MAUREEN BURNS: How are we doing?

By Maureen Burns • Last Updated 12:45 am on Saturday, January 21, 2012

I was talking with Doug Robbins who owns Radio Shack and Robbins Book List. We were chatting about books. I mentioned one about Vietnam and he said how the war ended before he was old enough to really be aware of it. That struck me.
Vietnam was such a big, horrible thing in our lives that I forget that it is truly just history to most of the adults alive today. Vietnam ended in 1975.
This week we celebrated the work of Martin Luther King Jr. as a national holiday. That is likely just history, too, to most Americans alive today. But I remember living through the work of Dr. King.
I remember having a friend, Dorothy, come to our wedding. Dorothy was my first black friend. We worked together in an office in Grand Rapids. I was excited to have her as a friend. I had never known any blacks, really. In Coopersville, I don’t think there were any. When I met Dorothy, she invited me to her home for dinner. I remember we had sweet potato pie, my first taste of that. I also remember how very kind and inviting her mother was to me.
That was the ’60s. Race problems and riots were common in the nightly news. Martin Luther King was leading his odd nonviolent movement. As violence had always been a tool used in these circumstances, his philosophy was hard to understand.
I think of that time. I think of that movement. I am struck by their non-violent grounding. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have thought of going about it that way. I think I might have been drawn more to the eye for an eye philosophy. But as Gandhi said, “If we all live by an eye for an eye and a leg for a leg, everyone will end up blind and without legs.” Hmmm. Good point, Gandhi.
Race, sadly, is still an issue in so many ways. I often try to imagine what it must feel like to be black in a room full of white people.
Sunday we had a black priest from Africa. He did a wonderful job and was a great man — you could tell. But there he was, up at the pulpit, talking to a church full of only white folks. There are many times that I am aware of these situations and I always wonder how they feel when they are still a minority in cases like this.
Minority is always palpable when you are the minority. I lived as a minority with my religion. It didn’t feel good. I have worked at times as a minority, being female in a male working world. It has not always felt good or fair. Sometimes, now, I feel in a minority with my age. That doesn’t always feel good either.
I think we are doing much, much better than we did previously in these areas. However, in many ways there is still room for improvement.
I have been on a golf course in the area and heard the foursome in front of me using the “N” word. I have been at a local restaurant and heard the guy in the booth behind me saying horrible racist things. What upset me the most about that one was he had children with him.
But, I see hope, too. I remember when my grandson had a young black friend and never seemed to notice that they had different color skin. Hope is beautiful when you see it as reality.
So, this week we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. We closed banks and didn’t get our mail. Hopefully, we also took it a step further and did some evaluating of where we are with our own little worlds, where we are with our great big world, and if there are any changes we could make to refine the way things are today.
We profess we believe in racial equality. That must go further than thinking. It must also go into how we act, how we treat others and if we respect others. Are we where we want to be as a society? Are we where we want to be as a community? A family? An individual?
Once Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization. He replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” I’m sure we all agree.

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