Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapters Two and Three

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Chapter 2: “Childhood In White”

In this chapter, Irving shares how her family valued the importance of being accomplished, staying busy, having a good attitude, being complaint free and restraining emotions (displays of anger, pride, sadness, anger, jealousy and fear) which conditioned her to become “deeply uncomfortable around people who exhibited any of the disapproved emotions, especially anger.” The emotional numbness, she writes, had “huge implications for racism” which she learned much later in life and will explore in an upcoming chapter.  She closes Chapter 2 with the question:

What values and admonitions did you learn in your family? Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions, and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values and unspoken beliefs. … Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system

  1. God is love and God wants us to love one another and be helpful, courteous, kind and merciful.
  2. Lying, cheating and stealing is wrong
  3. Save your money, don’t waste it like other people do
  4. It’s not like the good ole days where you can walk on downtown streets safely without getting robbed or shot
  5. Get a good education and job, follow the rules/behave and work hard to avoid laziness, poverty, digging ditches, drugs, crime, jail, being sent off to war
  6. Guns keep us safe and it’s our right to shoot someone in self defense if they break into our home or threatens us with violence
  7. The homeless aren’t interested in jobs because they refuse to do menial tasks like sweeping streets
  8. Democratic party and leaders on local, state and national level are crooked and not to be trusted
  9. There’s a difference between black people and the “n-word” (i.e. blacks who were poor and lazy, criminals, crooked politicians, political activists like the Black Panthers and foul-mouthed trouble makers like rappers and some comedians.)
  10. Gay is not normal and goes against God’s teachings in scripture

I didn’t draw any conclusions about people who didn’t appear to follow my family’s belief system because everyone around us held the same beliefs and values–relatives, neighbors, church members, and school teachers (all of whom were white). Spoken and unspoken.  I did, however, become quite paranoid and suspicious of anyone who was “other” unless they met the approval of the authority figures in my life. I also believed for a long while that certain places were more dangerous and violent because of the poor and people of color.

I never felt comfortable despising and hating people who were different than me and I always questioned the validity of several of the values and admonitions that were spoken, although I never dared to express them out loud.

Mostly, I was just scared and doubtful about the world and other people and surroundings that were foreign to me, and I sort of resigned to the notion that if I simply behaved and did what I was told, I would live a good and successful life and not have to experience any of the scary stuff of the world.

Chapter 3: “Race Versus Class”

Irving posits that both race and class are real issues that matter,and shouldn’t be pitted against another:

Trying to determine which one is the ‘real’ issue does a disservice to both. Concluding class is the real issue would give me permission to avoid thinking about race. Similarly, assuming race is the most significant issue overlooks the complications faced by white people caught in a vicious cycle of poverty. Both can trap people in a kind of second-class citizenship. If you can’t get the education you need to get a job to pay for healthy food, medical care, transportation, and a home in a neighborhood with good schools, then you can’t educate your children in a school that will prepare them for a job that will…and so on. Any cycle that traps someone in a state of perpetual disadvantage is the real issue for the people experiencing it. And yet race and class are inextricably linked….

Until I understood the impact skin color can have on one’s life, I wasn’t able to consider racism in combination with other factors that influence one’s culture. The culture that shapes people are breathtakingly complex when you consider all that goes into them. Era, geographical location, language, level of education, ethnic heritage, race, gender, sexual orientation, income, wealth, religion, health, family personalities and professions, birth order, hobbies and sports provide multiple variables that mix and match to create a unique culture in each and every family and each and every person. ..When it comes to culture, the only thing we all have in common is that we have one, and it shapes us….

Yet race stands apart from the variables listed above. Not only is race visible and permanent; it’s come to act as a social proxy for one’s value in American’ society. White has long stood for normal and better, while black and brown have been considered different and inferior. Social value isn’t just a matter of feeling as if one belongs or doesn’t; it affects one’s access to housing, education, and jobs, the building blocks necessary to access the great American promise–class mobility.

At the end of the chapter, Irving asks:

Class is determined by income, wealth (assets), education, and profession. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director at Class Action, suggest these categories as a way of thinking about class: Poverty, Working Class, Lower-Middle Class, Professional Middle Class, Upper-Middle Class, Owning Class. How would you characterize your parents’ class? Your grandparents’ class? Your class as a child? Your class now? What messages did you get about race in each?

I would characterize my family as being Professional Middle Class–Like my parents, I grew up with a roof over my head in a suburban neighborhood (that was completely white), nice clothes, plenty of food, summer vacations to the beach, presents for birthdays, Christmas, Easter and even Valentine’s Day in addition to the occasional purchase of a toy or book during the year. We had access to public schools and could afford luxuries like dinner at a restaurant, a TV and cable (as well as the latest tech gadget), more than two cars, a swing set in our backyard, a yard and trees to play in, etc.

My paternal/maternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents, having grown up during the Depression as Working Class, felt the desire to be more generous to their offspring as they moved into the Professional to Upper-Middle Class as adults. Both sets of grandparents regularly took us to the movies. Both grandfathers took us to UAB basketball games. My maternal grandparents took us to Atlanta Braves games and Six Flags less than a handful of times. They also owned a modest vacation house at The Still Waters Resort in Dadeville, Alabama where we would go for the weekend, usually for an Auburn Tigers football game 20 minutes away in Auburn. My paternal grandparents were in the Upper-Middle Class due to their business success in waste management services (and later other ventures) and thus were able to afford a condominium in Florida along with two charter fishing boats. We spent many summers on the beach and going deep sea fishing.

Granted, my younger brother and I never got everything we asked from our parents and grandparents. If we got a hole in our jeans, they got patched up. My brother got a lot of my clothes that I outgrew instead of new ones. We had to do chores and earn an allowance and save our money. Their was a strong belief in making purchases last until they went kaput, i.e. cars, appliances, furniture and so on.

Often we had to share our toys. Restaurant outings were special occasions, not a weekly or monthly splurge. (Although, we did have steak and potatoes almost every Saturday night growing up.) The only place we traveled to outside of Alabama was Florida with the exception of two trips my maternal grandparents planned:  A visit to Alberta, Canada for the Calgary Stampede and Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park when I was 11 and the California coast when I was 15 or 16.

We never lacked anything and we were taught to be appreciative of what we had and to not be greedy for more stuff. And yet, the message that members of my family relayed, directly and indirectly, was that people of color often couldn’t succeed because they weren’t willing to work hard, didn’t follow the rules, were greedy and unappreciative.  That notion always bugged me, even though I admit to believing it at times when I was a teen and young adult. I realized in college and beyond that this was a giant misconception.

Today, our family of me, my wife and our two children, 8-year-old daughter and nearly 3-year-old son, is Professional Middle Class. We have everything we need. We don’t have a second vacation home but we can afford to take trips every summer to the beach, go to the movies on occasion, have iPhones, iPads, laptop computers and maintain three cars. We’re privileged to have my mother-in-law live with us to help take care of our children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum and one who has some development delays. She helps cover costs for special needs therapy and provides for the family in other ways through retirement savings. Education and basic necessities are met every day and then some. We have a nice home in a suburban neighborhood that is tad more diverse than mine growing up.

I’ve realized from all of this that while a lot of hard work is responsible for our status and comfortable living, we have been privileged as whites to have the access to be in the Professional Middle Class. My family now and then has opportunities many people of color don’t have. I’m much more aware of that reality and that one’s lack of status or designation in a respectable class doesn’t mean people aren’t working hard or being good citizens or living good values.  And I don’t feel more deserving of what I have earned and been given than someone else who struggles to gain opportunities and needs they deserve and should be given.  

I hope I’m teaching my own children how to be aware of their privilege and also not judge others who are denied opportunities because of their race and class. And as they grow older, I also hope that I’m able to show them how to knock down racial and class barriers and work toward equity for the poor, the oppressed and cultures that have been denied many benefits from a majority white system.

 

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Together at the Table

A Sermon for September 1, 2013, Hebrews 13:1-2, 7-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1,7-14

This past Wednesday, August 28, marked the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The event—one of the largest political rallies for human rights in our nation’s history—was a defining moment in the civil rights movement for African-Americans in the U.S. as it challenged rampant economic and political repression.

Organized by civil rights, labor and religious groups, the March on Washington paved the way for the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It was during the March on Washington that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a 34-year-old African-American preacher and civil rights activist from Atlanta, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what is probably the greatest speech of the 20th century—I Have A Dream.

The March attracted 200-300,000 participants who united in one voice for racial harmony and justice during a deeply violent, ugly and divisive time.

Spokespeople for the National Council of Churches and the Council of Churches of Greater Washington called for all-out participation from member churches (Mainline Protestants, Orthodox, African-American, Evangelical, Quakers, Mennonites). Some of the churches helped by doing the simplest act—making and serving food.

Congregations like Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Sharp Street Memorial Church in Baltimore provided a hot breakfast with eggs, bacon, muffins and coffee to caravans of buses passing through the city to the March. The Church of the Epiphany in Washington provided coffee to marchers on the day of the event and the Knights of Columbus put up $25,000 to feed and shelter marchers.

Food service crew workers. Credit: National Archives
Food service crew workers. Credit: National Archives

And church and organization leaders in New York City recruited more than 300 volunteers to come to Riverside Church in Harlem at 3 am to make 80,000 box lunches—a cheese sandwich, mustard, marble cake and an apple—that could be purchased by marchers for 50 cents. [1]

Working in shifts until 4 in the afternoon, the assembly line crew paused once for a few words from Dr. Robert Spike, director of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches[2]:

As an act of love, we now dedicate these lunches for the nourishment of thousands who will be coming long distances, at great sacrifice to say with their bodies and souls that we shall overcome.

Food was a symbolic and sacred part of the African-American civil rights movement…

Meals provided during rallies or handed out after a worship service or placed on the dinner table during a meeting in someone’s home gave sustenance to many weary souls who spent all of their days and nights fighting for equality.

Meals denied to people of color because they were unable to earn a fair wage and were banned from sitting at tables and counters in restaurants stirred up the cause against segregation and racism.

Peaceful sit-ins of the 1960s like the one in Greensboro, NC where four African-American male students sat at a lunch counter reserved for whites made the nation aware that more room should be made at the table for others.

And it was in black-owned restaurants in black-neighborhoods where civil rights leaders like King, former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and John Lewis, the U.S. Congressman from Georgia, would strategize over heaping plates of fried chicken, catfish, fried green tomatoes, collards and mac n’ cheese. “Some of the decisions that affected the direction of the country were made in that restaurant,” Lewis recalled to The New York Times in 1997.[3]

Gathering at the table with family, friends and even strangers can be life changing.

Many of you know this to be true from the meals you have provided through the fellowship and mission ministry of the church. The relationships you’ve formed through the stories you’ve told or listened to while breaking bread with others—whether at a luncheon in Fellowship after worship or while serving dinner to the homeless or when receiving a tortilla from a poor Honduran woman—have nurtured your faith and your relationship with God.

At the table, we realize that we are connected in our humanity to the person who sits on the other side of our plate. We recognize the presence of the Divine in those whom we share a meal. We see the beloved creation that God has made through the life-sustaining act of eating and drinking.

At the table we, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “let mutual love continue…show hospitality to strangers” and entertain “angels without knowing it.”

That’s why table fellowship is such an integral part of Jesus’ ministry to proclaim God’s love and justice for all people. Jesus uses the context of a meal to expose the unjust and unloving systems of the world that seek to oppress and dehumanize the strangers, the others.

Jesus, as the Gospel of Luke tells us, eats with sinners and tax collectors,[4] a sinful woman in the home of a Pharisee,[5] a crowd of 5,000 hungry people,[6] two sisters,[7] and disciples with dirty hands.[8]

During Jesus’ time, it was shameful to eat with those who lived on the margins of society. In those days, an invitation to banquet was more than an offer to eat. To get invited meant you had social and economic cred. You were cool. You were special. You had wealth, affluence, power and modern equivalent of 5,000 friends on Facebook and 43 million followers on Twitter. The host of a banquet only invited friends, family and rich neighbors who had been deemed to be honorable. And thus, the host’ status increased immensely for inviting the cool kids over to his house.

The poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, of course, were never invited because they were not considered to be cool or special.

But Jesus challenges this system by suggesting that a person truly receives honor when they express humility by associating with the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. In other words, Jesus says those who spend time eating with the poor and the broken are cool and special. Not the ones who ignore those in need and put their status and riches above all else.

In his 2006 book Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne says that Jesus is essentially telling us how to throw a party…the right way:

A few years ago, I caught a glimpse of the kind of party Jesus wants us to throw…Philadelphia had begun to pass anti-homeless legislation, making it illegal to sleep in the parks, illegal to ask for money, illegal to lie down on the sidewalks…One of the city’s boldest moves was passing an ordinance that banned all food from Love Park, a place where homeless folks hung out. And they began fining those of us who continued to share food. …We started wondering what in the world it meant to love our neighbors as ourselves when they were being jailed for sleeping and eating…So we threw a party in Love Park. About a hundred of us gathered in Love Park with homeless friends. We worshipped, sang and prayed. Then we served communion, which was illegal. But with clergy and city officials there supporting us, and with police and the media surrounding us, we celebrated communion. Most of the police sat back and watched, not daring to arrest anyone, especially during communion. Then we continued the “breaking of the bread” by bringing in pizzas. It was a love feast and then we slept overnight in the park with our homeless friends. We did that week after week, with the police watching over us and the media standing by.

Eventually Shane and his friends were arrested for breaking the ordinance but a judge dismissed the charges, declaring the law unconstitutional.

But just last year, six years after the party in Love Park, the city of Philadelphia again passed an anti-feeding ordinance. Shane and other activists challenged it by hosting public picnics. They also brought a Catholic theologian to court to argue that feeding the poor is a sacrament. As Shane explained to a New York state newspaper[9]:

 We believe that we are feeding Jesus, and it is a violation of religious freedom to say, ‘You cannot do one of the most fundamental acts of human compassion, to feed someone who’s hungry,’

In one instance, their lawyer said, “We are not willing to come before God, and when God says, ‘Did you feed me?’ we’re not going to say, ‘Sorry, our mayor wouldn’t let us.’ ”

The no-feeding ordinance has since been declared a violation of religious freedom by a federal judge.

And yet people continue to fight unjust ordinances imposed by cities seeking to get rid of the homeless.

A similar challenge of anti-feeding laws occurred just last Sunday in Raleigh when police threatened volunteers from Love Wins Ministries—who have been passing out meals to the homeless in the city’s downtown park for the last six years—with arrest. [10]

A few days later, city leaders agreed to make an exception to the1998 law that prohibits the distribution of food without a permit by allowing chartable groups to feed the homeless in the park. City leaders have also pledged to work toward a long-term solution to addressing hunger and poverty issues in the city.

At the table, we can give honor to the downtrodden by scraping away rotten laws and serving heaps of love instead.

When you give a banquet,” Jesus says. “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.

That divine wisdom not only applies to how we treat the poor and broken, but how we act toward anyone who is different than us, especially those who are ostracized for their uniqueness.

The system of honoring the “cool” and “special” people occurs in a lot of places—schools, social media sites, workplaces, civic clubs, entertainment venues and even in churches.

Consider the school setting for a moment and ask yourself what might happen if you took a cue from Jesus’ instruction on how to throw a party and applied it to daily life?

What would it be like to invite the quiet, loner kid to sit with your group in the lunchroom?

What would it be like to reach out to someone who is completely different than you in every way?

What would it be like to ask a kid who wears hand-me down clothes to come to a birthday party where most of your friends wear designer T-shirts and jeans?

What would it be like to tweet something kind about another student who rarely gets noticed?

What would it be like to speak out against hunger, poverty, violence, abuse, prejudice and hatred?

What would it be like if you honored and served the people who are trampled and cast to the side?[11]

Martin Luther King was answering that question—What would it be like?—when he delivered that historic speech half a century ago.

What would it be like?

 I HAVE A DREAM… of what it would be like

"The Table of Brotherhood" by James E. Ransome for "I Have A Dream" (Illustrated Edition) by Martin Luther King Jr., 1997
“The Table of Brotherhood” by James E. Ransome for “I Have A Dream” (Illustrated Edition) by Martin Luther King Jr., 1997

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood….I have a dream today.

Like King and many Christians who walk in his footsteps, we too have a dream of how things can and will be. We have a vision of a time in which all people regardless of sex, race, creed, religion, economic status and sexual orientation can come together at the table in mutual love.

That vision is what Jesus referred to as the kingdom of God.

“People will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God,” Jesus reminds us in another passage from Luke’s gospel.

From different backgrounds, cultures, economic circumstances and life experiences, we come together at table—this communion table where all are honored and served.

We come in our humanness—with all of our joys and pains—to be connected to one another and God together at this communion table.

We come in our humility to share the bread and the cup—sacred reminders that Jesus is with us and that Jesus unites us in a community of love that is

forever laboring

forever sharing

forever dreaming,

and forever honoring.

And at every table we join together after this one,

we do so knowing that God is always present among us—

inspiring us to create something new and

beckoning us to forever make room for one more.

Amen.


[1] http://www.foodasalens.com/2013/08/churches-and-1963-march-on-washington.html. The Food As Lens blog is also referenced in the NPR article, footnote no. 3.

[4] Luke 5:29-39, 15:1-2, 19:1-10

[5] Luke 7:36-50

[6] Luke 9:12-17

[7] Luke 10:38-40

[8] Luke 11:37-42

[11] Inspired/adapted from the Working Preacher blog post “The Kingdom of God…at School.” August 26, 2013, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2719