Waking Up Racist

Charles H. King, Jr., in 1981.

Changes in perception typically take time. The mind accumulates information through experiences, relationships, the media, and at some point, wakes up to a truth it has been stubbornly ignorant to. That's how it was for me with my understanding of homosexuality: I don't remember ever being taught that it was wrong, but my childhood was certainly steeped in the idea that it was a sinful choice some people made. I remember reading a couple of references to it in high school, and not really understanding them (one in an autobiographical essay by Tennessee Williams left me particularly confused). The first gay man I was aware of meeting was a theater major who lived in my dorm at Willamette University who struck me as outrageously flamboyant. Unbeknownst to me, one of my best friends in college was a closeted gay man who did not come out to me until our 25 year reunion. I also had no idea that a woman I was attracted to during my first semester in seminary was coming to grips with her own orientation as a lesbian. Coupled with what I learned in seminary, these experiences percolated within me until, at some point during my second year in Dallas, I came to the conclusion that gay people were...people. They deserved the same respect, the same rights, the same chance at happiness, that I did. I can't pin down when I came to this awareness; I just know it was sometime during that year of 1986-87.

I can, however, identify within an hour or two the exact moment I realized I was a racist.

Like waking up to homophobia, it happened during seminary, though the event I'm referencing wasn't specific to the God Quad. Like all first-year seminarians at the Perkins School of Theology, I was taking a course called "Introduction to Ministry." It was a frustrating course: we came in expecting basic nuts-and-bolts lectures on preaching, prayer, visitation, Bible study, administration, counseling--things ministers actually do. Instead, the three-professor team fed us meandering meditations on pop sociology that seemed to be aimed at convincing us congregations were problematic communities that would give us nothing but trouble. The one useful aspect of the first semester was the case study, an in-depth analysis of a particular congregation in the Dallas metroplex. I did mine on Casa View, a church that had had the same pastor since its founding in the early 1950s. The congregation had quickly grown to 800--and then Rev. Wil Bailey began to preach about civil rights, and justice for persons of color. Almost overnight, the congregation shrank by two thirds, a situation exacerbated by the church council's decision to request the appointment of an African-American associate pastor. Thirty years later, the congregation had shrunk even more; too small now to support an associate, it continued to be led by Rev. Bailey, as it would until his retirement. I was inspired by the witness of this now small congregation, its dedication to justice, the commitment of its members to advocate for the marginalized. And yet, despite its history and continuing work on behalf of African-Americans, Casa View's active membership was almost completely white.

The second semester of Introduction to Ministry included a project called the "Inter-Ethnic Experience." Realizing that most Perkins students were white and had grown up in segregated communities, the seminary assigned every first-year student to a congregation of a different ethnicity from their own. I was assigned to a Hispanic congregation that met at an Episcopal cathedral. My college Spanish was recent enough that I was mostly able to follow along during services, but the part of the experience that made the biggest impression on me was the presence of so many small, very active children in worship. That lesson was to stay with me throughout my pastoral career; but the real watershed, the experience that shattered my identity, was an add-on.

It was presented to us one morning in the large lecture hall as a way to get credit for a few more inter-ethnic hours (we had to reach a certain minimum to pass the requirement): a seminar on racism to be held up the hill, in a ballroom in SMU's student center, the following evening. Having a Sunday morning choir directing job was making it hard for me to get in enough hours with my assigned church, so I was eager to participate. The night of the seminar, I arrived and took my seat. I didn't see any of my seminary classmates there--most in attendance were undergrads--and I was immediately aware of this group being far more diverse than most classes I was taking at Perkins. The doors were closed and Charles H. King, Jr., took the stage. 

Rev. King's New York Times obituary doesn't say much about him, but it does give an idea what that seminary in early 1986 was like. King zeroed in on the white members of the audience, and spent the next three hours indicting us for everything that Black people had ever had to suffer in the United States, as well as everything that continued to keep so many of them poor and oppressed. It was a tour-de-force of a revival sermon, passionately and powerfully delivered, and by the end of it, I felt fully convicted of my guilt as an oppressor, guilt I could never completely atone for, never escape as long as I continued to have white skin.

Prior to seminary, I had had one African-American friend. It wasn't that I'd ever felt any antipathy toward persons of color: I just happened to have grown up in the Pacific Northwest, a region not known for its racial diversity. In Dallas, despite having a Black roommate and many Black classmates, I never really succeeded in making any Black friends. I put that down almost entirely to the guilt I felt for years after that seminar. It's very hard to be friendly with people when you feel like you should be apologizing constantly to them for something you can never make right. It would be five years before I was finally able to move on from the guilty awkwardness that seminar had infused me with.

The proximity filter is an essential part of how we make friends: you can't have relationships with people until you've met them. Social media is making this less of a factor, but it's still easiest to be friends with people with whom you share a zip code. After seminary, I returned to Oregon, and almost all of my ministry was in rural settings. There were very few persons of color in the churches I served. It wasn't until I left ministry and began teaching that I found myself in urban schools with diverse student bodies. This was particularly the case in the Reynolds District, where I worked prior to my current suburban job in Tualatin. My classes there were a rainbow of skin tones. And I loved it.

A big part of working with those students, many of whom had extreme behavior issues, was constantly checking myself to be sure I wasn't responding out of racism or classism. It was a hard three years I spent there, though most of that difficulty I put down to the setting and administration.

As hard as it was, it was also healing. Few of these children had chips on their shoulders. Many readily expressed their affection to me. It was liberating to realize I could love even difficult children, without regard to their color or ethnicity; and also to realize that some children simply can't be reached, and again, this is not a factor of color or ethnicity. Some of the most challenging children were white; some of the best-behaved were Black or Hispanic. When it came to basic humanity, the differences of color, language, creed were incidental: above all else, they were children, I was their teacher, and I loved them.

Growing up in pure or nearly pure-white communities, I never had the chance to learn this lesson. My parents were progressive, and never would have tolerated any expressions of racism from me, but there was no way for me to see persons of color as anything other than exotic. It's unfortunate that I couldn't discover my shared humanity with them, and learn to appreciate them, in the same way it happened with gay people: gradually, gently, as a slowly maturing revelation. Then again, perhaps I needed that harsh wake-up call. I know I worked harder at dealing with my ethnic responsibility and guilt for the plight of persons of color as a result.

Our nation has just been delivered a wake-up call of its own. White nationalists are a small minority of Americans who are feeling disproportionately empowered by a President who feels obligated to pander to them at every opportunity. In the last 24 hours, this President has pardoned Joe Arpaio, a racist sheriff who committed genocidal crimes against Hispanic persons, announced he will no longer extend tolerance to children of undocumented immigrants who were brought here by their parents, and instructed the military services to begin discriminating against trans-gendered volunteers. Most Americans disagree with these policies, and ultimately, they will be reversed. The question is how far down the intolerant rabbit hole we'll permit the administration to go.


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