What’s Your Race Story?

Storytelling is a tool for changing the world.  Or corrupting the world.Jan with doll circa 1959

Pretty much everything is about stories: sermons, country-western songs, paintings, therapy, romantic relationships.  All depend upon stories.

David Hunt and Susan Naimark led the workshop this morning on our race
stories.  What stories do we remember from our earliest memories?  And what don’t we remember?

  • I remember that a woman with dark skin named Thelma took care of me and my little brothers while our parents worked.  I sometimes went with my dad to drive Thelma home and I remember that she didn’t live in a very nice house.  I was about four years old.
  • I remember Inez who lived down the road from my cousins on the farm, and she took care of them while their parents worked.  We thought she was part of our family and my sister thought her name was “Aunt Ez.”  I remember when someone referred to Inez’ children that I wondered who took care of them while she took care of us.
  • I remember having a doll with dark skin.  She was a rag doll and not a fashion doll.

All these memories gave me the impression that people with dark skin were poor.  This is how biases happen.

What I don’t remember:

  • I don’t remember wondering why there were no children who didn’t look like me in my classes until about the sixth grade.
  • I don’t remember wondering why I never had a teacher of color until the eighth grade.  (Thank you Cecilia Barnes.)
  • I don’t remember why everybody in my neighborhood, in magazines, in book illustrations, on television looked like me and not like my doll or Cecilia Barnes.

There are stories that we are told or stories we have experienced from our youngest days that are so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t even realize that they’re there.  They have influenced how we see ourselves and others.

I met a woman this morning who shared how she felt being the only Korean girl in her class in school.  People called her names and made assumptions about her.  I talked with another woman who is the daughter of a blonde German woman and a dark-skinned Indian man.  Among the Germans, she was called a n@^&#. Among the Indians, she was called a white pig.  Like most of our parents, her parents told her to ignore the comments of others.  We rarely if ever had conversations about race.

It would be so fascinating to talk about our earliest memories about race in our own lives.  What did we grow up believing about people with dark skin or light skin, people from Ireland or Mexico or Ghana or India or Korea?  And who told us those stories?  And are they even true stories?

Somewhere along the way, many of us in the United States have been told that all black men are dangerous and all native Americans are alcoholics and all Asian Americans are really smart and all white people are rich/stupid/entitled/greedy/whatever.  The reality is that my white skin has granted me special privileges for 60 years.  Why is that?

How can we use our stories to advocate for change?  Sometimes these stories are horribly painful.  Exhibit A from The New York Times today.  But if we know them, face them, and try to redeem them, maybe we can break through our own biases and see the world as God created it (and us) to be.

For more information about The White Privilege Conference, check this out.

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4 responses to “What’s Your Race Story?

  1. You’ve made me search my memory…from my earliest school memories, there were plenty of classmates that didn’t look like me. But I think the first teacher that didn’t look like me was when I was a senior in high school. Appalling, now that I think about it.

  2. Interesting. About the same time you were growing up in CH I was growing up in Asheville. My mom always had a “cleaning lady” once a week. I think they would spend about half a day at our place and half a day at a nearby neighbors. We were not allowed to refer to her as a maid. Not sure what was up with that. Most of the time they were white “mountain women.” That’s probably not the best term to use but they were different from the “city folk” like us.

  3. Thanks for sharing your stories – and encouraging others to explore their race stories! So glad our workshop triggered all this important reflection.

    • Susan – I went from WPC to another meeting of clergywomen and we have talked about doing race stories with each other and back “at home” with our people. Thank you for your wisdom.

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