Friday, August 25, 2017

My Racism: A Confession and a Hope

I shared the following with two older black men this morning: Jack Gaines (author of My Brother’s Keeper Not My Brother’s Killer) and Julius Thomas. After I was finished, they both requested that I write my story down. Julius, in particular and for various reasons, requested that I write down what I shared with them as “verbatim” as I could remember. So, here goes:

My story regarding racism kind of has two parts. First, background information. I grew up in Miars Farm. In a big, suburban, two storey house. There was one black family in my neighborhood. I was friends with the kid. Justin was his name. No, there were two, now that I remember it. I didn’t remember the second black family at first, because we never hung out with their kids. By “we” I mean the neighborhood full of white kids who always hung out together. Also, background information – I was the neighborhood runt who always got picked on.

Sometimes, I would go over to Radcliffe and play basketball or hang out and play video games. Radcliffe is a step down on the social ladder, and there were mostly black kids who hung out there. I felt a lot more accepted there. I also had a very close black kid who was my friend growing up (Allen Glasper). We would sometimes sleep over at each others’ houses and play games and eat dinner and what not. I still remember his parent’s spaghetti! But, he was sort of separate from my neighborhood friends, who I spent time with like every day. I think maybe the time I spent with him and with the kids in Radcliffe might have shaped my being more open to racial issues later on.

But, all of that is just background information to the two main parts of my story as they come to fruition later on in my life.

It is significant to me that I had to lose my Architectural profession, lose two nursing jobs, and work as a server again for a year, in order to really see and acclimate myself to this. Basically, I had to lose myself three times and then spend a year re-seeing myself to even begin to see what discipleship is.

So, on the first part of my story. My Identity:

I grew up imagining myself being an architect when I grow up. I remember sitting in math class in sixth grade drawing the whole time but still doing half way decent in class. My teacher told me I should be an architect, because I was good at both math and art. I was like, “Hmm OK.” I ended up taking that to heart. So, “architect” was how I imagined my self and my world growing up. A significant part of that story is that I always got praise for my artwork growing up, but I saw architecture as a kind of compromise. As a way to make enough money to attain the standard of living that was just simply normal for me. That kind of thinking was just built into my reality without question.

Then, fast forward to much later when the economy tanked and I lost my architecture job, got laid off again for what I decided was to be the last time. At the time, I realized that Architecture had really been about me, and so I wanted to do something that wasn’t about me. So, I went into nursing. That doesn’t fully explain why I went into nursing, but that was a big part of it. I wanted to do something that wasn’t about me.

While I was taking my prerequisites for nursing, I worked as a server at Cracker Barrel. I remember at that time, thinking, “Man, I’m glad I won’t be doing this for the rest of my life.” It was a barely conscious thought. It would just be randomly and in passing while in the back making drinks or getting someone’s food out of the window. I would walk past someone who had been doing that job for most of their life and would most likely be “stuck” doing that for the rest of their lives. And, I would essentially think to myself, “Man, I’m glad I’m not like them.” Like I said, it was barely conscious. I had no idea, really, what I had been thinking in the back of my mind. I realized later that most of those people I was thankful to not be like were black.

So, after I got my nursing license, I prayed with my accountability partners – before I ever got a nursing job - that nursing wouldn’t become my identity. So, then, I lost two nursing jobs. God showed me that nursing had become my identity. I had all sorts of wild, irrational fears that came to the forefront when this happened. Like, I imagined myself homeless and destitute and everything. I imagined that I was about to become a nobody in the eyes of people, in the eyes of the world. At this time, it was like God, as though with a flood of memories, brought to mind my past subconscious thoughts of being thankful that I wasn’t like those people who were “stuck” in “lower” class and more toilsome jobs. And, here I was having wildly irrational fears of being “like them” (working as a server for the rest of my life, GASP, like many of the people I actually knew quite well who actually did it) or even worse off (homeless, destitute, alone, and alienated).

And, it hit me squarely between the eyes at that time, too, that most of those people who I greatly feared being like were black. It should be noted here that I had zero ill will or explicit hatred towards black people. In fact, I had for quite some time made a fairly conscious and voiced effort to treat and think of black people in a good way. It was just that I had this image of myself and my world that was structured based on a striving “upwards,” where others were left behind and below. And, most of those others just so happened to be black (there’s a long history to why that is).

The second part of my story. My Justice:

This was a biggie for me. Have you seen the ESPN special, “OJ: Made in America”? I asked this question of the two older black men to whom I was telling this very story of mine. One of them had seen it, and the other hadn’t. I asked the one who had to explain it to the one who hadn’t. His central or final idea of or takeaway from it was that, because OJ “was someone” and had reached a certain level or status in society – because he was “known” - it gave him the “right” to marry a white woman. The rest of OJ’s story and the country’s draw to it centered around that dynamic. When that older black man said that, it gave me chill bumps, because it then became especially significant to me that a trail for OJ’s killing his white wife was what so enraptured the country.

Now, realize that, in 1995, I was a sophomore in High School. OJ’s trial meant next to nothing to me. I dind’t get it. I remember thinking at the time: “Why is this such a big deal?” I had the same reaction when OJ was being chased in his white Bronco on the interstate in LA. I had no idea. All these years later, though, when this special came on ESPN, though, it was a different story. It meant a lot more to me. I understood more.

The ESPN special chronicled a few major events leading up to OJ’s trail that showed how over it the black community was in LA. When the Rodney King riots happened, I was in Middle School, I think. Again, I totally didn’t get it. But, I do remember being struck by how violent and awful they were. I just had no paradigm for how to process what I was seeing. I just couldn’t understand. The ESPN special also went through “39th and Dalton” and the murder of Letasha Harlins, which were two events that lead up to the Rodney King riots.

With “39th and Dalton,” the police got a tip that drugs were being dealt from an apartment in South Central LA. The police rounded up the whole block, beat up and humiliated a number of people, and completely trashed the one apartment in question. The apartment was so destroyed that you literally couldn’t take a step on the actual floor of the apartment, because it was so full of doors that had been thrown off hinges, cabinets that had been ripped off the walls, food that had been strewn from the refrigerator, personal memoirs, clothing and the rest of the resident’s belongings, and toilets and sinks that had been sledge hammered to dust. The police also left their own brand of graffiti art on the walls of the apartment. It should be noted that this was in the middle of the “War on Drugs,” which I also completely didn’t understand at the time. Apparently, it was a war on other things, too.

Letasha Harlins was a young teenage black girl who showed up at the counter of a convenience store and ended up getting shot in the back of the head by the convenience store clerk, who was Korean and owned the convenience store. The Korean lady ended up being convinced of murder. But, then, the white judge sentenced her to something like probation and community service. She got zero jail time.

So, while I was watching this special on ESPN, even though I already had a passion for what we might call racial healing or racial justice, I had reservations or doubts about what I was watching. After all, how on earth is violence and rioting warranted? That question haunted me while seeing the above mentioned evens chronicled. By the time the ESPN special got around to Rodney King, however, those doubts were gone. I understood. I could totally see how the black community in LA was so fed up. I still don’t condone rioting and violence, but how could it possibly look like their lives DID matter in the eyes of the world? I was reminded of the MLK quote: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

So, then, the big thing that hit me about OJ’s trial was this. ESPN showed a particular survey. Before the trial, something like about 2/3 of white people, give or take, thought OJ did it, and something like 2/3 of black people, give or take, thought OJ was innocent. After the trial, about ¾ of white people thought he was guilty, and about ¾ of black people thought he was innocent. So, they got further apart. Here, black and white people watched the same exact trial on the same exact news stations, and they saw two totally different things! How is that even possible?

They showed black people gathered together in auditoriums and stuff watching the verdict being announced. When the announcement was made, the black people jumped up out of their seats in exuberation and joy, hugging and clapping and crying tears of joy. They also showed white people’s reactions, mostly not gathered but watching it as individuals just out in the street wherever there was a TV or in bars or wherever. The white people were crying tears of shock, anger, and confusion, thinking: “But he did it! This is an injustice! This can’t be!”

I knew what the white people were thinking, because it was my own reaction as the verdict was announced. At the same time, though, it was like I was having an out of body and out of mind experience. While I myself was screaming inside myself, “No!!; This is impossible; this is an affront to justice!,” I also, at the same moment, SAW anew with the eyes of the black people who were so overjoyed. They weren’t just seeing OJ’s acquittal. This was vindication for them. They saw their own stories being played out. They saw their ancestors being lynched and dragged behind trucks. They saw their own friends and family members being not only unjustly given heavy sentences but not even having real trials.

It was like I was seeing both sides of the story at the same time play out within my own heart, in a very powerful way. I was completely blown away. The words I’m saying don’t do justice to it, but God really did a number on me.


At this point in the story, Jack Gaines, one of the older black men who was listening to my story, interrupts me in affirmation. Both men note how true what I’m saying is. They also note how subtle and hidden the racism was in my life that God had to show me. They think it was very significant that I was clearly not “overtly racist,” but that “It’s just built into the fabric of our society” in which I participate. “Yes,” I say. That very much describes my story.

Jack then goes on to talk about how I was blind to it. It was deceptive. It had hidden itself. Again, I say, “Yes.” Jack here also requests that I do a workshop, because, in his words, “What you’re saying is true, and white people need to hear it. And, when they hear it, they will know it’s true. And, they’ll have to decide what to do with that in their hearts.” Notably, in the past, he has also said that black people need to hear it, because they tend not to believe that there can be a white person like me who sees what I see and thinks how I think.

At this point in my story, I note how a big part of what happened to me was that I was shown how I hadn’t really trusted in the justice of Jesus. I had an idol in my life. I had an idea of “justice” that was based on our American system of justice that has for many years served white people relatively well. They literally created it. No wonder it served them well. And, no wonder it didn’t so well serve the others who I so greatly feared being like without even realizing it. I TRUSTED that system of justice. “The idols of the nations are silver and gold.” I treasured that justice system, so I was blind to anything else. “Those who trust in them will become like them.” That’s why I was literally was blind to it. I trusted in an idol, and that idol blinded me.

My hope moving forward is that, together as a church, we can lament this hi-story. If what I’m saying is true, then us white people have a lot to lament, confess, and repent of. It also means that the segregation of Sunday mornings is because we as black and white churches have been trusting in different and ongoing idols generated out of past injustices that haven’t been anywhere near fully corrected.

My hope is that those in the segregated “white” and “black” churches can gather together in submission to and in the presence of God and lament, confess, and repent together. And, I hope that we can ask for forgiveness, offer forgiveness, and be reconciled.

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