On being a racist

July 22, 2006

HandshakeBefore 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.

j

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5 Responses to “On being a racist”

  1. Sharyn Says:

    Wow, Jeff. I am an African American female (from All Saints), on many levels I appreciate your honesty and the example you set by speaking the truth on such a volatile subject. Thank you, the first step is always acknowledgement.

    In God’s peace, Sharyn

  2. Jeff Says:

    Thanks, Sharyn!

    I’ve sometimes wondered over the past two weeks how I could have gotten through All Saints with my eyes so closed. I suppose it is because California is just so different than the South.

    Say hi to everyone for me,

    j

  3. Sharyn Says:

    California (especially Los Angeles area —going WEST) is different Jeff, but not as much as our All Saints experience suggests. I think that racial issues are just more talked about and acknowledged in the South. Side note: my daughter is on her way to attend college at Emory (in Atlanta) so I will be interested to hear about her experiences after spending her high school years in Silverlake and being a VERY open minded young woman.

    All the best to you in Austin.

  4. Jeff Says:

    You know I suppose you are right. I never was aware of it, and when I saw the movie “Crash” I thought, “Is this LA?”

    Then I was riding the Gold Line a few weeks later and a man got on the train and asked me for directions. I didn’t know, but a black man next to me did and answered him. He asked me again, and I said I didn’t know, but the man over there did. The (white) man wouldn’t listen to him– completely ignored him. He went over to some other white man. Then he asked him the same question, and he also didn’t know. Then the guy moved up, moving down the aisle looking for a white person with directions. I just looked at the black man (who had given him the answer in the first place) and we just looked at each other and shrugged, like “Oh well.”

    It was the first time I’d ever really experienced racism like that. It was really– well just sad. And it didn’t even really bother the black guy. It just made me sad.  Sad of course for the black guy, for all the obvious reasons- the knowledge he had that was going unused, the service he was offering that couldn’t tapped (the unused potential), the hit to the self-esteem that he must have felt.  But also sad for the old, white, racist guy. Because of his own racism, he had to stumble down the aisle in search of the information he already had but wouldn’t hear.

    I just wonder sometimes how often that must happen to all of us. We hear something but won’t listen, for whatever reason.

    Anyway, good luck to your daughter. She’ll have a whole new world opening up to her! I’m sure it will be a wonderful and eye-opening experience! She’s got to grow up sometime!

    j

  5. Heather Says:

    Jeff:

    You might enjoy the encouraging and compassionate writing of Frances Kendall who wrote a terrific book called Understanding White Privilege. She is a southern born and raised liberal, white lesbian. Her candor and wisdom are enlightening and deeply inspiring.
    Best wishes to you and God’s blessings.
    Warmly,
    Heather


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