WaterBrook, 224 pages
Reviewed by Karie Charlton
For Ashlee Eiland, kindness is more than simple politeness. Transformational kindness requires bravery “to undo the damage we’ve done because it’s the secret weapon for detecting the intrinsic worth found in every person.” As a black woman who grew up in the South, she shares her life story through her beautiful and painful memories, all of which taught her how “to be kind to [her] own worthy self.” I am grateful she has shared her story; as a white woman around the same age I found much to relate to and much that was eye-opening.
She shares a story about a white babysitter, Cherie, who loved her very much, and out of kindness tried to wash Eiland’s hair. It was a disaster; everyone cried. Eiland recalls loving this woman but knowing there was a limit to what kind of care she could give. Eiland’s mom had a choice: to demand Cherie do more to learn about hair or to simply accept what Cherie was able to give, knowing that she had tried her best. Cherie’s intention was kindness, but the result was disastrous. Eiland and her mom choose to respond with kindness.
Eiland revealed her least favorite nickname: Oreo, “black on the outside; white on the inside.” She recalled a time her friends did her makeup (blue eyeshadow) and now she realizes that trying to fit in by conforming to “someone else’s idea of beauty” only brings shame. Belonging shouldn’t require status symbols or excluding others, but should be based on the notion that all are “worthy, valuable, chosen and beloved.” At the end of her high school experience, she told her friends she got into her college of choice and another senior in the room, who had not been accepted by the same school, said it was because she is white and Eiland is black. Remarkably, Eiland responded with empathy; she told the other student she was sorry she didn’t get in. It was awkward, but Eiland affirms it was the right thing to do. These events shook her confidence, but she remained firm in her choice to treat herself and everyone else with kindness.
In college, Eiland chose to live in a traditionally black dorm and seek out experiences with a variety of students. The Christian group she joined was primarily Chinese and she recounts her experience of her first dumpling with them. “I could be fully proud of who I was and appreciate the richness of other cultures. I didn’t have to forfeit one for the other.” In the chapters concluding her college years and entering the adult world, she talks about friendship and the kindness of strangers.
The last chapters circle back to earlier themes, but this time the readers’ depth of understanding helps us see her story differently. After experiencing hostility again, she tells her companions, “My whole life, I’ve had to hold honor and respect in one hand and anger and sadness in the other — just to survive.” Radical kindness requires this tension.
Karie Charlton is the associate pastor at Third Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, and the leader of the Pittsburgh Chapter of Days for Girls making reusable menstrual hygiene kits. On her blog periodpastor.com, she reflects on her work and interprets it as part of living out her faith.