The day after Denise Anderson and I were elected to be Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, I found myself on the hotel elevator alone – which was rare – headed down to the lobby for our next thing. The doors opened about halfway down and a young man got on the elevator, saw my C0-Moderators’ stole and blurted out, “Oh hi! You’re the white one.”
Yes. I am The White One. My name is Jan. I think of myself as white.
My skin is pale. My people are from Europe (although the Irish were once considered Black.) Sometimes “blackness” has less to do with skin tone than level of oppression. Quite a few of us have varied and colorful DNA. I’m not sure that even the palest among us is 100% “white.”
But I think of myself as White. I am biased about race. I am a perpetuator of racial prejudice. I am so thoroughly privileged that I only notice it a tiny fraction of the time. I am uncomfortable around people of other races sometimes to the point that I say or do awkward – sometimes even asinine – things.
- I don’t think I’ve ever touched the hair of a black person without permission – although maybe I have – and yet I often talk about hair with friends whose hair is different from mine because it’s easy to talk about. Stupid maybe, but easy. I honestly would like to have Samira Wiley‘s hair and basic head shape but my head is lumpy. So I’ll see a woman who looks amazing with hair different from mine and I’ll want to talk about that as if a stranger’s hair is something I have the right to hold forth about. Note: I’ve noticed that when people feel awkward – especially women of every color – we comment on each other’s clothing or hair or shoes. I once went into a church meeting and a person literally said, “Oooh a boucle skirt and top from Talbot’s.” It felt weird. I am not my clothes/hair. Neither are you.
- I expect Black friends (or Asian friends, LGBTQ friends, etc.) to be my teacher and explain “their people” to me. “Why do Black people ___?” This is ridiculous unless it’s genuinely a joke.
- I assume a lot of things that people of color cannot assume: that I will not be shot if pulled over in my car with a broken tail light, that I belong in the fancy department in Nordstrom, that I am smart, that I can live in any neighborhood I can afford, that I can get a bank loan based on my credit score (and not my skin tone.)
- I think I can sing “We Shall Overcome” without a monumental sense of irony.
On this day, exactly 60 years ago I was baptized. Many of us were baptized for purely sentimental reasons. But if we are serious about those vows we will quake in our shoes:
“Do you renounce evil and its power in the world, which defies righteousness and love?”
Response: I do renounce them.
“Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?”
Response: “I do renounce them.“
We have witnessed evil and its power in the world this week. Much of that evil has been race-based. We are afraid. We are angry.
Or worse: we are indifferent. We go about our vacations or our cook-outs or our business without once pondering what we have done to contribute to/perpetuate racial prejudice in our families, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our country.
I remember visiting a local church in my Presbytery on Sunday, July 14, 2013 – the day after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the second degree murder of Trayvon Martin. I felt sick. I craved God’s Word.
Not only was there no mention of this trial or the agony of a 17 year old boy’s death without anyone being held accountable, but the sermon – clearly pulled from a seasoned preacher’s file – referred to “the new play on Broadway called ‘Hair.’” Jesus wept.
What can we do besides “think and pray”?
- Read this book. Talk about it with your friends.
- Correct people – out loud – when they say something racist. (Note: you have permission to do this to me too.)
- Talk about race in our families. I’m talking to you, White families.
- Spark conversations by doing privilege exercises in classes, training retreats, etc. Here are some.
- Register for this conference.
- Plan to register for this one in 2017. Seriously, take a group. Registration for the 2017 conference in Kansas City (April 27th-30th, 2017) opens in January.
- Read books – fiction and non-fiction – by people of color.
One way to change the world is to change ourselves. I for one – The White One – am focusing on this right now.