On being a racist
July 22, 2006
Before I start, I notcied that on someone’s blogroll I’m listed as a link that is “not frequently updated”… With the move I haven’t been as able to post as I would like, so I apologize. Hopefully within the next week or two I will be back on a routine schedule and better able to post regularly again (my furniture isn’t even here yet — I’m still living out of boxes!!). Now on to what I hope to be the “good stuff”…
On the drive out to Texas, I was listening to an NPR program on the difficulty that our young black men face trying to break out of the cultural and socio-economic oppression from which they so often enter this world. The program was focusing on the statistical analysis of various patterns within the African-American community, and at this particular point in the program was focused on the number of black households run by single women instead of one woman and one man. One caller that struck me in particular was a very dedicated mother who had raised her children and her grandchildren, and they were all doing very well.
What struck me most about the call was how she implored the audience to treat young black men in a dignified and respectful way on the street. She pointed out the subtle forms of racism that many of us fall into– things like not looking directly at young black men in the eye when we pass them, walking a little faster when we are near them, and not smiling at them. She encouraged us, the audience, to just look at them- right in their face- and smile broadly as we would when passing anyone else on the street (at least I hope we do that, and apparently she does too). Maybe even to say, “Hi” or “Good Morning”. She said that she thought that little boost of self-esteem in those vital teen and young-adult years gives the confidence- maybe even the needed extra little push- for him to believe that the rest of the community believes in him and he can believe in himself too. She questioned how any of the rest of us would feel if we were constantly looked at in fear, or if women clutched their purses a little tighter when we walked by, or whatever.
That really got my attention, because I have to admit that prior to hearing that if I passed someone- not necessarily African-American, but maybe dressed in “gangsta” clothing- on the street, I would usually not make eye contact and I would not go out of my way to say “Hi” in the cheery sort of welcoming way that I would for other folks. I hadn’t really thought of that as racisim, since I would say hi and smile to other black folks that were dressed more like white folks on the street until I heard this story. (And so now I make a conscious effort to go out of my way to say hello to those who look like others might avoid saying hello to them- whether black youth, homeless, or whoever.)
Jump forward to Austin. I am making my worship home during my time in seminary in Austin at a wonderful parish- St. James. St. James is historically an African American parish. It is one of the most warm, caring, and loving parishes I have attended. People just love to say hello, and to help you in any way they can. It is a wonderful place.
I attended a newcomers dinner the other night at the rector’s home, and had my eyes opened to lots more on the topic of racism, as we listened to some of the parishioners talk about being a part of a multi-racial church and how they keep it warm and hospitable. I heard from people on everything – I can’t write about it all here because I don’t want to jeopardize the sanctity of any of the conversations, but suffice it to say that I have moved from a place over the past few weeks of believing that racism was relinqueshed to a “nearly done” issue because most of us acknowledge it is a bad thing, to realizing that we still have a lot of work to do. To be black in America today is still very hard, and it is very hard because of racism. Maybe not overt racism, but subtle racism- which is almost more difficult to battle than the overt racism of the 50s and 60s and earlier.
The rector of St. James happens to be white (St. James was searching for a qualified African American rector, but due to the still problematic lack of diversity in TEC were unable to find one, although the rector of St. James is a wonderful man and I’m glad he is there). One thing that the rector of St. James said to us that was very helpful to me was, “I am a racist. I know that I am a racist because I am a white male, and I was born and raised in the South. I am a racist in recovery, and I try not to be racist, but I am a racist.”
That helped me. Because he said that, I think it made it ok for me to say too, that I am a racist. I don’t want to be a racist, but it is so ingrained in the culture of the south that it is impossible to be white (maybe even black) and not have some of it ingrained in you. I am a racist in recovery. That is why I couldn’t look at those young black men and smile at them until I was instructed by the mother on the radio to do it, with her pleas for help for the young black men of America. I don’t even know what else I might be doing that I’m not aware of, but I pray to God that he shows me so that I can stop.
I know that some African-Americans get angry when comparing the fight for black civil rights with the fight for gay civil rights because they don’t feel it is comparable; they feel they have gotten a worse deal (particularly with the economic implications of slavery), something I don’t dispute. I hope that rather than saying “my plight is worse than yours” we can simply say “brother, sister – I hear you- I know where you’re coming from.” Hearing some of the stories that night, I could really relate. I heard one woman say, “We are all the same but we are different too. You may not know how different we are because we have had to learn how to be like you. That’s the struggle we have had as a people.”
I identified with that. That is the struggle of gay and lesbian people. Gays and lesbians are the same, but we are different. We have had to learn to be like straight people so that we can fit in. The benefit we have not had yet is the community experience that the African-American people have had– the national unity as a people. For us, coming out is primarily an individual journey- something we must do mostly alone. We have a community, but coming out is an individual decision. I suppose that at some point that was true too of African Americans. I imagine a lonely slave, being sold away from his family and carried away never to see them again. That must have been an awful, lonely, terrifying, and primarily individual experience (as is coming out for many people). How far the African American community has come to now have a full community working for equality and justice. There certainly is much work left to be done, but they have also come far. We all have come far. I hope and pray that the gay and lesbian struggle can move quickly to the point of community too so that coming out does not have to be such an isolated experience. I hope for many it already is based in community.
The rector said one more thing that I think is really important- maybe the most important- thing. He said that we make St. James a hospitable place because the oppressed invite the oppressor into community. From there, all of the warmth and love flow. I think that is hugely important to remember in our struggle on the road to inclusion in the GLBT road. We cannot set up walls that we later will regret. We must be patient, loving, kind, and compassionate. It is what God calls us to do. Nobody said being Christian was easy.