How a Victim of Racism Became a Perpetrator


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.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “How a Victim of Racism Became a Perpetrator

  1. Edmund Metheny

    Chris,

    Hurting people hurt others. This woman was hurting and wanted to hurt you.

    As a white guy working for years with a predominantly black population, I’ve had the charge of racism thrown up in my face more than once (sometimes it seemed like I’d hear it every week). It is a great accusation for someone to throw out, particularly in a professional setting, because nobody can afford not to take it seriously.

    Like you, I have some racist history in my family (do NOT get me started on my West Virginia kin!). The first thing I always asked myself when facing charges of racism was “is it true?” Don’t misunderstand me – I never considered myself a racist – but there is something insidious about bad behavior we experience as children. It can be a behavior we later consciously reject, but still lurks in our subconscious.

    We aren’t in the other person’s shoes. We are the privileged. It is unlikely that we will ever – EVER – be the victims of racism in the way that many minorities are in the United States. Since it is something that we will seldom, if ever, experience first hand, we must take very seriously the opinions and statements of people who DO experience racism first hand every day of their lives simply by virtue of living in a society where discrimination is still far too common.

    That said, while I believe that while those of us who are opposed to racism owe it to its victims to consider any such accusation with all due seriousness, I don’t believe that all charges of racism are valid. People can and do throw such charges around for a variety of reasons, and an actual charge that you are behaving in a racist manner is only one of them. This accusation clearly distressed and hurt you, and that may have been the whole point of it – to hurt you, to upset you. It’s an understandable reaction – she needed something from you, and you told her to come back later. The conversation could have been repeated in any one of an endless series of encounters. It is the same feeling we all get in similar situations – when we show up at the pharmacy to pick up a prescription and find that they are closed for lunch, when we get bad service at a restaurant, when customer service reps are rude. I feel that way sometimes when someone cuts me off in traffic. Anything that makes us angry tempts us to respond in anger, to say hurtful things not because they are true or valid, but simply because they are hurtful.

    Bottom line here is this – someone came to you for help, for whatever reason you weren’t able to help them, and that person got angry and lashed out at you. The thing to do now is to ask yourself “Having gone through this, is there anything I would do differently in the future?” Would you make different decisions, say different things, do different things? How can you learn from this situation and make improvements for the future? Perhaps there isn’t anything and you handled the situation as well as possible. Sometimes things just don’t work out, and as a pastor, a husband, and a father you have responsibilities to many people and must juggle them constantly. Then again, maybe you might learn something, receive some insight, grow, and improve.

    • Ed, the lesson learned for me is the power of words and another glimpse of our ugly history of racism in America. It infects so much of our public discourse. In later reflection, I could see that her charge was an angry lash back, even manipulation.

      I’ve heard the argument that privileged people (in this case white middle class people like you and me) cannot cry foul as loudly towards racism pointed towards them as the classes and races of people their race/class has oppressed. I’m sympathetic towards that argument, but I don’t wholly agree. Racism is racism. No racism is excusable. It could be understandable or explainable, but that doesn’t make it excusable. Therefore, racism of any kind is never tolerable.

      I also saw first hand how racism is cyclical and mutually infecting. My ancestors began it in our country’s history and are the greatest offenders as the oppressor. But counter racism only adds fuel to the fire of racial tension. Racism begets racism just as easily as violence begets violence, abuse begets abuse, the oppressed rising to become the oppressor.

      Things like this happen to me, and yes, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn and grow. I don’t think I would have done anything differently, no. I just hope I learned the lessons I was meant to learn!

  2. Robert E walker, Jr.

    My brothers,
    As a Black man living here in America i can say that not all the times a person says you are acting racist they are trying to hurt you. There can be an air that is unconsciously given off that tells those who have experienced racism that this is it. One of the things you said Chris was that “Reluctantly I answered the door.” Your reluctance was evident and the woman pick it up. She came to the church, the “Body of Christ” for help and receive a relucant pastor who was more concerned about worship service Sunday than a person in need today and dismissed her and her need with a I will make an appointment for you to see me later.
    Later could have meant her demise. We don’t know. She could be like the homeless man Bishop Schol has talked about in one of his emails. The man died while the church was discussing what to do about him.
    What she saw was another white person devaluing her need to be treated as a human being and at least be heard. The question that comes to mind is “What would Jesus do?” He would have taken the time to hear her and minister to her. You did neither.
    Don’t get me wrong, I struggle with when should i help. I am learning that there is no time like the present. god had a blessing for you to receive by helping her, you may have turned Jesus away from finding His love through you and your response.

    Robert E Walker, Jr.
    Decolores!

    • Robert- You know I love you and love your heart. That’s why I can openly say that there are things in your reply that I simply cannot accept. I can, however, accept your premise that calling out someone’s actions as racially motivated are often genuine and are not meant to wound so much as to call out an act of abuse and injustice. I also know what a blessing it is to stop my schedule to help someone to discover Christ in a way I did not expect.

      But there a couple of presumptions you’ve made here that are simply not true.

      First, I do go out of my way and break my schedule a lot to help people in crisis situations. Situated in the city of Laurel, my church has a reputation for being a church who will do everything we can to help people in need. Just today, I worked with four different people to keep them from being on the street tonight. On Monday, I’m helping a mother and her five children, two of whom have special needs, from being on the street. And the day and week are not over yet. This is not bragging, and I don’t normally talk about this kind of thing. My only point is that a potion of almost everyday is spent helping people in crisis, and as we all know, crisis is rarely ever scheduled!

      In the case of this woman, I sincerely was not in a position to help anyone since I had work that needed to get done– work that had been delayed from the numerous emergency cases I had to handle during Holy Week. And you know how busy that week is!

      She read my reluctance, yes, but presumed and presumed quite wrongly that my reluctance was racially motivated. And that is giving her the benefit of a lot of doubt. Having gotten to know lots and lots of people in crisis situations and how they behave, my intuition tells me that she invoked racism as a way of manipulating me. She was aiming to hurt me, and she was successful. By calling me a racist, she in turn used racism, trying to use that terrible charge to her advantage because I’m white and she’s black.

      I also came to learn from talking to other local clergy colleagues, that they have encountered this same person and that she repeats this kind of behavior, accusing racism if a white pastor won’t assist her in the way she asks. I feel badly for her. I mourn for her.

      I think what truly hurt at that time was that the charge of racism seemed to be used as a form of manipulation. I agree with what others have said. This is a hurt woman, and hurt people tend to hurt others. There’s no doubt in my mind that she has been victimized by racism and probably other horrors I know nothing about. To survive, she uses pushiness and manipulation, and I admit, she used it well on me.

      I’m no absolute authority on this subject, and I admit I’m coming at this subject from the perspective of my race and culture. But I can recognize racial attitudes when I see them, and I know what a serious charge racism is when attached to someone, and rightfully so. This is all the more reason why we must all be careful with our words and presumptions. Racism feeds on hasty or long held, ill-informed presumptions!

      • Robert E Walker, Jr

        My Brother,
        I love you too and I think I know you enough to say that you are a man of integrity and will help people at the drop of a hat. I have no doubt of this. My point was and is that Jesus, or example would have dropped everything then to minister to her right then and there. The consideration of Holy week work and getting things done for service would have taken a back seat to the need of this woman.

        The statement was made from a position of being hurt and she may have been trying to manipulate you. I liken her to the woman in the parable who kept coming to the man to get help until she finally received it. All I am saying to you is what is more important a life or preparing worship? Just wanting us both to look at where our oriorities maybe. I too have turned persons away because of what i was doing and realized that I was called to help those in need when they come to me. This is a difficult position to be in when I look at the things I want to get done and then have to do something else.

        I understand you position and her’s too. Where can just begin to roll down for her like a running river? Somethings to think about!

        Love you Man!
        Robert
        PS Play hard and well tonight!

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