It was Saturday afternoon, and I came into the church office for several hours of work on a tight schedule. After being off for a week following Easter, I felt the pressure of all this work to be done. Needless to say, unscheduled phone calls or visits were not at all on my radar screen. But Murphy decided to intervene. Just as I was about to walk into the church office, someone knocked on the front door. Ah, shoot… I was caught! I didn’t know her, and I’ve been around here long enough to know that this was most likely someone coming to the church for help. Ugh…
Reluctantly I answered the door, and a woman, a middle-aged African American woman, who looked somewhat familiar to me asked to come in because she needed to talk. What was I going to do? Helping people is my business after all, but lately, I’ve also been tempering my personal/professional boundaries, too. I can’t let every random thing that pops up derail essential things, in this case getting ready for a Sunday morning.
I apologized to the woman and told her that I was very busy at the moment. She persisted, so I offered to set up an appointment to come in and talk. She declined that offer and then went on to trash me.
“Oh wait, I remember you,” she said. “I came by here before, and you were nasty.” Then I remembered why she looked familiar. “I remember your predecessor,” she said. “He was nice, but my, how things change. You’re just nasty.”
Once again, I offered to set up an appointment.
That was followed by, “You know what, I think I’m going to call Bishop Schol.” That’s my bishop. So I told her that when she calls, make sure to tell him that I offered an appointment.
To that, she said, “No, you’re just nasty. I can tell you don’t like black people.” Ouch. At that, I closed the conversation.
She could have said just about anything else, and it would have rolled right off of me. But a racist… Like a hot knife through butter, that accusation seared right through any thick skin I thought I had. I live in a highly multicultural, multiracial area. I love it! I am so happily blessed to pastor a multiracial, multicultural congregation. My leadership team and staff are purposefully diverse, and I still don’t think we’re nearly diverse enough.
So to be called a racist… I could call myself any number of unpleasant things or allow other people to label as they will, fairly or not. But to be accused of racism, bigotry, exclusiveness– that is a serious charge that carries hundreds of years of historically heavy, painful weight. Her charge felt like Lex Luthor throwing a chain of kryponite around Superman’s neck. I’m no Superman, but I did feel crumbled down by the paralyzing weight of that single charge: you’re a white racist.
This is particularly wounding for me because I do come out of a family and community environment where racism was strongly present. My father’s family hails from Virginia. Racial stereotypes towards African Americans with an easy use of the n-word were the norm, rarely questioned. My grandfather Owens and his fathers harbored strong racism, and my maternal grandparents who came from Kansas had some racial attitudes, partly generational, partly regionally based. I grew up in the central and southern parts of Anne Arundel County where racial segregation is still culturally and geographically in force. I had friends who loved to tell racial jokes, and operated under typical white attitudes towards black people.
All of that did fundamentally shape me. How could it not? Divorcing myself from those attitudes came from an intentional process of getting to know and befriending people whom I had only understood through the lens of racial and ethnic stereotypes. Confronting my own ignorance and racial attitudes was a painful process, and sometimes it still is. I have had to own up to the racism I inherited and continually unearth and discard layers of ignorance and scorn when that twin-headed dragon rears its ugly head.
There’s no doubt my transformation continues. For example, if one of my daughters comes home with an African American boyfriend, I admit there would probably be a struggle to work through my initial knee-jerk reaction: wishing somehow she had chosen someone of her own race. This would require one more step away from my inherited racism. (Of course, matters aren’t helped by the whole boyfriend ordeal, which is always hardest on fathers!)
But clearly, the sin and disease of racism has a way of infecting everyone, perpetrators and victims.
There’s no doubt the woman I encountered had been victimized and wounded by racist attitudes and behaviors in the past. Certainly her family, friends, and neighbors share the same experience, too. Minority people groups have lived it, can sense even the slightest aroma of it, and come to expect that it will happen again. I simply can’t imagine those deeply ingrained wounds and dread which many carry for simply having a certain skin color and hailing from a particular ethnicity and social class.
Wounded victims pose a high risk of becoming perpetrators. People give out what they’ve been given. If you’re hated enough by a group of people, chances are, out of self-defense, you’ll hate them back. If you’re singled out and treated with fear, suspicion, and scorn by a people who don’t know you and whom you don’t know, it’s all the more likely you’re going to return the favor with your own brand of fear, suspicion, and scorn.
Racism, like so many other forms of abuse, is a vicious cycle.
Take the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin. This story has already been discussed ad nauseum, and when these things happen, I rarely add to the punditry. So much has already been said to not miss my 2-cent opinion. But that last sentence of mine makes the point. So much has been said by all the usual voices, and I have found little of to be helpful.
After George Zimmerman, whose race and ethnicity are sketchy at best, gunned down Trayvon Martin, my first though was, “How absolutely terrible for a teen to lose his life like that.” But then after the killing began to be labelled a murder with charges of racism and racial stereotyping coming to question, my next thought was, “Oh no… Here we go again.”
Too much is assumed that isn’t clearly known. People raise the serious charge of racism, met with counter-complaints of racism or using this tragedy for dubious motives. Meanwhile, we’re still sorting out the actual, unknown facts of what happened. Who knows, other than George Zimmerman and God, what really motivated him to gun down Trayvon Martin? It was clearly fear, but his fear of what? Don’t answer that too quickly. Fear smiles at a quick answer.
Actually, Trayvon Martin’s parents have offered the most helpful reaction to the killing of their son. This grieving family simply wanted an arrest and a prosecution. They got that, and rightly so. Now they want a peaceful resolution and justice to be done. I’m praying for that, as I have been. And I’m praying for myself and other leaders to do the right thing in moving those we lead through this tragedy that has taken a young man’s life and has ripped open deep scars for many more. A peaceful resolution, hoped for by Martin’s family, is the best thing I can aspire to work for, too.
Well, I said I wasn’t going to add to the punditry on Trayvon Martin’s death, but I guess I couldn’t resist offering some “punditry on the punditry” illustrating the ongoing disease of racism and racial tension– victims who beget perpetrators who beget victims who beget perpetrators.
After being labeled a racist, myself now wounded by racism, I had to stop myself from being the wounded victim who rails against “all those angry, hateful black people who refuse to let go of the past.” Isn’t that also an ill-informed racial stereotype, racism just as ignorant and destructive as my visitor’s ill-informed assumption about me? God help us all.
Will we choose to counter racism with new racism, or will we do the hard work of being a peacemaker who bridges divides between people? The later is hard work and few choose it, but according to Jesus, being a peacemaker has an awesome reward attached to it (Matthew 5:9). We get a new label beyond black or white: children of God.