While we were collecting input for the church’s mapping process in one of my cells last week, we got to talking about racism. We noted everyone who showed up was of the dominant “race.” And though we were all firmly committed to stomping out the sin of racism, we all remembered times when we did not do what we could do to do the stomping personally.
We had to admit we could not fully escape accusations like the ones Dahleen Glanton piled up in the Chicago Tribune on May 31. Here’s part of what she said:
“White people don’t like watching hardcore racism…. And while the stories make their way through the news cycle, you and your friends lament how awful racism is.
Then before you know it, your drive-by rage is over.
You conclude that the terrible incident doesn’t affect you directly. So you drift back into oblivion, convinced there’s nothing you can do about racist cops or the racist society that breeds them.
But you are wrong. White people, you are the problem.
Regardless of how much you say you detest racism, you are the sole reason it has flourished for centuries. And you are the only ones who can stop it…
Too many white people are satisfied doing nothing to bring about substantive change…. You should talk among yourselves and figure it out. In the midst of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, you managed to put a man on the moon. You could make the same commitment to stomping out racism….
Racists are counting on you to continue doing nothing. They are certain that before long, you will return to your blissful state of denial, where racism is somebody else’s problem. And you will not disappoint them.
Racists know some of you better than you know yourselves.”
We do know ourselves and each other rather well in our cell. So we don’t shy away from confessing. Last week we had to admit that doing the “little things “ when it comes to the big thing of racism makes more of a difference than we wish. We had to confess how easy it is not to get into it with people who threaten us or just disturb us with their racist behavior.
One of us started us off with a story. One time a man was getting raccoons out of our friend’s house. He asked the man what he did with the animals after he caught them. The man said he took them to a black neighborhood and let them go. Our friend confessed he did not confront him.
Another of us told the story about his neighbor in Fishtown. He had a nice relationship with the old man. A few weeks ago the man challenged him to get his bat and join him in protecting Fishtown, assuming he would go along. Our cell mate told his neighbor he was “not that way” and the man went ahead without him. The neighbor has not spoken to him since. We prodded our friend to follow up.
Another of us talked about his daughter spending her first year away at college. She realized her Philadelphia experience, including African American history education, was unique among her peers who lived segregated/sheltered lives (and who have trouble relating to aggrieved people of color). As he reflects on his privilege and considers how to be a better ally, he is learning from his kids.
I personally went way back to my birth family, which was run by a genuine racist from Oklahoma. My father would have thought Tulsa was a huge city even in his day. He was born out on the panhandle a year after the massacre. My memory is that I never let one of his racist remarks go unprotested. I even wrote a short story in the seventh grade about the variety of names he had to slur every race and ethnicity under the sun. But the fact is, I only periodically had the courage to protest. In fact, the whole family codependently turned his hate speech into a joke, an odd trait of our otherwise useful breadwinner. My antiracism eventually became something others in the family would not confront. But I certainly know what it is like to take a pass because I can.
Like Dahleen Glanton says, we so-called “white people,” who can protest being lumped into a race because we have the privilege associated with that race, should talk among ourselves and figure stuff out. Christians, in particular, have an even deeper responsibility to risk what it takes to overcome evil with good, so we need to learn how to have a good dialogue, not just an argument. Even if the workman mocks us, if the neighbor cuts us off, if the school chums label us, or if the family is disrupted, we need to trust God and risk following Jesus, who not only loves everyone, but transforms them into his own likeness.
Racists are counting on people like me doing nothing – at least nothing that costs me too much, nothing that will cause conflict, nothing that will take too much energy. They are certain that before long, the streets will return to the homeostasis of the dominant culture and racism only be a problem the next time it explodes out of the fragile box of denial and apathy in which it is vainly kept.
Right now our church is having an appropriate eruption of righteous anger along with much of the rest of the United States. We’ll see what happens. Some angry people will run over others until their anger subsides. Some resistant people will cut others off and retain their privilege to let it all be about somebody else. We might get divided and need to regroup. People could lose their faith because influential people follow politics and not Jesus. Regardless, “white” people stuck in the U.S. need to figure this out, or die trying — especially people who say they follow Jesus.