“Why are you wearing a long sleeve shirt?” I ask my sweet friend Shazia, on the swing set during recess. It was a hot, muggy day in Minnesota, and as I wore shorts and my favorite pink top, it made no sense to me why she would wear pants and a long sleeve shirt.
“Because Kayla!” She scoffed back at me.
“No but really, why? It’s so hot! Aren’t you hot?” Still pushing the subject, per my usual.
“Come, I will show you.” She said in a small, ashamed tone. As we walked to a nearby tree, I racked my brain trying to figure out what she was going to show me.
As we got to the shade of the tree, she started to roll up her sleeves to reveal her arm. She had dark hairs all over her arm, but other than that, her arm was just like mine. No crazy scars or burns, just a lot more dark hair than mine. She proceeded to tell me how many times she was teased because of how ‘hairy’ she was. Her family is from India, she always had darker skin and darker hair and the kids at school always pointed it out to her. She found it easier to cover herself up instead of dealing with the name-calling.
I guess you could say, this was the moment I was first introduced to the concept of race, and someone who had a different life because of their skin tone.
I am a white, middle-class, blonde-haired Minnesotan. When I was growing up in Minnesota, I was fortunate enough to be raised in a fairly diverse neighborhood. Even though the majority of the state is Caucasian (roughly 85%), the neighborhood I grew up in was about 45%. Somehow, I always ended up hanging out with people of different ethnicities. My family always commented on how I had a wide range of ‘different’ friends and I loved it.
As El Camino approaches, I have been forced to sit and wrestle with the question, “Why am I doing this walk?”
The answer relates to my childhood friend Shazia. The answer also relates to my other friends, Liliana, Alma, Priya, Louie, Jessica, John, Jenny, Alma, Monserrat, Angela, Fedline, Sharna and so many more. The answer relates to all the different people I have grown to love. The answer is both a simple and a complex one: for people.
People are my “thing”. I love people. I love stories. And because I love people of all different ethnicities, I love disproving stereotypes and advocating for those different than me. When I think about issues of immigration and immigration reform, it boils down to people. I know there are economic and systemic aspects to immigration, but I also know far too many people who are directly affected by this issue.
After working closely with immigrants, I have learned that I do not know a life that is constantly lived in fear. Many immigrants live in fear, whether it’s because of their skin tone, how ‘hairy’ they are, where they are from or the possibility of their parents or siblings will be taken away without warning. I’ve never had to live with any of these fears on a daily basis. I didn’t have to worry about systemic problems in the government. I didn’t have to worry about lack of opportunities. I didn’t have to worry about prejudice thinking. I didn’t have to worry about my hair color or skintone affecting my relationships with peers, teachers or employees. I believe this comes with the privilege of being White in America. I have had the privilege of existing in a society where I wasn’t looked at or seen as different, but was just accepted.
As I prepare for El Camino, I also wrestle with the question, “Is this even my fight?”
After all, I am not an immigrant, and neither are my parents. Of course, most Caucasians are of immigrant descent, but that is not the story or the reality that we are raised with in America. So why do I feel so led to get involved with immigration reform?
All I know is, I look around America and I see division. Division because people look different and division because there is not understanding. Division because people won’t listen. My desire is to bring understanding.We all face fears, and come across challenges in our life, regardless of ethnicity. But many of the people that I love, minorities and immigrants, have to face fears that do not have to exist. By wrestling with the reality of being white and the privileges that come with it, I hope to help expose injustice and build bridges between people of different backgrounds.
I hope that by walking El Camino, I can use my position as a white female to help make conversations of change start to happen. I also hope to learn more about the experience of an immigrant- what kind of determination and mental strength the journey takes- so that I have an increased awareness to bring to the conversation.
Kayla Berndt is a lover of sunshine, anything citrus and dark chocolate. She loves to see people united through the Gospel and desires to be apart of the change in the world.