Different was dangerous. Different was bad. Who in their right mind would willingly ride their bike through a neighborhood that had houses and cars nearly identical to our own but was most certainly treacherous?
We took him up on the dare.
I remember 3 or 4 of us mashing down on our pedals and riding furiously a block or two into that neighborhood before fear got the best of us and we scrambled quickly back to safety. In our heads it must have been miles but in reality it was probably just a few hundred feet. I’m sure we sat on our bikes in the back of Paul’s yard pounding each other on the back, breathless and sweating from such an obvious brush with certain death. 7-year-old me would scarcely believe that I survived long enough to write this today.
We moved to Arizona a few years later. I’d love to say that I outgrew that 7-year-old notion that neighborhoods that contained people with different adjectives than my own were scary, but as I reflect on my life, I realize how that’s not true at all. In Phoenix in the 1980’s my friends and I wouldn’t dream of going down to South Phoenix because there were a lot of Mexicans down there and surely they’d catch us and cut us up. We rarely ventured to the West side of Phoenix because who knew what was over there? We didn’t even have a race or culture to fear – it was just the West side of town and certainly they must have had cannibals living over there. We would go East or North, though, because that’s where richer white people lived and everyone knew rich white people were incapable of committing crimes, especially against children.
Last night I found myself thinking about Paul’s backyard and his dare for us to so foolishly risk our young lives by venturing into a foreign neighborhood. I thought of the moments in my life that I didn’t go somewhere or reach out to a stranger because of an adjective or two that was different than the ones I used to describe myself.
It’s sad, really, when I think about the opportunities I missed.
As an adult I’ve been pretty comfortable pushing myself into new surroundings, but it wasn’t always that way. And for years I had this idea that we, as a nation, left the foolishness of racism and “other-ness” behind in the 60’s and 70’s, but these last few years have shown that to be disappointingly untrue.
There’s still so much fear out there and it’s so wrapped up in a few adjectives. Adjectives for color. Adjectives for race. Adjectives for religion, for sexuality, for gender, for political philosophy, for affluence, for… well, the list goes on and on and on.
I have a simple faith. I believe in a God that calls me to love others as He loved me. Beyond that statement everything is tradition or culture. If I find that if there’s someone I can’t love, if I’m angry or fearful or justifying discrimination in any shape or form, it’s always an adjective in the way. And once I realize that, once I realize that adjective is nothing but a word, I can step past it.
There’s a lot of fear in the world right now. A lot of fear expressing itself as anger. Fear expressing itself as hate. Fear being justified by all sorts of reasons – race, culture, political affiliation, gender, religion, you name it.
Fear of adjectives. They’re just words. On the other side of those words are people. Real people that have all the same needs, hopes, wants and desires that you and I have. Real people that love and dream and worry and sometimes are just looking for a place to poop.
If you can’t love another group, if you’re finding ways to justify treating them any differently than you would like to be treated, the answer is simple: stomp down on your pedals and ride past the adjectives into their neighborhood. Spend some time there.
I dare you.