Over breakfast during a recent family reunion my father pulled open his ipad looked at his cousin and sister-in-law and in a banal voice threw a metaphorical bomb onto the middle of the table with “I read an interesting article regarding how we ended up with separate conferences in the church.”
As my father started to scroll through the article to read excerpts for the group consumption, my aunt girded her loins. I flailed through a summarization of Micheal Nixon’s Compass Magazine piece, my aunt with years of legal training under her belt, parsed my semantics and rendered her opinion of the article unread. She announced that the blacks wanted separate conferences, they liked the segregated church system, any racial tension was their problem; an opinion gleaned from conversations with her sister, a pastor’s wife, in the south. I gulped. Verbal sparing is not my forte and I was going to drown in a miserable verbal death trying to prove my point with a paralegal; so I muzzled my mandibles.
With her weighty pronouncement over the conversation quickly turned towards the African American acquaintances within their social circle. Phrases such as “When I see —— I don’t see color. Or, “He’s such a nice person,” drifted past my ears and I flashed back to conversations in the past where I had quoted the same lines verbatim. I glanced around the table at the family members and did what I always do during confrontation, slid quietly away leaving my father to the wolves.
In reflecting on that breakfast conversation, I had an awakening on how my participation and past conversations on race has been so “white.” I list my friends from different ethnicities, my black husband, my cousin’s African-American wife, another cousin’s Asian husband, the mixed children and I think “I’m not the problem.”
The truth is that I am still part of the problem. Leaning in and really listening to those conversations I had where I “proved” that I wasn’t part of the problem is proof that I am still part of the problem.
In an interview with Terri Gross, Trevor Noah host of The Daily Show says
“I learned to use language the way my mother did. I would simulcast give you the program in your own tongue. I would get suspicious looks from people just walking down the streets. Where are you from they would ask. I would reply in whatever language they would address me in using the same accent they would use. There would be a brief moment of confusion and then the suspicious look would disappear. Oh ok, I thought you were a stranger. . . . . . .Language more than color defines who you are to people. . . . Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you I was you.”
Here is the sad pathetic reality. All of my diverse friends, my husband, the cousin-in-laws, all of them sound like me.
Think about that for a moment.
When around me, they simulcast in my language. When do I simulcast in their language? When do I stop to ask what its like to be Dominican, or African-American, or Japanese operating in my imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy society, to quote bell hooks. I don’t, not even once, because I don’t even think about it.
Over and over again the gospel points to developing relationships with other people, meeting them where they are at. Racial reconciliation requires that we do the same thing. It means assessing the words and assumptions coming out of my mouth. It means critically examining my opinions and asking if there is another side. It means getting to know people who look and sound different from myself, finding common ground, and then actively listening as they share their experience. It means acknowledging my white privilege and then asking what can I do in my small sphere to change my attitude and my interactions? It means saying “I’m sorry for perpetrating the problem.”
It means looking around the breakfast table at my family members and wondering if my African American, or Hispanic counterparts have conversations where they say “When I look at —— I don’t see her whiteness. She’s such a nice person. She might look white on the outside, but she’s black on the inside.”
I don’t know how that conversation ended at breakfast, I’ve been too afraid to ask. I pessimistically hope that it niggled a neuron or two in my relatives brains which will cause them to begin to reevaluate certain preconceived notions. One can only hope.
*For further consumption . . . .
The Compass Magazine: It’s a Gospel Issue (watch the video at the end)