Wednesday, December 10, 2014
A (Mostly) White Congregation and Conversations about Race
We are a (mostly) white congregation. Individually and as a group we have for the most part been insulated from experiences of discrimination, violence or even the ‘micro-aggressions’ which face people of color face regularly. I’m encouraged that we are trying to raise our awareness of this in a variety of ways, including our recent worship series on the Doctrine of Discovery and how the last 500 years in its wake have led Europeans and their descendants to treat all non-white persons and the lands on which they’ve lived as individuals and spaces to be either colonized, subjugated or ‘civilized’ by any means necessary. Although the Doctrine of Discovery is no longer something the majority of the population knows about, its impact continues to be lived and experienced both by people of color and by white folks.
The violence against African Americans by police in high profile events recently and the subsequent vigils, protests and campaigns for justice are a result of the last half millennia of this subjugation and internalized understanding of who we are in relation to each other. I am left wondering about a) how to talk about these events, about this injustice with my child and b)how to respond and enact a lived justice that I believe I’m called to.
During the Loss of Turtle Island exercise, I experienced the visceral grief of my child when she learned about the way white settler Christian soldiers knowingly and systematically gave small pox blankets to indigenous people in order to infect (and kill) them. We have taught our children that God loves everyone and that Jesus came to show God’s love to the whole world. It is easy to believe this when your family looks like mine does - white, hetero-parented, middle class, educated - and our experience is not one of discrimination.
When confronted by the horrible injustice of small pox blankets, or of white police officers who are seemingly free to do violence to black people, the reality of the world collides with the reality of God’s world, that is the kin-dom which we are trying to teach our children is here and which we are a part of. There is a collision and somehow at the same time a disconnect with what we – and God – long for and what is.
A couple weeks ago I shared an article by Peggy McIntosh about the ‘invisible backpack’ of white privilege. The invisible backpack is all the ways that I don’t even realize that I benefit from systems that prefer light over dark skin, from knowing that I’ll be able to find books with characters that reflect me to not having to question whether the non-response to my resume was because of an ‘ethnic’ name. Because of my own hope live in a community that is not all just like me, our family made a choice to live in a diverse neighborhood and enroll in a school that is highly diverse. Our school is intentional about teaching respect for a multiplicity of cultures, focuses on peace heroes as a part of its yearly curriculum and approaches history from a variety of perspectives. Right now a song about Rosa Parks and the bus boycott is being sung at my house and I am amazed and grateful.
I am also very aware of Peggy McIntosh’s point that even in this diverse school, I can count on most of my child’s teachers – even those who are teaching immersion Spanish – to looking like her. I wonder what it’s like for a native Spanish speaking family from Mexico or El Salvador to have their child taught in Spanish by a blond, blue-eyed American. In a way that her peers are not, my daughter can be blithely unaware of her color and even of theirs. It takes me actively engaging the question of how I look different than many of my neighbors and may be treated differently because of it to raise that kind of awareness.
That’s where I’m starting for now. I’m not going out of my way to start conversations about Ferguson or about death, but sometimes I do encourage noticing. When we’re reading a book about Ruby Bridges, I ask, what did you learn about Ruby? Why do you think those people were so angry? And when I’m asked questions about how I feel and why I try to be honest. Here’s an approximation of a conversation that happened at my house last week.
“Mama, why were you crying at church this morning?”
“Well, I was sad and frustrated. In summer a young man who was black was shot by a police officer who was white and we found out this week that it doesn’t seem like there are going to be any consequences for the police officer.”
“Did he die?”
“Yes, he was shot and he died.”
“That’s not fair. We’re not supposed to use guns. He shouldn’t have done that.”
“You’re right. It’s really not fair. It’s also not fair that people who have white skin like us get treated different – better – than people who have brown skin like the person who was killed. And that’s why I’m so sad and frustrated.”
We have often talked about guns in our family as not being okay. We stress that Jesus wants us to be peace makers. Why do the police have guns and but other people aren’t allowed to? Not a question I can answer to my own satisfaction.
I am still sad and frustrated. But I’m also determined to continue to re-examine my own attitudes, to listen to the experiences of people of color, and for the most part to keep my own mouth shut when in the context of people are sharing their experiences and to encourage other white people to do the same. It’s not my experience that the world needs to hear. For those of you in our congregation who identify as people of color, I am grateful for you and that you continue to walk with this congregation. I think a lot of what I can do is about acknowledging the power and privilege that I have and letting those who are giving voice to experience of discrimination or violence speak and, if I can, amplifying their voices. That’s why I’ll be wearing black in worship this week at the invitation of Christian leaders and congregations of color to be in solidarity with the message, "Black lives matter."
I trust in the God, in whose image we are all made. I trust that God is walking with the pray-ers and protesters and who is grieving with those who grieve. I trust that God’s dream is for a kin-dom in which we are not blind to color but that we see it and value it. When we are wearing black to proclaim that black lives matter, may we more and more internalize what we proclaim, that God’s dream may be realized.