Thursday, January 1, 2015

Racism Is Me

I was a South Carolina boy sitting up on the front row of the balcony in our tall-steeple church, contemplating the pros and cons of dropping something on the heads of the unsuspecting pious below, when I witnessed something that I had never in my life seen before.  A negro family (that is how people in my town at the time referred to what we call African Americans) walked up the center aisle of our church as the prelude was playing, found an empty pew, and sat down.  Everyone froze.  Time slowed down.  A very uncomfortable moment passed.  Then I saw three or four of the ushers and elders walk up the aisle to where the family sat.  Some words were exchanged.  The family got up, and was escorted back out of the church.  We good Christians then went on with our worship service as if nothing had happened.

It was about that time that public schools in South Carolina were desegregated.  Up until then, all the colored children went to their own schools and all us white children went to ours.  There was a great hue and cry about what a terrible effect this was going to have on education.  Several private academies were established and significant numbers of white parents pulled their children out of the resulting inevitable collapse of education as we knew it and sent them off to private school.  Of course I never heard that desegregation’s mixing of the races was the reason for these parents’ precipitous action.  I just noticed that colored children and teachers were not invited to the party.

Negro high school in a different part of South Carolina.  'Separate but equal' I'm sure.

Desegregation occurred between my fourth and fifth grade year.  Despite loud protests from members of the majority that Negro education had been separate but equal, it was telling that none of the colored schools in our county were deemed worthy to house white students.  At least one, the colored high school, was rebuilt so as to accommodate both black and white students from that side of town, in the process becoming the nicest school in the county.  And when school started up after a long hot summer, I went to my classroom and discovered that my teacher Mrs. Baker was a negro.  I am pretty sure that Mrs. Baker deserves a Presidential Medal of Honor.  My class was cruel to her.  She had to work hard to keep us under control, but also to navigate the unwritten rules on how a negro teacher could relate to white children.  Eventually she earned the respect of most of my classmates.  But I do not know how she managed. 

Another example of 'Separate but equal'.

And now that I have some years and perspective, I do not know how any of the Negro men and women that I knew managed living in that world.  We had a succession of maids and an old man who cut our grass (until I got old enough to relieve him of his job).  They had to ride the bus from, literally, the other side of the tracks to get to our well-to-do house in our well-to-do part of town.  They lived on the wages they earned making our beds, washing our clothes, cleaning our bathrooms, sweeping our floors, washing our dishes. I don’t know how they managed.

I received mixed messages from church during these years.  On the one hand, there was the perennial emphasis on loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  We were taught in Sunday School, in church and at home to be nice and kind and good to each other.  And yet, so far as I could observe, the concept of ‘neighbor’ went only so far.  Evidently, for many of us, Negroes were not part of our ‘Love’ Venn Diagram.   Unguarded words are a much better indicator of one’s heart than pious posture, and there were a lot of unguarded words flying around, at least within earshot of this well-to-do white boy.

From the Wrong Side of the Tracks

In the hot, tragic summer of 1968, there was an eerie mixture of business as usual in our wealthy and white part of town, as well as an inchoate fear that things might get ugly between the races.  We watched on TV the spectre of big-city riots.  There was bullish talk about keeping those n-----s in their place.  I actually heard people rejoicing when MLK was shot dead in Memphis.  And this was from the educated, church-going sort.  It was these people who helped Richard Nixon get elected president in the November election.  The so-called ‘Silent Majority’ contained a lot of disaffected Southerners who were afraid that JFK and LBJ had given away far too much.  And the oft-repeated emphasis on ‘law and order’ was understood as code in many places, an assurance that law enforcement would use the law to keep us safe from them.

Ok if you were in the majority?  Ok if this is what it takes to keep those people in their place?

All of this had the unsurprising effect of radicalizing the protests.  Demonstrations spread and were accompanied in many places by violence.  More locally, tensions were felt in the one place where the races mixed – our schools.  We were told, by whom I can no longer remember, that ‘Negro’ was a disparaging term and that the appropriate word to use was now ‘Black’.  ‘Black Power’ became a potent symbol of a new self-awareness that would no longer stand to be marginalized by the majority.  Cat-calls of ‘N-----r!’ and worse led to fights, led to ‘race riots’ at school, led to school shutting down on several occasions.  Of course we teenagers were only aware of ourselves and our small worlds.  I can’t imagine what it was like for our teachers, both white and black, to be navigating the local shoals of this massive social upheaval in which we found ourselves.

American children. 

I remember priding myself as a high school student that I wasn’t an abettor in maintaining the deep-seated racism that characterized our local culture.  I had some black friends, was an admirer of MLK, thought that the goals of the Civil Rights movement were necessary if we as a nation were to escape the damning hypocrisy of institutionalized racism in a country that supposedly stood for democracy and equality.

At university, I was confronted by the reality of black men and women who were smarter and more capable than me, and yet who, by dint of their birth as a black baby, had to work much harder than I ever did to get where we were now, taking the same classes and getting the same degrees from the same institution.  Again, I had good black friends, and I had even taken an academic interest in race relations.  It was amusing to discover that I had a black classmate in my seminar on ‘Race Relations in Southern Africa’ named Bill White.  A friend of mine took her sophomore summer to go on a short-term mission trip to South Africa.  She had been moved by the soul-crushing oppression faced by South Africa’s Black, Coloured and Asian populations under the State-sanctioned racism of Apartheid.  Corresponding with her convinced me to seek out a similar experience the following year.

I applied to the same program the following year, was accepted, and made preparations to travel to South Africa that summer.  A month before I was to depart, we were informed that the position I was to take had evaporated, and that I would need to find something else to do.  After looking around, the directors of my project found another program, this one in Kenya, one that involved living with a Kenyan pastor for the summer.  I agreed and made my internal adjustments and then traveled to Kenya.

To prepare for our summer, we were trained in developing relationships, coping with cultural differences, developing a ‘servant’s heart’, etc.  I, however, was not prepared for my face-to-face confrontation with my own racism.  I genuinely thought that ‘racism’ was not my issue.  Within five minutes of landing in Kenya, I realized how wrong I was.

In Kenya, there are lots of Kenyans.  Everywhere.

Everybody around me was black.  Everybody.  I had never before been a minority.  Combined with the different culture and the different language, and I suddenly felt very insecure.  And dare I say, afraid.  When I arrived at the Mission Guest House where I was staying until my host could collect me, I was once again surrounded by familiar sights and sounds and people.  But I had to take stock of what I had just experienced.  I realized that what was going on in my heart was that I had grown up in a culture that was fundamentally racist, and that I had lived in that context, and despite what I had told myself, I too was, at my core, racist.  This was hard to take.  I had persuaded myself that since I was not the KKK sort, I wasn’t racist.  But as I sat in my room at the Guest House in Nairobi, and as I contemplated being taken to a Kenyan – an African – a black home for the summer, it dawned on me that, for all my brave words and noble posturing, I had never spent the night in a black person’s home.  I had never had a meal in a black person’s home.  I had never allowed myself to depend on a black person, for anything.  And now I was about to disappear into the wild interior of Kenya, at the total mercy of an African man I had never met.  I found myself questioning my sanity.

The Great Rift Valley

A missionary brought my pastor-host from his home in the Great Rift Valley near Nakuru.  We packed my suitcase in the back of his truck and made the three-hour trip back, down the astonishing escarpment, past zebra and giraffe, driving by a succession of lakes in the valley floor, pink-rimmed from millions of flamingos.  Past jagged volcanic peaks.  Past tin-roofed shacks and mud huts with grass roofs.  Past herds of cattle with their Maasai watchers.

We turned off the main road (such as it was), onto a smaller road, and then off onto a dusty dirt road, and followed it another couple of miles back towards the eastern escarpment.  And then we were there.  There was a small concrete block church building, and behind it was a house made from the rejected ends of logs from the local saw mill with a shiny tin roof.  And an outhouse.  Surrounded by fields of maize on either side and a cow pasture in the back.  This was to be my home for the next two months.  I watched as my missionary friend drove away, leaving billowing dust behind him, and I thought, ‘What have I done to myself?’

What I didn’t know is that the same discussion had been held in the little house between the father, the mother and the three children (aged 12, 8 and 3).  ‘You did what?’ the mom said to her husband when he informed them that they were to have a white guest for the summer!  ‘Where will he stay?  What will we feed him?  What if he gets sick?  We’ve never had a white person stay in our house!’  Unspoken but understood:  Are you crazy?

I slept on a cot in the front room.  I later learned that the children had slept in that room, but their parents moved them to the storage room while I was there.  There was no running water.  Water came from a well.  For a bath, it had to be heated over an open fire.  Then I took a bucket bath in a small lean-to next to the chicken coop.  Cooking was done over the same open fire, seeing as there was no oven, stove or microwave.  The outhouse was a hole in the floor above a deep pit.  But it was cleaner than many bathrooms I had been in back at school.  I adjusted.  And they did, too.  But most importantly, we talked.  We got to know each other.  I played with the children.  I asked questions and got the dad and the mom to talk about their life.  I tried to learn bits of their Kikuyu language.  I tried to eat their food.  And through it all, my fears were utterly transcended.  My racism was utterly transcended.  I began seeing my hosts as people like me, who had loves and likes, who laughed and cried over the same things that I did, who deeply cared for their children.  They had none of the distractions that I was so used to: no electricity, so no TV, no games, no toys.  We played draughts on a piece of cardboard with a drawn checkerboard using bottle caps.  We played football (soccer) with a ball made of plastic and leaves tied tightly with twine.  I had brought a Frisbee, which was the wonder of the neighborhood.  It was little Wambui, the 3 year old, who quickly decided that I was safe and then proceeded to climb all over me every chance she got.  Every day, the kids would go off to school.  Mama would work in the field hoeing maize and beans.  And pastor and I would head off on foot to visit people from one of the five churches he was responsible for pastoring.

There is much much more I could tell about that summer.  But most significantly, it laid bare the reality of my racism, and then gave me a way to work through it.  And what I learned is that these things are not undone by protests or demands, they are not undone by platitudes and pious posturing, they are not helped by denying the problem exists or by blaming it on them.  The way through racism is through the hard, necessary, risky work of relationships.  In that context I discovered that black people, African people were people, just like me.  I discovered that all my fears and stereotypes were coping strategies bent on keeping me separated from those people, and therefore separated from any chance of engaging them as people, any chance of showing and receiving love.

American Southern boys are not the only people with a racism problem.  It exists in the northeast United States, near Boston, where I lived for four years and was shocked to find overt racism everywhere I turned.  At least in the South we were polite about it.  It exists in the UK, where I lived for some years, between the English and the Irish, for example; not to mention the English and the Pakistani and Indian and African immigrants who have flooded into the urban areas during the past thirty years.  Racism exists in Kenya, too, between Kikuyu and Luo, for example.  In Southern Sudan, between the Dinka and the Nuer.  In Ethiopia between the Amhara and the Oromo.  It exists between Serbs and Kosovars or Bosnians.  In fact, just about everywhere one goes, one finds prejudice ruling the interaction between peoples who are different.  Some of these differences are racial, some are religious, some are political, some are economic.  The effect is the same.  The group looked down upon experiences a kind of dehumanization from the group in power.  And when a person or a group is no longer considered to be like us, to be human, then the door is opened for treating them in ways we would never ourselves want to be treated.

The Pastor, his wife, their oldest daughter and a grandchild.  Dear friends 34 years later.

The only way out of the mess is for each person to view the other as a person, someone just like me.  This is what began to happen to me when I lived in Kenya.  Taking the initiative to establish relationships with real people, those other people,  is the only way out, whether you are in Ferguson, MO,  or small-town South Carolina, or East London, or Cyprus, or Israel, or Iraq, or India, or China, or Japan, or Honduras, or Peru,  or South Africa, or Kenya.

And maybe if we who call ourselves Christians could get this one right, then maybe our attempts to share our faith would meet with more respect.  In the meantime, it’s awkward to proclaim that we Christians have the answer when we too often insist on being part of the problem, at least when it comes to the vexing issue of racism.  When we insist on simply reflecting the worst of our cultures, we expose ourselves as the ones needing to be saved.  History proves it’s all too easy to say that the problem is them, and we all know what happens when the status quo is simply ratified and justified by people who should know better.  Things only begin to change when I make the discovery that the problem lies closer to home; that actually, racism is me.

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