Summer Assignment — Race Isn't a Dirty Word: Old First E-pistle 06.12.14

Summer Assignment — Race Isn't a Dirty Word: Old First E-pistle 06.12.14

In last Sunday’s Sacred Conversation on Race, Margaret R. told a story from her days in Chicago’s Hyde Park. It reminded me of an interaction I had in the same neighborhood about thirty years ago.

Benjamin was an infant, and we lived on the Northside of Chicago, in Lakeview. We were headed to Hyde Park for some reason I no longer remember. Instead of going into the Loop to get the Jeffrey Express bus, it was easier just to take the Howard St. subway from Addison in our neighborhood. Once we got off the subway at Garfield on the Southside, deciding we had enough distance to cover to make another ride worthwhile, we boarded the crosstown bus and found seats.

An African American woman a few years older than us and her son, who was about 4, got on right after us, and sat right in front of us. She immediately turned around in her seat to see the baby and to talk to us young parents. As she was cooing over Ben — just a little bundle in the snuggly strapped to my chest — she exclaimed to her son, “Look at that baby; can you imagine you were just like that once!” Her son, with sure confidence bordering on stridency, responded, “I wadn’t no white baby.” True dat!

But his mother wasn’t pleased with his pointed observation. She said something like, “Oh, baby, in God’s eyes, there’s no white and no black; we’re all just precious children.” If not in actually factually correct (who can be sure, but even if I know what she meant and agree with her, it’s my guess that God sees and enjoys our various shades, histories and cultures), she was also pointing to an equally important truth.

That son of mine is now almost 32. That would make the woman’s son about 36. I wonder what has happened to him? And to her? I’ve thought about this interchange many times since, particularly when I find myself in situations where people or a community are trying to navigate the tricky shoals of race in America.

At the Penn SE Conference Spring Meeting last Saturday, we spent our program time thinking about how race often divides us, our neighborhoods and our lives. A recurrent suggestion in the group discussion afterwards was that “if we only knew each other better, personally…”

“Well, yes, but…” was the response I was feeling. I’m all for appreciating the difference that knowing someone who is different makes. I wish most UCC congregations and the neighborhoods they inhabit embraced more racial and cultural diversity. I wish we at Old First were more of a “mixed” community (whatever that might be).

Personal acquaintance… even better, personally caring about someone immediately begins to undercut stereotyping. First, because the person you know is inevitably more complex than some blanket generalization. S/he is a real person, flesh and blood, but also with individual history and unique stories. And second, if stereotypes were not oversimplified, they wouldn’t be stereotypes!

But what has struck me most about our Sacred Conversation on Race is that more often than not acquaintance or even caring about someone deeply do not promise that you’ll know their deep stories and painful memories about race. In our society — in our church community even — most of those kinds of experiences aren’t shared in mixed company.

Perhaps for fear our different experiences can’t be understood? Or because when we begin to share our stories, listeners are shocked that someone they have known for so long has had such experiences or has come to such conclusions, or held such feelings. Or, as we first start to speak these more or less hidden truths, our stories and questions and responses sometimes come out clumsy, even hurtful.

Old First is a diverse, loving congregation. But that doesn’t mean we know the racial experiences in each other’s lives. Of course, church, ironically, isn’t always the best venue for getting people to share about what they feel most deeply, or care about most truly, or fear sleeplessly, or hope for eternally. There are other significant parts of our lives that aren’t much included in our public discourse or identities. Even or especially at church. But race is a social construct. And a social experience.

And I am glad — and want to thank our SCoR Ministry Team for shepherding us into — trying to practice talking about race more openly as part of our faith lives. Race is not a dirty word (even if it’s often a scary and hurtful experience in our country).

What did being Black mean so importantly to that woman’s son so early?
Why was God’s color-blindness so important to his mother’s faith?
How was it that I felt honored in so public a place to have been vaguely — passively — a part of the exchange?

I guess I’ll never know. But there are other questions, experiences, feelings that we might summon the courage to broach with one another.

I’m suggesting a summer spiritual assignment (like summer reading when I was in high school, but a lot easier to complete). Sometime this summer, dare to ask about someone’s racial experience. (Please, please: us Euro-Americans don’t have to all find someone of a different race to have as a conversation partner. In fact, there’s some good practice in finding out together as white people who to talk about race.!) But invite someone to sit down and talk with you. You can blame me. Or suggest SCoR is your inspiration.

Simply say you’d like to try talking about race. Just two people or maybe a small group. And practice making a safe space for one another. And really listening, even if you don’t always understand.
It shouldn’t be so hard. After all, we already know one another well. I’ll even offer some questions to get going:

How do you love your personal or group identity?
Has race every been decisive factor in some difficulty you have had?
Describe a relationship in which race played a significant factor, but was not a barrier…

Of course, the content of these conversations is honored as confidentialities among those who spoke with one another. But I’d love to hear if you took my suggestion… er, challenge… to broach this subject.

See you in church,

Michael