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.

 

Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapter One

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In an attempt to be more aware of my privilege as a white male and discern the ways in which I can start dismantling racism in my life and relationships, I’ve decided to write reflections that answer the questions posed at the close of each chapter of the compelling book Waking Up White by Debbie Irving. The book was recommended to me (and a multitude of folks) by co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) of which I serve as an ordained minister of the word and sacrament:

 

 

Waking Up White is composed of 46 chapters divided into nine sections.The first section is Childhood In White and Chapter 1 is titled “What Wasn’t Said.”

Debby shares how her mother, school and the media of the time presented a single perspective about race that didn’t ever encourage her to dig deep enough in the history of other cultures, like Native Americans to understand them as something more than stereotypes.  Then she asks the reader:

What stereotypes about people of another race do you remember hearing and believing as a child? Were you ever encouraged to question stereotypes?

I grew up with a lot of stereotypes as a child and youth about African-Americans, Middle-Easterners, Asians, Hispanics and LGBTQ–from the time I was 7 years old in 1983 till I turned 18 in 1994. 

I shared some of those stereotypes about African-Americans in a sermon I preached on racism in early 2015: “As God’s Chosen.”  Additionally, I was taught that most African-Americans were lazy, crooked, foul mouthed, violent troublemakers who didn’t care about cleanliness or speaking proper English. Middle-Easterners, particularly the people living in Iran, Libya, etc. were called “dune coons” and considered to be evil, murderous terrorists. And gays and lesbians were viewed as perverts who lived unnatural lives of debauchery or were just plain weird.

Now, Asians and Hispanics were appreciated for their cuisine and some cultural contributions to society like math, science and art, but were often mocked for speaking a different language, not speaking English well and for their appearance (eyes, facial hair, clothes). But like African-Americans, they were also mis-characterized as lazy, violent, etc. Asians were also believed to be extremely uptight and strange for their beliefs in Buddha instead of the Judeo-Christian God.

The stereotypes I learned were reinforced by some TV shows and movies of the 80s and the educational system. Most African-American were viewed as incompetent and unimportant unless they were talented entertainers, did menial labor (cafeteria work, trash collecting, maid services, etc) or excelled at sports.

I began questioning and challenging stereotypes when Bonkey McCain and his family joined our Presbyterian church in suburban Birmingham-becoming the first African-American members. And I was fortunate during my older teen years to have some church members, friends, High School youth group advisers and teachers  regularly encourage me to challenge stereotypes about race, culture, gender and sexual orientation. This education of open-mindedness and questioning continued during my college years and beyond.  My early career as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama from 1998-2001 and a seminary education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta from 2002-2005 deepened my understanding of social justice and the history of oppression and unjust systems.

By no means am I free of stereotypes. I still have painstaking moments where I entertain a prejudiced thought or change my behavior because my mind latches onto one of those terrible labels I was taught as a kid. And I certainly benefit (directly and indirectly) from a system of white privilege, supremacy and normalcy that continues to pervade our world. As such, I’m guilty for doing very little to say it’s wrong or work toward changing it.

Yes, I’ve spoken out against racism. I’ve preached about racism, justice and unity, invoking the words and lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Congressman John Lewis. I’ve posted articles on Facebook from Sojourners Magazine and other sources that talk about the injustice perpetuated toward African-Americans and how it is counter to the gospel and God’s vision of the beloved community.

However, I don’t do much more or champion against racism often enough. It’s mostly due to fear of what other whites will say or think if I start a conversation about race much less preach about it. I become uneasy thinking about how I might be accused of falsely judging another white person for being racist or having privilege. Of how I might be accused of being a trouble maker, a race baiter or having a biased, destructive liberal agenda.

To be honest, I have been accused of those things, even when I’ve spoken from the heart. And while others have affirmed and praised me for speaking out, I tend to focus on the ones who had a negative reaction and thus become paralyzed and afraid of saying more. (As a side note, my struggles with anxiety and depression, while not excuses, contribute to me withdrawing into my own corner and staying silent at times.)

On the other hand, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. A friend, a gifted writer and pastor,  wrote the following blog post in September entitled “The Five Things I Need From White People Right Now” The intriguing part, after reading the essay, is I’ve discovered that mostly all I’ve ever done in the past decade or so is No. 3–I’ve used my privilege for good; I’ve used my platform to speak out against racism. Not as frequently and often as other folks, but would be unfair to say I haven’t said anything.

I’ve also abided by No. 1 and 2. I don’t silence or dismiss the voices of blacks like Colin Kaepernik. I try more than I ever have before to listen to the thoughts and views of African-Americans.

But again, that’s not enough because I also have to be committed to No. 4 and No. 5 and continue to strive to do all 5 better and more consistently–engrain them in my life. 

And practicing No. 4 and No. 5 (loosely) is what I’m in the midst of figuring out now. Over the last year, I’ve immersed myself in black culture, not as a source of mere entertainment, but to really destroy the stereotypes and understand (up to a point) what African-Americans go through on a daily basis in a country and world that continues to mistreat them because they have brown and black skin. I’ve also done so to gain a deeper appreciation for the incredible contributions that African-Americans have made and to whom we all should be indebted for having such a rich world and life–endeavors in medicine, science, sports, architecture, music, art, literature, pop culture. 

My life is being shaped by The Steve Harvey Morning Show and Ed Gordon; Ta-nehesi Coates Between the World and Me and Marvel’s The Black Panther series; Drew G. Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing The Way The Church Views Racism; the work of James Baldwin; Beyone’s Lemonade, the TV shows Black-ish, Luke Cage, Atlanta and Speechless, the movies Dope, Dear White People and Selma and the (social media) voices of…

Rev. Denise Anderson, Rev. Margaret Aymer Oget, Charles Blow, Austin Channing, Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, Laura M. Cheitetz,  Carl Dukes, Ava DuVernay, Tre Easton, Omayra Gonzalez-Mendez, The Rev. Broderick Greer, Melissa Harris-Perry, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Jerrod Lowry, Deray McKesson, Rev. Otis Moss III, Brittany Packett, Hiram Perez-Cordero, Rev. Paul Roberts, Efram Smith, Jessica Vazquez Torres, Rev. Derrick Weston (and many, many more)

These incredible, creative people of God are encouraging me to question and smash the stereotypes.

My hope and prayer is that I can continue to be shaped by their voices; amplify their voices through the platforms that I have; and join mine with theirs to proclaim that their lives (and the lives of all people of color) matter too. 

Without their lives, without their fight for the freedom and right to live without fear of racism and intolerance, the rest of us are never truly free. We’re just bound up in the stereotypes and privilege that we as whites have created and pushed for centuries.

And so my journey of “waking up white” and continuing to find myself in the story of race moves onward…

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Dear White People by Justin Simien

Dear White People is one of the most important films of this day and age, and one of the best films of 2014. It was also snubbed by the white-centric Academy of Motion Pictures during Oscar time.  But, dear white readers of this blog, that doesn’t mean you have to snub it or the book which is equally wonderful and powerful companion piece of art. 

Justin Simien infuses the book, Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-racial Harmony in “Post-Racial” America with the same biting satire and wit that is found in his ground-breaking debut film. It’s the actualized version of Sam White’s commentary on her underground radio station at the fictional (but realistic Ivy-league) Winchester University. 

The book is a laugh-out-loud, thought provoking and convicting read. Although I have become more aware of my own prejudices and racist attitudes, this book shed more light on my whiteness and the privilege of my skin.  I was immediately taken aback by a paragraph in Simien’s introduction:

For black folks, being stereotyped is nothing new, but it typically can have a very real impact on their daily lives, even when it comes in the form of well-meaning gestures and questions from their white friends or colleagues like, “As a Black Person, why do you think people talk back to the screen in movies?” These are called “microagressions.” It’s not lynch-mob racism, but being spoken to or even treated in a kind way because of an assumption about your race by a member of a race that on the whole has cultural, political and economic control can feel unsettling.

This is one of many microagressions that I commit in my thinking or in conversations with other whites, and an assumption that, well, plainly put, makes me an ass for having such thoughts.

Amid the clever and humorous quizzes and charts where one can seriously discover microagression translations; determine whether you are “tokening your black friend”; and discern when it’s the right time to wear Blackface (ummm…never);  there are passages that hold the mirror of my racism up against my nose.

The section of the book that struck a deep chord with me was the chapter “Please Stop Touching My Hair,” in which Simien breaks down the racist implications in white people’s fascination with black people’s hair:

A white co-worker might wonder with admiration, no less, how a black woman can come to work with a Halle Berry-style pixie cut one day and a shoulder-length blow-out the next. “How does she do it?” this hypothetical white coworker might say motto voce. And while that’s a fair question, using your fingers to find the answer will only ensure that Sheryl in accounting will stop inviting you to lunch…

For some black people, being asked for permission to have their hair touched or, worse yet, having it touched by surprise elicits a visceral negative reaction. We can’t help it. According to the theories of Carl Jung…all of us have powerful genetic memories going back to our ancestors. Do not be surprised if a black person responds to a request to touch their hair by defiantly yelling out, “I AM KUNTA KINTE!” They are subconsciously recalling that scene in Roots where Geordi from Star Trek is being poked and prodded by a slave trader. Thus is the nature of genetic memory, probably.

tumblr_n971hrX0Tl1r8jjn6o1_500-1423262633Even if images from made-for-TV slavery stories aren’t the first things that come to mind for the person on the receiving end of all of this curiosity, the feeling of being on display at, say a petting zoo isn’t one anyone would want to feel at work, home, or play. Adding adorable phrases around the request doesn’t help either. Whether you’re saying, “Wow, that’s beautiful; may I?” “Your little naps are so cute!”; or “Lower yo’ head, boy, so Massa can inspect you,” it all comes across, more or less in the same way. There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this rule. In intimate relationships, for instance, it is natural.

The reason why this resonated–why I suddenly “got it”–is because of an incident that occurred about eight years ago at a Presbyterian Middle School Youth Conference in Virginia. A black seminary classmate, friend and fellow conference leader, shaved his head three days into the event. I and another friend (a white female and also a seminary classmate and conference leader) were so fascinated by his new look that we enthusiastically ran up to him and rubbed his head. Rightly so, he got angry and snapped back at us: “Don’t ever touch my head!” I remember feeling a sudden sense of guilt because I was unexpectedly scolded and also because I knew I’d done something wrong, although I wasn’t sure why. In the moment, my other friend and I thought he was being over-sensitive and we chalked it up to him just needing space or being tired/moody at that particular moment (which all of us get at conferences due to long hours, lots of high energy activities and little, little sleep).

But now I understand that what we did was wrong. We treated him like he was something on display, a pet at a petting zoo. This microagression (or maybe it was closer to a macro one) was even worse in the context–an all white conference in which he was the lone person of color. Although we didn’t realize it, our desire to rub his freshly buzzed head was racist. When I first read Simien’s words, I attempted to justify my actions, thinking that “Well, surely I would’ve rubbed the buzz cut of a good white friend who had shaved their head because a) it’s so dramatically different and b) buzz cuts feel cool. And maybe I have or would have. But a) that’s kind of creepy even if it’s a good white friend and b) the action doesn’t erase the fact that it’s wrong and racist to do that to a person who is black.  It’s a personal domain that shouldn’t be invaded and no one’s head, regardless of race and especially because of their skin color, should be on display for white hands.

To my friend, I’m sorry for violating your personal space and for offending you. And I lament that it took me this long to realize my wrongdoing.

The irony of this convicting book (which should also be read alongside the incredibly insightful But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow) is that white people shouldn’t need black people to educate them about their humanity as Simien expresses with a quote from Audre Lorde:

When Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity…the oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves…

And yet, at the same time, if I didn’t get the education I’d never be aware of my sins and shortcomings and be motivated to change for the better. I suppose the difference with me is that  I don’t expect other black people to educate me, but am open to the views of people who are different (race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, etc.)—views  and voices that will reshape my heart and understanding of the world I live in so I can be a better participant in it. So I can take responsibility for my own actions and find an alternative and non-oppressive position in which to stand.

This book has affected my perspective in ways that other books haven’t.  From sections on black myth busting and a deconstruction of the idea that we a post-racial society, I am seeing with new eyes.  Simian’s voice and art is to be treasured.

Be Revealed

A Sermon For January 19, 2014, Amos 5:24, Galatians 3:27-29, John 1:29-34

[Race Relations Sunday/Baptism of three sisters, 3, 2 and 9-months-old during the 11 am worship service]

In one of several emotionally packed scenes from the epic film 12 Years A Slave, Edwin Epps, who believes the Bible sanctions his right to abuse slaves, becomes enraged when he discovers that the young female slave Patsey left the plantation.  Upon her return, Patsey, who daily picks more than 500 pounds of cotton to avoid a beating, reveals to the fuming Epps that she went to another plantation to ask for soap so that she could bathe:

Epps, unwilling to believe her story and angry over her act of defiance, forces another slave, Solomon Northrup, to whip Patsey. Eventually Epps grabs the whip from Northrup and brutally lashes her. In essence, Epps like many slave owners of the time, refuses to recognize Patsy as a beloved creation who is claimed by a loving God in the waters of baptism.

12 Years A Slave-posterThe dehumanization of Patsey is taken from the pages of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir whose film adaptation recently netted a Best Picture Golden Globe Award and nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director, best actor, best supporting actress and best screenplay. 12 Years A Slave tells the true story of Northrup, an African-American musician from New York—a free man—who is kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

12 Years A Slave has garnered much attention for its accurate portrayal of one of the darkest periods in American history. And the notice the film is receiving is timely considering that many congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) commemorate Race Relations Sunday in their worship today as a way of honoring the birthday and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King on Monday.

Along with other 2013 movies like Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, the big screen retelling of Northrup’s life as an indentured servant has stirred up immense conversations and feelings about the occurrence of slavery and racial discrimination—both then and now.

Film critics and moviegoers have observed entire theaters sobbing throughout the entire 2 hours of 12 Years A Slave, including grown men covering their eyes or turning away during especially graphic scenes.

It’s remarkably powerful to think about how 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the history of that horrendous time can still evoke suck heartbreak and lament.  Quite possibly, we mourn the sins of the past because the same hateful mindsets thrive mightily in today’s climate.

While slave plantations are non-existent in this country and the nation is half a century removed from the days of segregation, lynching, vicious police dogs and water-hoses and the cross-burning Klan, slavery and racial discrimination creeps into every part of society nowadays.

We still live in a world where people fail to honor the love of Christ in another human being—

  • A report from the 2013 Global Slavery Index found that nearly 30 million people around the world are living as slaves.[1]
  • A U.S. government study reported in 2012 that more than 42,000 adults and children were found in forced prostitution, labor, slavery or armed conflict worldwide.[2]
  • Surveys conducted in 2013 by the renowned Pew Research Center showed that 46 percent of blacks and 16 percent of whites see “a lot of discrimination” toward blacks; And 70 percent of blacks and about 37 percent of whites say “blacks are treated less fairly in their dealings with the police.” [3]
  • Statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center which monitors hate and bigotry show that there are 939 hate groups operating across the country–a 56 percent increase since 2000 and the number of “Patriot” groups have increased dramatically in the last six years, from 149 to 1,360.[4]
  • Since January 2013, the news have been filled with stories of racial discrimination, racists attitudes and cultural assumptions:

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The Trayvon Martin case;

voters protesting the Supereme Court’s decision to strike down a section of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act;

Celebrity Chef Paula Deen who testified in a lawsuit deposition that she used the “n-word” and threw Old-South plantation-themed parties; and

Phil Robertson, the star of the hit reality TV series Duck Dynasty who told a reporter that the impoverished black adults he worked alongside as a teen were always happy, happy, happy and never complained about their civil rights.

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Megyn Kelly, the Fox News Anchor who insisted that everyone should accept that Jesus was a white man when he was actually a Galilean Jew born in Roman-Palestine;

African-American teen Christopher Rougier who was told by a teacher at his New Mexico high school that he couldn’t dress up as Santa because he was black;

An MSNBC segment in which host Melissa Harris-Perry (who is bi-racial) allowed a panel of guests poke fun at former Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandson; and

African-American actress Tamera Mowry who told Oprah Winfrey that she had been called “a white man’s whore” because her husband is white and they have a bi-racial child.

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New York-born Latino-American pop singer Marc Anthony, who traces his heritage to Puerto Rico, was widely blasted on Twitter for his rendition of God Bless America at the All-Star Game. Many felt that it was wrong for an illegal Mexican to sing an American song;

America’s Got Talent competitor, Sebastien De La Cruz, a 11-year-old who received similar criticism for singing the National Anthem in his native San Antonio during the NBA Finals between the Spurs and the Miami Heat. Several people on Twitter accused the boy of being an illegal who snuck into the country to sing the anthem;

Nina Davuluri, a native of New York who became the first contestant of Indian descent to be crowned the winner of the 2014 Miss America Pageant, was attached on social media for being an Arabic terrorist. Others ridiculed Nina for her family ties to India, labeling her “Miss 7-11”; and

Last week’s episode of the hit series How I Met Your Mother in which the all-white cast put on yellow make-up and dressed in stereotypical Asian attire to foster an ongoing gag about humorously slapping a good friend.

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Justine Sacco, a former PR executive for IAC Media Company, who made headlines by tweeting: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white;” and

Famous comedian Steve Martin who in response to a question about how to spell “lasagna” tweeted: “It depends. Are you in an African-American neighborhood or at an Italian restaurant?”

And pop legend Madonna, who on Friday (talk about sense of timing) used the n-word “as a term of endearment” in an Instagram photo of her white teenage son.

As Christena Cleveland, a researcher and social psychologist at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn, put it in a December magazine article:

There is still a long way to go. I don’t think people understand when we are separated; nothing good can come from that. All we do is misperceive each other. All we do is develop these boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ I don’t think a lot of majority-culture Christians understand how bad these issues really are.”[5]

Judging by the racial diversity of the congregation here at Pleasant Hill, I would surmise that many actually do understand how bad racial discrimination is these days.

At the same time, I also realize it’s easy for anyone to respond to these examples of racism by saying “Oh it’s not as bad as it was 50 years ago,” or “there are a few members in my family who use the n-word but that’s just an older generation that is set in their ways” or “you can’t judge racial tensions by the dumb and ignorant things people say on social media or TV.”

Maybe those responses have a ring of truth to them. But maybe the examples of racial discrimination I just mentioned also reflect the prejudice that occurs on a daily basis in average cities and neighborhoods across the country.

In case you’re unsure, let me offer personal stories from some non-white friends I spoke with this weekend about the ways they experience racial discrimination:

As a parent, I’ve had the opportunity to get know some of the church families whose children are my 5-year-old daughter’s peers, like Ted and Abby R. and their two children.

Ted, who is black and hails from Chicago, is a new elder on Session who serves on the Christian Education Committee. Abby, who is white and grew up in Oregon, is on CE’s Preschool Board and both parents teach church school.

This past August, Ted and his daughter were out shopping when Ted noticed another shopper react oddly to him.  Bewildered by the person’s actions, Ted immediately posted on Facebook: “Just had an old lady see me in Wal-Mart and clinch her purse. Shaking my head.”

……………………………….

One of the most valuable ministries here at the church is our partnership with Rainbow Village, which holds its After-School tutoring and mentoring program in the upstairs classrooms during the week.  The success of the program is due largely to the incredible leadership of its program director SB, an African-American mother of two grown boys and a grandmother of two toddlers.

SB said to me over the phone that what she often finds most disturbing is perceptions of who she is based on the color of her skin. She told me that over the years, some whites, after meeting her, would later remark privately to her employer about how Sondra is so well spoken and articulate. “They seem to be impressed that I’m not talking ebonics,” she said. “I wonder how they thought I’d be. Wouldn’t they think that if I work at Rainbow Village, I would be professional?”

SB says that while she believes race relations have come a long way, there is still more to be done. She says she longs for the day when she doesn’t have to over-worry about perceptions or even take precautions when speaking to her sons about how they should behave in public. “I always tell them to be polite as they should but I usually have to tell them more. I tell them that if the police are talking to you, don’t move. Stand still. Give short answers. Don’t reach into your pockets, even if nothing is there. I think it’s wrong that I have to be over cautious and give such special instructions but it’s what I have to do.”

I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, whites have ever been given those type of instructions, much less have to worry that their words and actions might be greatly misconstrued by authorities.

And yet the shooting deaths of Trayvonn Martin and much more clear-cut cases—like the killing of Florida A&M student Jonathan Ferrell and 19-year-old Renisha McBride—gives every parent and guardian of a racial and bi-racial children enough reason to give precise directions about behavior, all to ensure more innocent blood isn’t spilled.[6]

…………………..

An inspiration to me in my ministry is Derrick Weston, a 34-year-old African-American and Presbyterian pastor who is director of the Pittsburgh Project, a non-profit community development in Pennsylvania.

Derrick has a passion for talking about church transformation and issues of poverty and racism. When I asked him to share his experiences with racial discrimination, he wrote me the following email:

Where I have most commonly experienced racism is in the area of other people’s expectations of me. Assumptions about how I should dress, how I should talk, what kind of music that I *must* like, assumptions about my athleticism (which were almost always wrong!)… I don’t think most people think of those things as racism, but they certainly are. When you tell people that they are not allowed out of the box that you have for them, that is oppression….I had some awful things said to me when I served a church in Springfield, Ohio. Worries that I would bring “my kind” to the church. Lucky for them, “my kind” wouldn’t go anywhere near that place.

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WorrPHOTO-Cover-and-Bruce-720x380ies over “another kind” coming inside the Church is a statement that our denomination’s former moderator, the Rev. Bruce Reyes Chow, has also heard in his ministry along with other racially charged comments. Several months ago Bruce was sitting in a coffee shop when a white person came up to him and said in their best Asian accent: “You no rike riving here, you can rive somewhere else.”[7]

Bruce, who is a California born Asian American with Filipino and Chinese heritage, writes in his book But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race, that we can’t afford to brush aside or ignore the racism that pervades our society:

When we choose to dismiss or avoid these difficult conversations, we reinforce and remind people of color that they are still the other. We are not expressing a willingness and yearning to embrace the wonderful complexity that is brought to the larger human family…We must keep talking about race and how we engage the conversation, because how we do these things impacts the ability for people of color to full live and achieve in society.”[8]

How we have these conversations about race—how we engage others about their experiences and stories—also impacts the ability for the newly baptized to speak boldly and confidently of God’s love for all races and cultures.

For Christians, our starting point for having these conversations and working toward racial reconciliation is immersed in the words of the apostle Paul who wrote to the early church in Galatia:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)

Our desire to create racial harmony and seek out the holy in another human being is attuned to the wild cries of John the Baptist who witnesses the baptism of Jesus:

Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! … I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel…I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” (John 1:29-42)

Our purpose for carrying out the promises we just made for those three girls at baptism–to nurture people in the love and mercy of Christ–is rooted in the prophetic words of the vine grower Amos who proclaimed:

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Our baptisms in Christ remind us that regardless of our cultural differences, we all belong forever to God.

Our baptisms remove the sin and injustice from our lives, washes away the hate, the discrimination and misperceptions we have toward those of another race.

Our baptisms free us to be rivers of justice and streams of righteousness and peace for people of color.

Our baptisms in Christ reveal us as beloved creations that are called to love one another, especially those who are mistreated because of their differences.

So may it be. So may it be.

Amen.

………………….

Preacher’s Note I: Following the sermon, the congregation sang the Hymn #757 “Today We Are Called to Be Disciples” from The Presbyterian Hymnal: Glory to God. For the Benediction, I read stanza three: “Pray justice may come rolling down as in a mighty stream, with righteousness in field and town to cleanse us and redeem. For God is longing to restore an earth, where conflicts cease, a world that was created for a harmony of peace.”

Preacher’s Note II: As I researched the topic of race relations for this sermon, I found several articles that provided eye-opening insight into the issue, allowed me to process my thoughts and feelings, and that should be shared with others as a way of continuing the conversation:

–‘12 Years A Slave’ Inspires True Conversations About Slavery, NPR Morning Edition, Jan 16, 2014

Seeing Opportunity In A Question: Where Are You Really From, NPR Morning Edition, November 11, 2014

White Men, Black Female Bodies, and Renisha McBride, by Christena Cleveland, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, Nov. 19, 2013

No Turning Away, or Back, After Seeing ’12 Years A Slave’ by Cathleen Falsani, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 28, 2013

The American Church’s Absence of Lament, by Soong-Chan Rah, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013

After Racial Strife, New Pledge Commits Christians to Unity and Solidarity, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013

The Most Controversial Sentence I Ever Wrote, by Jim Wallis, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013

The ‘S’ Word, the ‘D’ Word, and ’12 Years A Slave’ by Lisa Sharon Harper, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 17, 2013

Waiting For Another MLK by Carlos Malave, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 16, 2013

–’12 Years A Slave’: A Film Of Moral Gravity by Brian McLaren, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 15, 2013

How Feeling Each Other’s Pain Changes Everything, by Christena Cleveland, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 15, 2013

–‘12 Years A Slave’—Could It Happen Again? by Paul Louis Metger, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 14, 2013

–Some Brief Thoughts on ‘The Butler’ by Derrick Weston, from his blog http://derricklweston.wordpress.com, August 14, 2013


[1] New Global Index Exposes ‘Modern Slavery’ Worldwide, BBC, October 17, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-24560937

[2] U.S. Traffiking Report Reveals ‘Modern Slavery’ Toll, BBC, June 19, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18514626

[3] For African-Americans, discrimination is not dead, Pew Research Center, June 28, 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/28/for-african-americans-discrimination-is-not-dead/and King’s Dream Remains An Elusive Goal, Pew Research Center, August 22, 2013, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/08/22/kings-dream-remains-an-elusive-goal-many-americans-see-racial-disparities/

[4] Southern Poverty Law Center, “What We Do”, http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/hate-and-extremism

[5] Chasing the Dream: The Year’s Best Film, 12 Years A Slave, exposes religion’s ugly history with race, by Emily McFarlane Miller, Relevant Magazine: Faith, Culture & Intentional Living, Nov/Dec. 2013

[6] During the 11 am worship service, I removed—in the interest of time due to having three baptisms and a Choir Anthem—the paragraph where SB talks about the instructions she gives to her sons and two paragraphs that followed, regarding how whites don’t have to worry about such things and the killings of Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride. I did preach these words at the 8:30 am worship service.

[7] How I Survive Everyday Racism by Bruce Reyes-Chow, August 30, 2013, Huffington Post: Religion. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-reyeschow/how-i-survive-everyday-ra_b_3833714.html

[8] Excerpt from But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow, p.22-24. Self-Published. 2013.