Wonderings of a Recovering Racist, Journeying into Hope.

My best guess is it was about 1969 and I would have been ten years old. I may be off a year but for the purposes of this story it does not really matter. As I remember, the incident occurred following our little league game and was during the older youth ball game. A group of us from our team and town were running and playing with some kids from the team and town we had just played.

At least in my mind it happened amid innocent play, but at some point, barbs began to be exchanged and playful attitudes changed. I have no idea what brought it on but I have never forgotten the impact it had on me. From somewhere down in my ten-year-old vocabulary I let loose a barb toward one of the other kids we were chasing, a boy of my age, he was black. It was a word that had never been uttered in my house. I had little knowledge of the word other than what I had heard and picked up. I had no idea of the implication or damage it could do. I am confident I had heard it at school or on television, I had never uttered the word prior to that moment either. As soon as it left my lips, there was a deep twisting knot in my stomach, a sickening feeling I knew I had done something horrible. “Nigger,” I said. The boy looked me in the eye, smiled, and returned the barb, “White trash,” he said. I knew even less about that label, I had never heard it before. With that, he and his friends took off in another direction, my friends chasing after them, and me standing with a boulder sitting in my stomach, twisting and gnawing at my insides. I wanted to throw up. I wondered what I had done. I have never used that word again, to describe or direct at another human being, at this point I am still unsure I should leave it in this writing.

Fast forward, it is 1994, I am now thirty-five, my first year of seminary in Kansas City Missouri. As part of a class I was taking on ministry we were asked to go on a ride along with the Kansas City Missouri police department. The officer I was with pulled into an alley, parked, and turned out the headlights of the patrol car. He pointed across the street at a darkened two-story house with a single light in a lower level window. He told me it was a drug house; the dealers would stay inside the house and the buyers would walk up on the porch and the deal would be done through an open window. We sat, and waited. A man appeared to our left walking down the sidewalk across the street from us, the officer made a comment about watching to see if he went up to the house. The man, a Caucasian man, I would note later, seen by the light of the streetlight, turned the corner toward the house, but then walked on by. We sat for a time again and another man appeared from the same direction, a black man I could see by the same streetlight, walking toward the corner where the house was. The officer made no comment, he reached with his left hand and turned the external spotlight on and positioned it to shine in the face of the man walking down the street. The officer kept the light on the man until he faded from our sight. It was that same knot gnawing at my insides I felt that night watching the officer spotlight the man walking down the street. It brought to mind instutional and sysytemic racism. I wondered why he had not shone the spotlight on the first man. I wondered what the second man had done. I think I know, though I did not say anything at the time, I was fearful at that point.

1995, the age of thirty-six, I was invited to a lecture at seminary as part of our Martin Luther King Jr. Day activities. As part of the talk the speaker asked those of us in attendance to stand and make a single line through the center of the room. The line was to represent a continuum as to where we believed racism was in our country today. Stand at that end of the room if we felt racism had been eradicated from our culture and society, at the other end of the room if we felt there had be no progress at all, and somewhere in between depending on how much progress we felt had been made. I sat in my chair and wondered. I finally made the decision to remain seated. My good friend came back and sat with me and queried why I had not stood. I simply said, “I know racism is still deeply present in our culture and society, but who am I as a white guy to say where we are? I’ve never been followed in a store, looked at with suspicion, been pulled over, or had an officer shine a light in my face simply because I am white. We have a long way to go, but I don’t know.” I wonder now, looking back in hindsight, if that was a copout. Could have been…I wonder.

I shared these three, among other personal experiences and being witness to racism, both individual and systemic, to say it has been, and still is very much alive. I have spent numerous times in my ministry speaking out against, working against, reaching out to my friends who are persons of color in a battle against the cancer that is racism in our country and world. I recognize as a straight, white, Christian, male I have an enormous amount of privilege in this country and world. I am committed to working and using my privilege to expose racist tendencies and policies when I encounter them. But, I am not done with my own journey… and I wonder just how far I have yet to go.

September 25, 2017, I finished a book TruDee gave me for my fifty-eighth birthday, while she took a class. I am a relatively slow reader as I spend a lot of time pondering while I read, as a result I often go back and re-read portions as I progress. This was one of, if not the, most difficult books I have ever read. That mammoth sinking pit I mentioned in my first story, lay heavy in my gut and soul as I read every word. I have a work in progress I intend on becoming a book one day about my life, journey, theology, and philosophies, but to read this book and the author’s depth of knowing, of experiencing his own life, and the depth of from where he comes moved me deeply. I finished the book sitting in my car outside the little bakery where TruDee was taking her class…and wept, and wondered at the depths of my own racism, even though I think of myself as an ally and an advocate.

The book, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates delves into the culture and society we are and from where we have come. I heard in his words, our country was founded not just on the idealized freedom of religion and freedom from oppression, our country was founded on oppression and the enslavement of another group of human beings. Their enslavement was responsible for the success of our economy, and dare I say not just southern economy but the economy of the nation as a whole. Racism, enslavement of, and the diminishing of Africans is deeply embedded in our DNA as a country. And you don’t remove that kind of tumor even with a war, even with a civil rights movement and laws, it is deeply rooted in who we are as a country and especially in those of us who are white, and even, he says, those who think they wish to be white. These are thoughts I heard as I read his words, as I fought against that deep and dark pit that weighed deeper and deeper with each page.

The book is written in the context of a letter to his son, sharing his own story, his own struggles, his own life, his body, as he puts it, and the body of persons of color that he sees as expendable by the powers that be. His sharing with his son is not to convince nor give his son answers, but rather to encourage him to find his own voice, his own being, his own struggles, and his own body and worth. These words spoke deeply to me, You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.” He also shares that it isn’t for him to change other’s minds, or help their struggle, it is for the other to find their own struggle and come to terms with this deeply rooted cancer that is on our nation, my words not his. I cannot recommend this book any higher, it has changed the way I see.

Early the next morning as I re-pondered all I had been thinking since the day before I posted on my Facebook page a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.; “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” That heavy pit reappeared in my gut. I shed a tear. I considered not sharing the quote on my page. Who was I to share the words of a man who endured the racism of our country in ways I could not even begin to know. I did share it, however, that moment and this book have caused me to completely rethink all that I have done and will do in the future. I tried to explain that to TruDee as we drove that morning, and it has touched me so deeply I could hardly speak as the emotions welled up within me. I live in a country, in a culture and society, that is deeply racist and I am a product of that culture. And as a white man, this book has caused me to wonder more deeply the ways I still participate in the racism pulsing through the veins of who we are as a culture. As Coates says, it is not for anyone else to figure out for me, struggle for me, it is not for my friends and colleagues, who are people of color, to teach me or point out what is and what is not racism, though if they do I will pay deep attention, it is for me to struggle with, to dig deep into that heavy, dark pit that resides still within me and continue to try and make myself and the world around me a better, more just and compassionate place.

This revelation is larger than racism though, it cuts across the landscape of injustice that continues to haunt and diminish our culture. Homophobia, Sexism, Women’s Rights, Xenophobia, Ageism, Religious Discrimination, and all the phobias and ism’s that plague our land. A friend once told me as a white person we are all given a backpack of privilege when we are born and we carry it with us all our lives. So, here I am, and I have been made aware on a much deeper level of that backpack of White, Male, Heterosexual, Christian privilege that I carry. I carry it as a constant reminder with that privilege comes deep, deep responsibility to better understand how I participate, consciously and unconsciously, in the injustices of which I fight so diligently against. Perhaps my title of “Recovering Racist” is a bit harsh, but maybe that is what it takes to better get my attention, because of my privilege I am a racist, perhaps not intentionally, but simply because of ways I participate in those injustices and that cancer on our culture and society and am unaware.

This is my struggle and the journey continues. Pray for me, think of me, ponder with me and us. May God continue to open my eyes, my heart, that the pit never goes away, but to serve as a constant reminder to be mindful of my words, my actions, my thoughts, and my love of all. I wonder on this journey, when we might become one…I wonder.

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