Instructions. I don’t read them.

I’m a member of the group that likes to look at the box and then figure out how it all goes together.

I’m sure there is a name, a label for that. Speaking of which, I don’t read labels.

I am not counting calories. I’m a budding wordsmith – not a numbers person.

I just need to know that it tastes good, that it is a good addition to the meal. Speaking of addition, I don’t look at the price tag when I am shopping.

I don’t add it up when I am playing dress up. What matters is that I like it.

I have learned the hard way to live in the moment and to take care of myself. Because I cannot afford not to. Because you cannot put a price tag on delight or self-confidence.

Still, I am confident that stereotypes are labels that bear false witness. Race sticks them on people.

Many of us treat them like instructions, count on them to make sense of our divisions and bank on the additional privileges. I prefer to learn through personal experiences.

I was at a virtual retreat, and we were grouped in threes. One member appointed herself the timekeeper.

We were given 15 minutes, which meant we each got five minutes to talk. Starting now.

After going first, she said, “Starlette, do you want to go next?”

She was leading our discussion though unappointed. The conversation was supposed to happen naturally and by no means were the words to be forced.

I shook my head no. I wasn’t ready; I needed more time to think.

She then commenced to talk until the 14 minutes and 7 second mark. She had lost track of time and when she realized it, she said, “Starlette, do you intend to remain silent?”

I responded, “It’s not that I didn’t want to speak. I just didn’t want to go next.”

She blurted out, “There’s still time.” Our male colleague joined in, “Yes, tell us something.”

But there wasn’t enough time. “It wouldn’t be fair,” I said.

Zoom was reminding us that our room would close in 58, 57, 56 seconds. We all quickly exited and regathered in the plenary session.

Our timekeeper would later apologize, posting in the chat that she had realized her mistake and that she would try not repeat it again, “at least not for the rest of tonight.”

She added, “I’ll be stepping back from that role for the evening, at least.”

By then, I felt like retreating. But not before we were placed in dyads.

We were given 10 minutes, which meant each person had five minutes to speak. I told my conversation partner that I would listen deeply and hold space for her.

I shared that I was in no mood to talk because in our last group, someone had taken up so much space that now I just wanted to leave.

She told a story, and we found a common theme.

Five more minutes on our hands, she said that she understood me by saying this: “I am so privileged to operate in this society. Because I am white. You have to live in this world where you are judged by your skin color and seen as less than. I cannot imagine how awful it must be …”

I stopped her from feeling sorry for me.

I told her, “That’s not how I enter the world or the terms by which I agree to exist. I don’t see myself as less than anyone and there is no biblical or biological basis for this.”

I then explained the pride of whiteness and invited her to divest herself of such privilege. Because race was wrong to suggest that she had power over me, and I would give her none of mine.

I shared a scripture that says, “the first will be last,” adding that she should get to the back of the line now (Matthew 20:16).

I pointed to my raceless gospel sign, a sign of the world that I am creating and in fact, am already a citizen of.

Looking at the clock, she feigned a smiled and said, “I didn’t mean that you were – ” She didn’t finish her sentence, and I didn’t either.

Still smiling, she asked, “How much time do we have left?” There was no Zoom countdown. We agreed to exit.

One of the facilitators had lost track of time too.

Not a numbers person, I had not considered that I was being labeled a minority.

It didn’t matter to me that I was the only African American person in the entire group. I had come for the experience.

What I got was more reasons not to read labels. Because theirs included Christian, pastor and progressive.

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