George, c. 1958-9
I grew up in The North, not the South, but I have come to see that it doesn't make that much difference where racism is concerned. All of the United States is covered by a blanket woven of our racist past and present, a blanket we can only throw off together, that is, white, black, brown, old & young, powerful, and common folk, striving and speaking and listening together and staying at the table.
Just last night I read a post that saddened, but not surprise, me, written by a young African American leader in my own denomination who was called Ni--er on the streets of Boston. Today. 2015.
I told a member of the congregation that I am serving, near Atlantic City, that there are places in South Jersey where I'd feel more anxious wearing my Black Lives Matter button than anyplace in Kentucky I can think of. That doesn't necessarily mean that Kentucky's less racist.
This is a response to a widely circulated blog called, "I, Racist.." which is subtitled, "Why I Don't Talk About Race With White People..." Read here.It's a response and a plea to all leaders, clergy, and persons of color to feel free to take a break, walk away, unfriend us, pick and choose when and where, and for how long, lay the ground rules, but for the sake of all that's holy, please don't stop talking.
Because there are so many white people who are more than ready to listen.
My father in 1929, age 20
My father was born in 1909, and grew up in the states of Delaware and Pennsylvania. He was, in my eyes, racist. I used to say that he was not anything like Archie Bunker: "he was educated, he wasn't ignorant, he had a certain amount of class." The publication of Harper Lee's second novel this week, and the conversation about what kind of racist Atticus Finch (of whom Lee's father may or may not have been a prototype) may have been made me think about my father. It made me go and look for pictures of George, above, a Black man who my father would have said "worked around our place." We had, then, about 4-5 acres of land in New Jersey, and my father worked in Philadelphia. Although we had no persons of color in our small town or in my elementary school, George was one of two African Americans I would have come in contact with, the other being Emma, our "colored" maid. She was more than a maid, though, because after our mother died, she filled the role of mother for my sister, brother and me.
I don't think I even understood racism until much later, because my father seemed genuinely fond of these two individuals. I have no memories of him making any remarks about persons of color, or using the "N" word, ever. But, when we had a party during High School, and some members of the football team showed up uninvited, who also happened to be Black, he would not let them in. I knew, and hoped they didn't, that it was not because they weren't invited. It gradually became clear to me, and became clear primarily through literature, through books like To Kill a Mockingbird, and Huckleberry Finn, and movies like To Sir, With Love, that this was a problem, and that my father was on the wrong side of history. Like Atticus Finch, perhaps, he was fond of "colored" folk as long as they knew their rightful place. I am here to report to you that this sort of attitude still prevails and is still held by whites throughout small towns and rural places all over this country.
How is refusing to talk about it going to help?
I want to propose a new way of looking at things. It is starting to trouble me that many of the essays, articles, blogs, and posts being written are of the persuasion that says: "White people need to....," and "White people are going to have to ...." and I'm tired of talking to white people...." and so on. Most of which, by the way, are written by other white people who seem to know what's best.
I don't think there are just Black people and then... White people. There are multitudes of kinds, shapes and sizes and shades and variations of people of color, Black, Latino, Asian, and beyond. There are many ways of "being" a White person or a non-person of color. No one, including white people, likes to be lumped together with everyone else in the category that they look like according to their skin color.
For me, I've been hearing the argument that white people need to do their own work for a LOOOONG time. I and many, many, many white people have done an enormous amount of work. We continue to do this work. We do it daily. We struggle with the heavy blanket of racism, and the weight of white privilege at every junction. We didn't just start to do the work when a Gen X person told us what to do next. For me, the work began slowly, as an English major, feeling and understanding through literature. It really took off when, early in my UU ministry, I had the opportunity to go to UU Ministry Days with Lee Mun Wah and felt called to the ministry of Anti Racism.
That was 20 years ago, and that call has never waned.
Riverside, California 1996-99
The first years were rewarding. I was able to visit the South with UU Service Committee and take part in Work Camps to rebuild burned churches in Alabama and South Carolina. I participated in forming community wide Study Circles. After a tragic shooting by the Riverside, California, police of a young Black woman, I was able to play a central role in the organizing of protests and national presence which finally led to the firing of the officers, although charges were never filed. Story
But the reason that I was able to make those strides was that I had conversations with members of the Black community in Riverside that were honest, straightforward and even a bit confrontational.
Conversations that led to relationships.
The first of these persons was Louise Hayes. We met often for breakfast and as our friendship grew, she began to tell me how it felt to be a Black woman in America. No holds barred. It took time, and patience, but when she began to see me as a friend, and to see that I was not uncomfortable with anger or rage, she also expressed these deeper feelings to me. And I feel certain that this has been true for multitudes of relationships between persons of color and "white people."
Louise Hayes, Riverside, CA
The second person that I regularly place on my "jewel tree" when I do this Buddhist meditation, thanking and imagining all of my teachers and mentors, is the late Reverend Johnny Harris. He was a bit skeptical about the Study Circles we'd organized, and at one of our clergy greetings, he abruptly challenged me to do more than talk. He said that I ought to come over to the east side of town and do something with the congregation he served, and with the children's ministry there.
I did. From that grew a beautiful relationship, not only between Johnny, his wife Bridget and my family, but between our congregations. People did not feel bound to play nice. There was a level of honesty and camaraderie that was probably modeled by the relationship between Johnny and me. These are people that I would say "schooled" me, in the best sense of the word; they were unafraid to show me their anger, annoyance, and sheer frustration on matters of race and racism. I would like to think that they saw in me that I could take it, and that by giving me a piece of their mind, some change might occur, some good may come of it. I am so grateful that they did.
Johnny died suddenly while I was still in Riverside, and I left about six months after the shooting of Tyisha Miller, hoping that in Kentucky, which I viewed as part of "the South," there would be plenty of anti-racism work to do.
This was not to be the case.
In the fourteen years that I served the UU congregation in Lexington, almost every endeavor I made to interact or create genuine dialogue with members of the African American community were disappointing. Committees I got myself onto, labelled "Race relations committee," or "MLK Day Committee," were little more than rubber stamp groups for decisions made elsewhere, by others. The African American pastors made it clear, time and again, that a woman minister, especially one who was a liberal as the UUs are, was not welcome in their pulpits or at their meetings. The message was not so much, "We're tired of talking to white people," as "we don't want anything to do with white liberals." After many years, I learned about a man who had worked for the city running a program for young men. Evidently he had been a pedophile and had abused dozens of young, African American boys over many years. Although he himself was African American, he was kept in place by the city government and agencies, including many white liberals, some of them from the Unitarian church.
We did some things. We volunteered at the "African Cemetery," an historic burial ground that had been long neglected. We studied, on our own, institutional and environmental racism, and we went to Biloxi to rebuild homes after Katrina. We volunteered in homeless shelters and at the detention center. We continued to keep race and racism in our conversation always. But having a conversation seemed to be impossible. And frankly, not much happened in the greater community to unite us. But that's a wider conversation, about Kentucky, especially Lexington, for another day. Suffice it to say, what isn't said speaks more loudly than what is in Kentucky.
This marker was installed in the early 2000s, after much contention and lobbying. Prior to its installation, the popular downtown square bore no trace of its traumatic past.
So, this is where many of us "white people" are. We have listened. We have been quiet. We haven't been running in and trying to take over everything as we are accused of doing. We've backed off as suggested. For me, the days of active ministry are numbered, although I hope my days of anti-racist ministry will last as long as I last.
There is so much to talk about. And so many of who are ready. We don't mind being schooled, but that can only happen in the context of a relationship, between two mature adults, or young adults, willing to talk, listen, stay at the table, stick it out, show up, be real. I know this can happen because I have experienced it, and from this grows understanding and a world of hope. Please, don't stop now.