It’s 2:45 am.
I’m on a train moving through southwest Russia, out in the middle of nowhere, right in the jaws of winter.
I’ve just fallen asleep after hours of trying.
It seems like the more you think about falling asleep, the harder it is.
I’m in a coupé (koo-pay). For those who don’t regularly travel on trains, this is a small, private room with four “beds.” The picture gives you an idea of what we’re dealing with.
Sleeping pads fold down and you’re provided with a pillow, pillowcase, linen (a sheet) and a blanket. As with most public transportation (and blankets), this coupé (and blanket) isn’t built for people over about 5’10,” so with me being 6’ 4,” these became quite uncomfortable, quite quickly. I’d have to lay sideways and tuck my legs in so I would fit on the platform (and cover my freezing feet with this tiny blanket!).
This is part of the reason why it took so long to fall asleep. I would instinctively straighten my legs only to be met with an ice-cold wall that seemed to be getting closer to me. The sleeping pad was about as soft as kitchen tile and it and my pillow smell like they’ve seen 50 years of smoke, alcohol, urine, and probably death…
…but I digress.
It’s 2:45 am and I have just… drifted off… to sleep…
The nightmare begins
The coupé door crashes open and flashlights are blazing a foot away from my eyes, blinding me and my travel-mate. Russian police are yelling at us and it takes me a few seconds to clear out of the sleepy fog.
“Am I dreaming?”
It’s freezing. And loud. Nope… this is not a dream.
The police are telling us to get up and show them our documents or we’ll be arrested. I reach under my musty, smoke/vodka/urine/death pillow where my passport and train ticket are lying and flip to the pages that confirm that we are here legally and that we purchased a train ticket.
“Give them to me!” demands the police officer, “let me hold it so I can see.”
He is standing above me, inches away, because again, these coupés are not designed for 4 people to move about freely.
“You can see it, but I’ll hold it.” I croak in my tired, hoarse, sexy voice in what I’m sure is a thick American accent.
“No, I want to hold it.” the officer responds.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been instructed by your government not to give my passport and ticket to anyone. You may look at it, but I’m going to hold onto it. By the way, I’m going to need both of your badge numbers.”
“You don’t need our badge numbers, just give us your passport.”
“Officers… you’re not the first we’ve dealt with and you won’t be the last. We know our rights here, and it is our right to have you identify who you are before we hand anything over. My passport and ticket are right here, and I’m happy to show them to you, but I need your badge numbers.”
They reluctantly rattle off their badge numbers, combining several of the numbers into one word. I write down the numbers and show them my passport, firmly gripping it with both hands.
The officer shines his light on mine while his counterpart does the same for my travel companion. He reaches for my passport to try and pull it away and I pull it back, similar to playing keep-away from my nephew with a ball he wants to try and steal.
“Uh oh! Too slow! Hahaha!”
(I didn’t do this in this particular moment)
I ask him if he has any other questions and he says no, reminding me that next time I should let him take my passport.
It’s 2:55 am.
I’m in the middle of Russia. I am cold. I am tired. I am irritated. And I’m not going to be sleeping the rest of the night.
This wasn’t the first time
While serving a church mission in Russia, I traveled. A lot.
For 7 of the 21 months, my companion and I would travel between all of the cities in our mission several times over, visiting every missionary in every city. We’d be on the road or rail to a different city every 3 days or so, sleeping on trains, floors, couches, busses, and taxis.
Our mission was roughly the size of Texas and if traveling from the northern-most city to the southern-most city, you could expect a 12-14 hour train ride. A more common ride was from the mission center to some of the outer cities. These trips were about 8 hours. We’d get to other cities by bus, taxi, or a version of light rail, but the train rides were something else.
Train rides meant you at least had the chance to fall asleep for more than an hour at a time. That wasn’t happening on a bus, taxi, or light rail. I never mastered the ability to sleep restfully while sitting straight upright in a bus seat or against a window with my head slamming against the glass whenever we hit a pothole.
Fun fact, Russian roads had a lot of potholes 10-12 years ago.
At least with a train, it was mostly private, you could lay down (sort of), and often times the repeating thuh-thump of the wheels along the track could be quite soothing. The banshee-scream, screeching brakes were not so soothing and woke you up every hour or two at each stop.
Sometimes we’d have other people join us in our coupé, but usually only if the train was close to capacity, and this is important, because any time we were joined by a fellow Russian travel-mate we never had any issues with the police. Not once.
However, every time we traveled in a coupé by ourselves (two Americans), we would be interrupted by a late night/early morning documents check. Our locked (apparently not locked) coupé would be forced open by two police officers, lights blazing, and demands to see our documents. No polite knock. No identification of who they were. Just a forced entry surprise party.
Maybe they went through and verified the documentation of all the other coupé inhabitants, but I never once heard any other doors being knocked on, forced open, or brusk voices after they moved past us.
The previous experience was near the end of my mission. I had already lived through several of these interruptions, so I knew what to do, I knew what to say, and I usually did just enough to agitate the officers, because I knew what they were up to and wanted to help them along as they came to the realization that they weren’t getting paid a bribe by me.
However, the first few times were so terrifying and unsettling that I dreaded train rides. I still, to this day, have nightmares about Russian train rides.
After a couple of these incidents, I asked our local legal representative what police officers could and couldn’t do with us, as well as what I could and couldn’t say to them. This is why I asked for badge numbers and held onto my passport.
Here’s the bottom line:
I was conditioned to distrust the Russian police by a handful of bad officers within the Russian police.
I have several stories of Russian police officers shaking us down for bribes or other instances of prejudicial targeting. Other missionaries had passports stolen by police who would then tell the missionaries they were going to be deported because they didn’t have a passport.
“But it’s right there in your hand!”
“Nope, I don’t see one.”
“Here’s $100 (in Russian roubles).”
“Oh! Here’s your passport! I didn’t see it before.”
We had missionaries taken to jail and we had missionaries barricade themselves in their apartments because rogue officers were trying to break in.
It’s just something we had to live with for 2 years, simply because we were clearly Americans and we were clearly talking about Jesus.
It didn’t seem fair.
We were hyper vigilant with paperwork, followed local laws to a ‘T’, and didn’t stay out late. We were only targeted because we looked like American missionaries.
We weren’t doing anything wrong.
Racism in America
I’ve done some serious soul-searching lately and had several conversations with friends and family members about racial affairs here in America.
This post comes well after the peak of tensions and news coverage because I guess I’m slower than most people. I wanted to think deeply about this issue and work through the problems in my head.
I’ve watched movies I’ve been told to watch. I’ve read books I’ve been told to read. All in an attempt to better understand racism and white privilege.
It wasn’t connecting for some reason. I saw and read the stories of racism and I thought to myself, “Yes, this is wrong. Are there really people out there who think this treatment of another human is okay?”
I read the explanations of white privilege and accusations that all white people are racist, and I couldn’t understand that either.
I couldn’t understand the anger. I still can’t understand the rioting and destruction of private and public property. I can’t fully empathize.
I struggle being called a racist simply because I am white. I don’t like being told that any good thing in life I have is because of my white privilege.
I live in one of the most white-washed states in the country. Utah’s black population makes up only 1.6% of the total population. The majority of interactions I’ve had with black people have come through my former athletic endeavors, business relationships with contacts out of the state, and foreign travel.
I don’t have the life experience to know what it’s like in other areas of the country. I don’t know how bad it is. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up or raise kids outside of my sheltered area here in the Salt Lake valley. I may not ever know.
Does this make me racist?
Then… something clicked
The family and I recently went on a road trip where we had time to think, talk, and visit with friends along the way.
I had conversations with close friends and family members about all that’s going on and, admittedly, got a bit riled up and defensive around the media’s call for me to apologize for something I can’t control.
Then yesterday, for whatever reason, the train memory fluttered into my brain and a prejudice connection clicked.
The prejudicial treatment we consistently had to deal with from cops in Russia drove me nuts. I grew to distrust the Russian police. I would avoid eye contact with them. I would cross to the other side of the street if I saw them. I felt like their job was to track us down and bully us into a bribe.
Did every Russian cop bully, intimidate, and try to use us to pad his income?
Did the majority of them?
No. Although, even Russians admit that the cops are notorious for seeking bribes.
Did some of them treat me poorly and cause me to distrust all of them?
I had to endure the train interruptions, late night knocks on our apartment door, and “random” car searches at all checkpoints for 21 months.
Remember, I volunteered to go to Russia in the capacity of a church missionary and make it obvious who I was.
Now imagine having to endure that kind of behavior, only much, MUCH worse, over generations, for things you did not choose and could not control.
Only one generation removed
I am only one generation from Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and Bloody Sunday. My parents were alive during each of those events. In even the not-so-grand scheme of things, that’s really not a lot of time.
These major events are the more talked about examples of racism in the 50’s and 60’s, but countless other violent occurrences were happening.
Every. Single. Day.
If one of my children ever decides travel to Russia, given my personal experience in dealing with Russian prejudice during my 21-month stint, what advice do you think I would give to him or her?
- Make sure you don’t let your paperwork out of your hands.
- Be careful while traveling.
- Be wary of the cops. They will find any chance they can to extort you for money.
Now, let’s focus (for simplicity’s sake) on if you are black, lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and experienced acts of prejudice and violence first-hand from law enforcement, the government, and private businesses.
What advice would you give your kids who are now my age?
- Make sure you don’t… let a white person think you’re flirting with a white woman? (Emmett Till)
- Be careful while… choosing a seat on the bus? (Rosa Parks)
- Be wary of… police officers? They will find any chance they can to get you. (Bloody Sunday)
Is this advice really that far-fetched given the life experience?
I don’t think so.
But, I don’t buy it
Does genuine, horrible, uncalled-for racism exist?
Is every white person a racist?
No. Despite what certain talking heads and books may claim.
That is, as long as we can agree on the same definition of a “racist.”
Oxford Dictionary definition
Racist – a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.
An audiobook I listened to recently stated the following (not a direct quote, but a summary)
“White people often get offended when they are called racist because they think a racist is defined as someone who believes a particular race (theirs) is superior to another. But actually, a racist means something else. A racist is any white person who cannot and will not ever be able to understand the struggles of blacks.”
Uh… I struggle to accept that definition of a racist.
Calling someone a racist carries with it highly charged, culturally shaped, evil connotations. If someone calling another person a racist is using that word to mean something other than a definition upon which we can agree, then let’s find another word.
Are many, possibly all white Americans racially ignorant to varying degrees? Yeah, most probably.
I will agree with the author that I and my fellow white men and women will never be able to fully understand the intense struggles of blacks in America.
Why can’t we white people admit that lack of understanding and not try to back ourselves out of it?
We don’t understand. We can’t understand. So, to fellow white people, let’s not diminish the struggles of the black community by shifting the narrative.
Oftentimes, we get charged up and devalue the statements of suffering we see in the black community.
I know I have… and recently… and I’m trying to work on it.
Here’s an example of a narrative shift:
“Well what about the Latinos/Native Americans/Asians/Muslims/Jews/ women/gays/religious/young/old/*insert prejudicial ‘Hello, my name is ____’ tag here?”
I’ve just shared my train story. It was traumatic for me at the time. Do you really think it helps if, after hearing it, you tell me,
“Well, you know… Jews were sent to prison camps in trains.”
“That’s nice, but did you know that women make less than men?”
“Oh, you poor thing… it could’ve been worse and it probably wasn’t as bad as you made it out to be…”
“Blankets are the perfect size!”
Take a deep breath.
Yes, prejudice comes in many forms.
Yes, there are several groups that have been severely discriminated against for a long time.
And yes, you’ve likely experienced some form of prejudice in your life.
But right now, acknowledging the suffering of black lives is not meant to say that other lives don’t matter or that other groups of people don’t matter.
“But wait! Chicago! Statistics! Reverse Racism!”
I know… I know… There is a place for those conversations.
Take the time to reflect. Then act.
It is okay for us to acknowledge racism against blacks and work to teach our kids that humans are humans. We are all imperfect and doing our best. We are no better or worse than others because of our race, creed, or nationality.
I was in Russia because I hold firm religious convictions and believe that other people can benefit from turning to Jesus. Rather than stay in my house and read, I felt it was important to get out and spread the message, try and show others where faith may help, and serve people.
I think there is a lesson there.
If you believe that racism is wrong, sitting in your house behind your computer screen is a start, but there is much more you can do.
What can I do?
Most of what I’ve heard on what I can do points me to becoming more educated. Read books and watch shows that show acts of racism and courageous figures that stood up to it.
This felt weak to me for some reason. Getting educated is important, but what else can I do besides reading a book or sitting on a couch watching a movie?
Some great friends have continued to help me connect the dots with this. In addition to becoming more educated on the topic, think about spreading your convictions to others. Call out racist jokes for what they are. Call out racist behaviors for what they are. Don’t sit back and watch when you see acts of racism. Be a voice for love and kindness.
To any people of color who read this
I cannot control the fact that I was born white. I cannot apologize for something I have not done nor for something I wasn’t even alive for. I cannot speak for all whites. I can only work to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes as those who went before me. I can call out offenses and try to put a stop to them, and I commit to doing that.
To all people
We cannot control the circumstances into which we were born and raised. Racial ignorance, white privilege, poverty, wealth… we can’t control it nor can we change history. History is not there for us to change. It is there for us to see, and learn from, and build off of to enhance the good and hopefully correct the bad.
We cannot change the past.
We can influence now.
We can shape the future.
And turning each other into enemies is not the way to get to the world we want ourselves and our kids to live in.
We will not succeed until…
We will not succeed in growing individually or as a country until we stop playing identity politics and work to remove the hate within our hearts to those who are different than us.
We will not succeed in society until we stop hurting people and forcefully taking things from them.
We will not succeed if we think that because I didn’t hurt someone, it’s okay to sit back and watch others hurt people.
We will succeed when…
We will only succeed when we find respect for one another.
We will only succeed when we show kindness to one another.
We will only succeed when we learn to love each other.
But, what do I know?
I’m actually surprised you made it this far.
We should be friends.
Comment so I can learn where my blind spots are in all this.
What am I missing?