I am white. My family is white. My church is white. Church? Yeah, don’t leave that part out. God is love. Jesus loves the little children red and yellow black and white. Been in church all my life, just like most of the white people in these stories.
Born in 1961 and raised in a one-stoplight town in rural NC, a town where annually in its town pride parade the town confederate flag lover who flies a flag in his front yard drives his flag down Main St. flaunting his "heritage." And just 10-15 minutes away, yes today, 2012, there’s a very popular eating establishment open to whites only. I didn’t choose the geography any more than I chose to be born white, but this is my Southern heritage.
I entered first grade just after the schools there were desegregated. According to my first grade yearbook, there were 3 black children in my class of 25. I don’t remember them well, except that one of them, I think it was Beverly*, was the best reader in the class, and I was amazed at how fast she could read “Run Spot run, See Spot run,” while the rest of us deliberately and painfully sounded out every word.
After that year, there were usually 1-2 black students in my classes, none one year, and they were often not the same ones, because the black students tended to be held back a lot.
I don’t remember thinking much about black people then. I knew where they went to church, and we drove through one of their two neighborhoods on the way across the river to visit my grandparents. At Christmas time we drove through there deliberately, because the Christmas lights were more colorful than white people’s. N-word town was what that area was often called by white adults, as was often used the N-word in general, although "colored people" was the more acceptable and most often used term. I don’t remember, though, sensing any guilt, or even hatred, from those who used the first one. Condescension and entitlement yes, at least in retrospect. There was just an unquestioned understanding that black people were inferior to whites. It was understood that we should be polite to everyone but that they stayed in their neighborhoods and we in ours.
I remember once a year, at Thanksgiving, the four churches in town would meet together for a joint worship service. This was the only time I remember as a child seeing black and white people together in church. But what I remember most is my grandma hugging the black women, and the obvious friendship and love between them. I am sorry I never asked her to tell me about her friendships with these women, but those hugs left a special imprint in my memory.
My fourth grade story is one I’ve never ever told, and I write it now with shame and tears. It was recess, and we were playing freely on the outdoor basketball courts. Some were shooting baskets. Others were jumping rope or doing other things. I wanted to play basketball, but Pam, a black classmate, who was much taller and more agile than the rest of us, always got her own rebounds and wasn’t sharing the ball with anyone else. I confronted her, and she taunted back, escalating back and forth until I frustratedly called her the worst name I knew, yes that one. She literally knocked the breath out of me, and someone went for the teacher. Being white herself, the teacher refused to believe Pam’s story of what I had called her, and I kept quiet. Pam was punished.
So was I, but only by the memory of it all, for the rest of my life. That was the first and last time I would ever use that word.
My sophomore year in high school I started catching a ride back home from softball practice with a couple of black junior girls on the team. I remember my daddy telling someone I had a “little black friend” and laughing at the cuteness of that thought.
Truth was though, that I had never really had a black friend, not in the sense of going home with each other or choosing to spend time together one-on-one, but the thought had never really occurred to me.
It was in college that I began to consciously question the race issue. I remember one black girl in particular who lived on my hall. I remember the inner conflict of noting her beauty, her intelligence, her poise and class, and cognitively computing for probably the first time that my accepted notions of black people were flawed.
My senior year my best friend Janelle was ¼ black, ¼ native American, ½ white. She was light-skinned, but having never known her white father, she identified as black. I don’t think her race had much impact on me, but my prejudices were changing. By the time I graduated and got my first teaching job, my very few black students had a special place in my heart.
Later, I think it was 1990, while attending seminary, I experienced the most blatantly racist incident I hopefully will ever see. A few of us students were attending a church in a nearby town, just outside Wake Forest NC, and we would often carpool. On this particular Sunday I was driving, and my passengers were two white female students and Martin, a black male student. Following the service I was the first one to the car, where I sat waiting for the others. When they got to the car, Martin was horribly shaken, and they began to relate to me what had just transpired. As Martin exited the church, a white man pulled him aside and pulled out a gun. “There’s a church down the road for you, son. Do you understand?” As the story got out, the church split with half the church moving to a new location. Martin didn’t go back.
More and more I was pondering race and its grip on our society.
A few years later, when I was teaching again, Aneeta and I became best friends. Aneeta was black. We shared each other’s homes including her delicious “soul food” cooking and her Louisiana jambalaya, and we shared each other’s deepest joys, pains and dreams. It was through her that I came to understand the day to day racism with which the black community lives, not the news-making racism but the subtleties. It was then that I could feel for myself the difference between how she and I were treated, and I could feel the judging glares on me when I would pick up her children from their sports practices or dance lessons. And likewise, while her parents were always very kind to me, I was never allowed into their home because I was white.
During the past ten years I have become a strong advocate for all social justice. I am a founding sponsor of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington DC and of the Smithsonian’s future Museum of African-American History. My name is on the Wall of Tolerance at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama. I have watched every documentary and movie I can find on American slavery and the Civil Rights era. I have visited the International Civil Rights Museum and numerous slave landmarks. I recently had the honor of preaching in an African-American church for Martin Luther King Day.
We all have the power to mold our own stories and those of future generations. I’m proud when my mom picks up children of all races to take them to white-church Bible School. I’m proud of my daddy’s personal friendship with one of the Greensboro lunch counter four. I’m proud when my sister refuses with me to eat in the whites-only restaurant. I’m proud of my niece and nephew whose friendships know no color.
Racism angers me, and it frustrates me that most white people don’t even see it. A man in my former church had a joke for every moment, usually about black people. A pastor in my hometown, likewise. Both would tell you they are not racist, and I think they both believe it. Many friends and relatives are afraid when they find themselves somewhere where they are the racial minority, and many others readily believe the most ridiculous stories about our own U.S. president because racial fears cloud their thinking. A relative calls the whites-only restaurant his favorite place to eat. Another shocked me with the affirmation that she was glad her family had moved because one of the children was hanging out too much with “coons.” Another said people should be more careful who’s around when they say “things.” My question is why do they ever need to say “things,” but I know the answer. We say the “things” that are in our hearts, the “things” that reflect our own understanding or ignorance, and the “things” with which we think those around us will agree.
I tell my students though that there’s no shame in ignorance. We do not choose our heritage, and ignorance just means we don’t know better. But once our conscience has confronted us, we can no longer claim ignorance. We choose who we will be. God is love. Red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight. Do the pieces of my life fit together?
White people are not “my people.” I am not defined by my skin color, although I have lived a privileged life because of it. I am sorry that people who share my skin color have, throughout our nation’s history, treated other human beings as sub-human. Mostly though I am sorry, deeply painfully and irreparably sorry, to Pam for that day on the fourth grade playground, when I was one of them.
*Most names in this blog have been changed.
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