familiarity breeds comfort

(submitted to Th.204, APTS, Fall 2018)

Our news continues to bring forward stories of the increasing difficulty immigrants of color have in gaining — and sustaining — access to the US. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter might have faded, but is far from forgotten. In media, US inhabitants are steadily confronted with the statistics of our increasing ethnic diversity and the reported repercussions of that diversity. In our home lives, less so. A growing body of research indicates that over the past 25 years or more, whites have been quietly pulling themselves into increasingly mono-cultural neighborhoods.[1] And those social institutions that rely on neighborhoods as their basis — schools, places of worship — are mirroring that move.

If neighborliness is valuable, and the variety of neighbors matters, this trend has pointed teeth. In the Christian tradition, one of Jesus’ core teachings can be summarized as “Love God; love everybody,” and it’s followed by a companion story where the care given — the neighborliness demonstrated — happened between completely unlikely people. In a mono-cultural enclave, where’s the unlikely person? How would one bump into someone unexpected if the neighborhood grocery store, PTA meeting, and worship space all held pretty much the same kind of people?

Perhaps one can make a point of mixing it up by helping and serving in different-than-us communities. A food pantry, perhaps. Maybe a short-term mission trip to another nation’s impoverished areas. Working side by side with people from different backgrounds — wouldn’t that give me a variety of neighbors? Or, better still, I’ll bring my kids along; wouldn’t that teach them neighborliness?

If what’s desired is to love everybody, rather than just a carefully selected neighborhood, I suspect that activity-based service is unlikely to make that happen. To be a neighbor implies a certain amount of ordinary dailiness that a targeted activity doesn’t supply. In fact, recent research by Margaret Hagerman documents that children’s “perspectives were shaped less by what their parents explicitly said about race and more by the social environments these kids grew up in — and how their parents constructed these environments.”[2] It turns out that rearing children into a neighborly mindset is less about providing object lessons — no matter how virtuous — and more about day-in, day-out exposure.

At one point when I was growing up, I lived in an unusually diverse community. At one end of of my block lived a Norwegian family; at the other, a Filipino family. My Girl Scout troop took field trips to most of the places of worship in our little town, including the Serbian Orthodox church and the first purpose-built Hindu temple in the US. I had to explain Shakespeare’s bawdy jokes to my bewildered Sikhi classmate. My best friends were Jewish, and our sleepover choices determined whether we went to synagogue or church — our families were both devout and welcoming, so worship was something everyone attended. Without my parents planning it, I learned what we now call cultural humility. More than cultural literacy, where one learns a little bit about other cultures’ ways, cultural humility lets one treasure the culture one knows while staying thoughtfully curious about what others practice. With the day-in, day-out exposure of attending school, seeing each other at the grocery store, and enjoying the week’s soccer snacks, we all gained familiarity without fuss. The grandmother that spoke only Czech, the other grandmother whose Sunday pasta sauce was legendary, the father in the turban were no more a big deal than my grandmother, with her Georgia drawl and her way with mayonnaise.

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; it breeds comfort. And not just for children. Simply by being around dissimilar people while in the middle of ordinary things gives each of us practice at being together without fuss. If what we want is more broad-brush neighborliness and less shrill disputation, one place we can start is by widening our circle of neighbors. Maybe finding a community with a wide variety of folks in it and promptly buying a house there isn’t a near-term choice for you. But maybe shopping different grocery stores around town is… the sounds and flavors alone might be worth the extra distance. Maybe your family might take a deep breath and visit a place of worship in another tradition… or, less intimidating, ask a friendly co-worker whether you could tag along. If neighborliness matters, and if we ultimately define neighbors as all the folks that inhabit our borders — or our globe — then each of us needs to keep practicing our wide neighborliness in ordinary, everyday ways.



Chang, Alvin. “White America Is Quietly Self-Segregating.” Vox, January 18, 2017. https://www.vox.com/2017/1/18/14296126/white-segregated-suburb-neighborhood-cartoon.

Hagerman, Margaret. “Analysis: Is Racism Today Less among Kids than Their Grandparents?Austin-American Statesman. September 23, 2018, sec. E.


[1] Chang, “White America Is Quietly Self-Segregating.”

[2] Hagerman, “Is Racism Today Less among Kids than Their Grandparents?”

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