Recent events of blatant racism in our country have set off strong responses on all sides. Hate, violence, compassion, and love have been spoken, acted out, and streamed. I find myself disoriented by both extremes and wonder what my role is in all this.
I was shaken when I learned that my great-great grandparents were slave owners. They called the three people who worked in their household “servants” but when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, two of them left immediately while the third, the cook and care provider, stayed a bit longer. My great-great grandfather offered her “wages” if she would stay. She chose to return to her childhood area for a new life.
I grew up in the South in the 1950s when Jim Crow laws were still in effect. I asked my mom about the “White Only” sign at the water fountain in the old Sears Roebuck building. I wondered why we entered the doctor’s office in one door while people with darker skin went to the door in the back. I was not raised in a totally lily-white bubble because my family interacted with people of different skin colors and nationalities.
I have devoted my life to reaching out to others: through my former work in a large nonprofit that continues to help people of various skin colors (many who live in poverty) to emerge from their hurting situations, with my writing, through teaching people with resources about poverty so they can reduce judgment and increase compassion, by working in churches, even at one time preaching twice a month for three years in an African-American congregation. When I was in seminary two men with dark skin, one American and the other Nigerian, were often guests in my home. I have worked with people of color both as staff and volunteers.
I say all of this not to say how enlightened I am but to undergird my belief that racism is deeply held at places in our spirit that are not even rational or conscious. I have wondered about this for a long time.
I went to a conference on peacemaking that focused on racism. I was astounded when the presenters, one a black woman and the other a white man, began their presentation with the white man announcing that he was a racist. I almost left at that point. He went on to add that he was against racism, he was an antiracist, but he could never call himself a nonracist. He explained that his white skin gave him privileges that he did not even know he enjoyed. They both talked about the insult of claiming to be color blind. They explained that being “color blind” means that one refuses to acknowledge a person in his/her God-given wholeness.
I am still confounded, embarrassed, and horrified when I react internally to certain things. I note the increasing number of mixed-race couples on television and appreciate their presence…but I still notice. I am glad that I am aware of that in myself and can choose to move past it. I feel uncomfortable when I see a man who is different from me in skin color or socioeconomics where I was not expecting him to be. Part of this is being a woman alone but…part of it is subconscious racism and classism. As I write this, I see a female neighbor with darker skin walk by. I notice her in a subtly different way than I do when a white neighbor walks by.
I choose to be antiracist. I yearn to discover for myself how to best respond to what is happening. I want to be a catalyst for change. I also know that writing this piece, as important as it is for me, as well as witnessing others who call for action OR participate in peaceful protests OR preach powerful sermons OR proclaim the gospel of love, only touches the surface of dealing with the centuries of exploitation, repression, and dehumanizing attitudes that are part of my whiteness and even my deepest self.
Fear makes me lose my best self. Recognizing in another’s face a connection that is beyond my “instinctive” response is something to strive for, pray for, and consciously work for. My current prayer is that I will not let this moment pass unnoticed AND that I will trust that true change is an ongoing intentional process for me and the world. I may not be able to change the world…even though I often believe that small steps can make a huge difference…but I can change myself. And when I change myself, hopefully, that change will ebb into all with whom I interact.