Friday, June 6, 2008

Race and Our Transformational Moment

This morning I read an essay by evangelical activist Jim Wallis at HuffingtonPost entitled “A Transformational Moment” ( Wallis sees the choice of Barack Obama as our Democratic candidate as a transformational moment—one many people in our generation (Wallis is two years older than I am) never expected to see. He notes,

But for my generation -- I'm dating myself now -- this is a transformational moment, one we didn't think would come in our lifetimes. Race was the issue that changed us, shaped us, determined our path, and even defined the meaning of our faith. Now a black man is running for president of the United States. Amazing grace.

But he depicts race as transformational for our generation in more ways than one. He notes that for us who grew up within churches that were either silent about or resistant to the need for racial justice during the Civil Rights struggle, race was a defining moment in our maturing as believers. What he says about his own life in this respect could almost have been lifted from my biography. Wallis states,

Race was the issue that led to my own confrontation with the church that raised me. It was my "converting issue," though the conversion led me out of the white church of my childhood, not into the church. A church elder bluntly told me one night that "Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That's political and our faith is personal." I was only about 15, but it was the night I think I left, in my head and my heart. And a couple years later, I was gone all together.

The little evangelical church that my parents had started and that was my second home was simply wrong about race -- completely wrong. Race was the issue that fundamentally shaped my early social conscience.

As readers know, I left my childhood church in the mid-1960s when the church almost split over the issue of whether to admit black members. As I have written several times, we anguished over this issue. I well remember the church-wide debates in which some adults—people I had thought had some sense and virtue—got up and shook and cried at the outrageous thought of admitting African Americans to “our” church.

Though we finally decided to admit black members, none came. And why would they? Is one welcome, when people open the door only with dour faces, biting their tongues to keep them from saying something ugly in the house of God?

I was so concerned about what I witnessed in these church discussions, that I scheduled some time with our pastor. I asked him why the church was not leading the way in a social struggle in which (it was clear to me even at the age of fifteen) the courts and the federal executive branch had moral right on their side.

My pastor spoke of what Dr. King calls the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Give it time. People can’t change overnight. Church shouldn’t be a place where people butt heads (but I had seen them do just that when we really allowed folks to speak their true minds). Church is about healing souls, not society.

After my session with the pastor, I left the church. Preceding this, I was also castigated by a Sunday School teacher when I gave the “wrong” answer to a question about Vietnam War protests. When our banker-teacher asked us if any of us would ever, ever walk in one of those filthy protest marches, when he went around the classroom and received one solemn “No, sir!” after another, I told him that, well, I’d have to think about what was being protested, consider the merits of the cause in light of my conscience, and then make my decision.

What happened in my area in the Civil Rights period, and the way the white churches of my community responded, galvanized my conscience. When I went to college several years later and there were protest marches to boycott a bar that had refused to serve a party of black and white patrons, I didn’t even begin to wonder if I should march in that line. When a black friend of mine from high school moved to the city just as I graduated and needed a place to stay as he looked for housing, I didn’t think twice about offering him a room in my apartment.

When my landlady hotly informed me either to get that n----r out or move out, I told her I’d gladly move. When I secured another apartment (not so easy, since I had just finished school and had few resources), and when the new landlord told me, after we had agreed on his renting the place to me, that he didn’t want any blacks visiting the apartment, I might have said, “Yes, sir,” and gone about my business.

I didn’t. I couldn’t. He relented.

I did, of course, also march in anti-war protests. How could I not, especially after I watched on t.v. what happened to fellow college students at Kent State in Ohio?

But my heart, my visceral engagement, was not with the war across the globe. It was with the war right at my doorstep, the war I had seen going on in the town in which I grew up, the war to make skin color superfluous to how we evaluate other human beings.

Does this mean that I was not, am not, racist? Hardly. In my view, one cannot grow up in a racist society and not be racist. I grew up in an overtly racist society. I can well remember specific moments of indoctrination into the various linguistic codes of behavior that governed racial relations in the South in which I grew up—the codes I was expected, as a middle-class white Southerner, to observe, both to keep everyone in his or her place, and at the same time, to try to safeguard the feelings of those we considered “childish” and prone to pout.

I was indoctrinated. Racism is taught. I was taught racism even before I had any word for what was happening to me. I began to be aware that segregation was not a natural, God-given social arrangement only when I began to reach adolescence and could begin to see the world through my own eyes, and not those of my family, church, school, and the society in which I lived.

I am always leery of those who grow up in the U.S.—especially those of us who are white—and who think we have no taint of racism inside us. It is much harder to face and thus eradicate what we do not even see within us. In all the classes I taught during my many years teaching in historically black universities, and in addressing faculty when I was asked to lead faculty, this is always something I say off the bat: I am here among you to serve and learn, not because I am free of racism, but because I am confronting my own racism. In my work in HBCUs, I always thought of myself as an invited guest, someone there to learn as much as to teach.

I am reflecting on these themes these days, because they will emerge very strongly in the coming days, with Mr. Obama’s run for the presidency. The powerful right wing in church and society will play the race card hard and heavy. While ridiculing Obama behind the scenes, entre nous, they will challenge liberals in a divide-and-conquer campaign to castigate liberals adverting to race, dealing with race, admitting the racial factor, as racists.

I am not persuaded of the sincerity of the concern that right-wing churches, some of which have been formed for the express purpose of excluding gay persons, now suddenly have for Africans and African Americans. I am not persuaded that this concern is genuine, a real expression of intent to address the deep racism of our social (and ecclesial) structures. I see far too much evidence of an ugly strategy in this "concern," one to divide progressive movements within church and society by playing people of color against gays.

We need to be clear-eyed about race in the days ahead. We should have been talking about this deep social wound (and wound inside our how souls) for years now, and not just in the context of this historic election.

Still, even as malicious political operatives try to twist and turn the rhetoric of race during this election, talk we must. And it is in talking honestly, facing honestly our shortcomings, and articulating together a dream of a better society in which everyone has a place at the table of participatory democracy, that we will find the healing we need.


colkoch said...

My transformational moment came when I was seven and made the mistake of calling some kid on the play ground a 'jungle bunny'. I had zero idea what that meant, but had heard it frequently around the house. I was promptly taken to the Mother Superior's office and gentley grilled as to what I meant when I had used that term. She realized I was clueless, gave me a hug, and told me never to use it again. That there would come a time when I did understand what it meant and that she hoped I would remember her hug when that happened.
It happened and I did remember her hug. That hug coupled with my new found knowledge came together in such a way that I absolutely knew racism was the antithesis of Catholicism.

The upshot was I didn't reject Catholicism, I rejected my parent's version. The sad thing is it now looks like my parent's version is the official version. At least with regards to the gay issue in which the Church has been far more virulent than it ever was with the race issue.
Two millenia and we still don't get Him. Talk about a slow learning curve.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, great story. And you had the good fortune of encountering an educator with sense and soul, when this happened.

This reminds me a lot of something that happened between my niece and me some years ago. She must have been 10 or 11.

She was fighting with her brothers (verbally), and as they shouted taunts back and forth, the word "fag" slipped out.

I stood by in silence. Didn't say anything. After things had cooled down, I had a little talk with her.

I told her about a time when I chalked a racist slogan on the back porch of our house, not even knowing what I was writing. When my father saw it, he hit the roof (he did have some good qualities mixed with bad--as I do!). He made me wash it off and pointed out to me that any black person coming to our house would see this and be hurt.

A few weeks later, after my niece had gone back home, she wrote me an apology letter. She pointed out that when she used words like "fag" or even "so gay" as an insult, she just never thought of those words being related to a real person--including an uncle she loves dearly. She apologized.

I still have that letter tucked away in a journal. It reminds me we all have the possibility to keep examining our unexamined attitudes and weeding out what does harm to others, in our attitudes.