Where: Chaucer class.
When: Spring 2002
Who: Me, my buddy Richard, and the middle-aged classmate whose name escapes my memory.
What: Richard, always a wild card, had decided to share with us about the time he was thrown in the slammer for DUI. Not the typical intro into a graduate-level discussion of The Canterbury Tales. But somehow, between bipolar disorder and PTSD from Vietnam, his social filter had disappeared, and so we got the unfiltered version of him, somewhat like the unfiltered cigarettes he rolled during Elizabethan Poetry and Prose class.
The tale was in full swing, complete with Richard’s descriptions of being drunk and his jail cell. I sharpened my elbows, prepared to jab Richard’s ribs if he got too out of control. (This happened frequently.)
Our classmate was a serious man. He dressed in suits, behaved properly, and was as completely unlike a criminal as I could imagine. He shook his head slowly. “I hope I am never jailed,” he said soberly. “I pray I never have to go through that.”
He said it as if jailtime was a distinct possibility. Why, I wondered, would he worry about that?
A series of realizations tumbled through my mind:
He’s afraid he’ll go to jail, even if he’s innocent.
I know nothing about being non-white in America. Nothing.
My own ignorance hadn’t gone unnoticed. Two years before, I had had a similar revelation while reading The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I read Douglass’s description of a whipping and had a physical reaction: my body hurt.
I flinched, paused to take in my surroundings—blue sky outside, glass window beside me, cold to the touch—before I forced myself to continue reading.
A second awakening happened at Walmart. As I walked in, I looked around and noticed the skin color of almost everyone else here wasn’t the same as mine. I’m the only white person here, I thought, and felt apprehension fill me. Then I was shocked. Why would I be apprehensive about being the only white at the entrance of Walmart?
A second question: Was this how many African-Americans felt when they were the only black in a room of white people?
Then a third question: Was I racist if I felt uncomfortable around people of a different race?
The answer made me ache.
Racism had torn apart my extended family when I was young. I remember sitting on the kitchen floor, crying, because I knew that it was wrong for anyone to hate another person for their skin color, wrong for family to be split in this way, wrong because God loves all people.
“Jesus loves the little children,” my little girl self sang in Sunday school, “all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight . . .”
Was it possible that a deep-rooted prejudice against minorities was planted in my own heart?
All of us are capable of prejudice.
When this ugly beast raises its head in my heart, it’s shocking and repulsive because it tells me how hateful I am capable of being. It is tempting to look away from this uncomfortable truth (like looking in a mirror and then forgetting my appearance when the reflection disappears from view.)
But it’s also an opportunity.
- First, it’s a chance to admit the depth of my sin and my need for Christ.
- Second, it’s a chance to struggle against this sin. Learning more about the people I am prejudiced against is a good start. (It’s not a guaranteed way of dispelling racism; it’s possible to hate someone even when we know them well.)
I signed up for African-American literature that fall. Maybe this wasn’t the most effective method, but I respond to literature, and this class seemed as good a start as any.
For the first time, I saw my own behavior as a white American reflected back at me from a non-white perspective. Some of my thought patters were racist, even when I didn’t intend them to be. It would be hard not to see that while I read books like Native Son or Their Eyes Were Watching God. It would be hard not to be uncomfortable in my white skin while I read the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, Imanu Amiri Baraka, or Countee Cullen.
Even when I meant well, I still might be doing something wrong. I might be trying to “speak” for the black community. (As if I understood the experience of being non-white—which I didn’t—and as if no one else could speak for him/herself—which wasn’t true.)
For example, during this time I went to a church (predominately white) where I knew several people who were racist. Some made remarks that blatantly misunderstood the African-American community. The remarks made me cringe; the appropriation of Bible verses to defend their stances against interracial marriage made me angry.
I wanted to say something because I didn’t want silence to be seen as agreement. But how could I correct the racist statements without trying to speak “for” other people who weren’t present? Also, these church people were my only “friends”; I desperately wanted them to accept me, and I was afraid that if I disagreed, they would reject me.
Sadly, I let my fear of rejection stop up my mouth. I let my fear of saying the wrong thing keep me from saying anything. I was afraid. I was silent.
My silence hurt me as much as anyone else. I lost the chance to confront the ugliness in my own heart—of racism and fear—and lost the chance to be honest with my fellow believers about the sin in their lives, too. I don’t have contact with any of them now.
If I did and if that conversation occurred again, I hope I would say:
You’re wrong. Look at the Bible. Look at how Jesus treats others. Do your attitudes reflect Jesus? Do mine?
I can’t speak for other people. I can’t pretend to understand what it’s like to have a different skin color.
But I can tell you this: Jesus loves us. He loves people of every race. He loves us when we’re racist and prejudiced and hateful.
But he loves us too much to let us to remain comfortable in that prejudice. He gives us the power to change so we learn to love others the way he does.
That’s what he’s teaching me. I hope that’s what he’s teaching you, too.