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Ask someone's story to blur racial lines

I don’t have a Facebook page. The only type of social media I subscribe to is Twitter, and that is only because I want to receive updates about Washington Husky football.

But last week, I heard about something that was circulating on Facebook that had such an impact people were talking about it at work. And on the news. It was a video of a woman in Hillsboro being taunted with racial slurs by a man in a truck.

I haven’t seen the video. But the morning I heard people talking about it was the same morning a colleague of mine was describing an experience she’d had the day before while having dinner with her family. She and her daughters were at a local McDonalds and a woman came in to the room to say that someone’s kids had spilled juice in the Playland area. This woman accused my friend’s daughters of doing so. The discussion escalated and resulted in the woman telling my friend, “Well, why don’t you go back to your own country!” My friend replied, “This IS my country.” KRISTY KOTTKEY

No one will doubt that we have issues around race in our community. It’s a struggle that, at times, seems like it has not improved much. In fact, it may be getting worse in the sense that the level of fear and distrust for the Latino community in general seems strikingly cruel and harsh. I don’t experience it because I am white, but stories like my friend’s show that while we want to believe we are changing and growing as people, I’m not sure we are.

People say it’s not a cut-and-dried issue. It’s so complicated and sensitive that there are college classes about it. There are workshops. There are equity teams. There are task forces. Books, movies, and TV shows are written about it. We’ve become paralyzed with the fear of saying things in the wrong way — and this leaves many of us unsure how to talk about it to spark positive change.

In Hillsboro, there are people in schools, in churches, in organizations, on equity teams — and citizens committees doing some effective and purposeful work on race and equity issues. But for those of us who aren’t a part of something structured like this, what can we do to bring about positive change? My Dad, a retired physician who has committed himself to volunteer work in various parts of our community, has always talked to me about the importance of hearing a person’s story. Good care, he would say, is not only diagnosing the problem but truly understanding the person and the situation. But to do that, you have to take the time to ask.

This lesson from my Dad was reinforced when a frequent customer at the local Starbucks where I worked confided in me part of his story. He had been coming each week to meet with a woman who was volunteering to help him with his English. He was working 60-hour weeks, then making time to learn English so he could be part of his broader community. He told me this because I finally asked. This taught me two things: I was making incorrect assumptions, and I had not been asking the right questions. Instead of “How was your day?” I began to ask what people were passionate about. What they struggled with. What their experiences in our community were. And with those questions, I began to grasp a deeper understanding of what was going on around me.

That, however, was not enough. It is no longer enough just to know the story. I had to do something with that information. So when colleagues or people around me were having conversations and phrases like “Why don’t they just learn English?” came up, I told the story of my friend Antonio, who had found an English tutor to help him. When I heard people comment about “illegals,” I described the family that was celebrating at the coffee shop because their Dad had just passed the citizenship test. When I hear people say, “Go back to your country!” I tell them about my friend Ray — or Selene, or Miguel — all of whom are American citizens.

Lots of people say they are sick and tired of talking about race. And guess what? Most of the people who say that are white. They — and I — can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of ignorant assumptions and blatant racism. So when people say things like that, I now ask if they have a neighbor, colleague or friend who is of another race. And if so, I ask if they know that person’s story. When someone says it isn’t their business to ask, I disagree. We build community — regardless of race, religion, or politics — by building relationships. And relationships happen when someone reaches out to make it happen. It’s more than “How’s it going?” It’s “I’m interested in your story ... tell me more.”

I believe that most of the people in my community care about other people. Most of us want things to get better. And I know that many of us don’t have time to join a committee, start a movement, attend a protest or write letters. But changing the questions you ask and the interactions you have don’t take extra time. They don’t require a scripted list of talking points. They don’t require you to dance around what terms are politically correct or not. Getting to know someone’s story and then sharing it when you can is significant.

It may seem small, but the impact is emotional and genuine — and it may give us a new and powerful way to think about how we can all be more open, interested and compassionate people.

Kristy Kottkey, a Forest Grove resident, is a teacher in the Hillsboro School District.