Monday, July 15, 2013

A White-Bread Boy

A White-Bread Boy, that’s what I am … to the core, pure, plain and simple.

Mom was of German ancestry, her family arriving here in 1848.

Dad was of Dutch stock, his family arriving here in the 1890s.

And we were racist to the core … deeply religious, too. We all loved Jesus, went to evangelical Reformed Churches, served the LORD and abided in God’s word … and racist to the core.

That’s how I grew up.

In Wisconsin and Western Michigan … I’ll not rehearse the ugliness of it all, but ugly it was, and I was pretty damn ugly, too, as were all my high school and church friends - the whole white environment, establishment, and their world of Christian Schools and Churches, filled to the brim, Sunday morning and Sunday evening, with Wednesday evening catechism and prayer meetings. Not a person of color to be found anywhere, except in missionary tales of Deepest Darkest Africa. Everyone was pious, and when I was 15 or 16, I bought me a big ol’ Thompson Chain Reference Bible, King James, of course, and in that Bible, I could find a verse for everything, but especially for proving how right everyone was, and I carried it to church, too. I was into god, and, yes, God was into me, too … in ways I would only much later discern, and for that, I’m grateful. That this innocent/guilty White-Bread Racist Boy was still the object of God’s mercy.

To make a long story a little shorter, it was in college, Calvin College, that I was converted. With everlasting thanks, I note two professors in particular who opened my mind and my heart: Professor Roger Rice, Sociologist, who had us read Michael Harrington’s The Other America. And Professor Donald Wilson, Anthropologist, who told chilling stories of missionary zeal and cultural abuse. To this day, I recall both professors, and give thanks for my conversion to a gospel that I had “known” all of my life, and with hymns, sung and fine doctrinal preaching; but, now, for the first time in my life, I saw a larger world, and the folly of my faith, the harm it’s done and the callous manner in which it sided with the racist patterns of America.

Maybe I’m alone in this - the way I raised, with plenty of religion and plenty of racism - and finally, by the grace of God, beginning to figure it out: that religion and racism do not belong together, and where there is racism, the professed faith is more an illusion than a reality, more about heaven, of course, and so little about this world, other than avoiding its taint, doing what could be done to convert lost souls and persevering to the end. Meanwhile, it’s okay to fear and hate your neighbor, if they’re persons of color, because they’ll come into the neighborhood, and there goes the neighborhood. And if met on the street, be careful - they’re all dangerous.

I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I’m still learning. 

When I was in Detroit, I learned that in the postal system there, well up into the 80s, white supervisors routinely assisted white applicants with the testing, even adjusting scores, while making it virtually impossible for African-Americans to enter the system.

Never once in my whole life have I been humiliated because of my color. Never once. Never once have I been denied anything because of color. Never once.

I now have African-American relatives, and I’ve learned a few things from them.

It’s not a pretty picture, and there’s no end to the humiliation they’ve experienced - centuries of it, to this very day.

Perhaps the Trayvon Martin jury decided correctly - it was just too difficult to prove, either second-degree murder or manslaughter.

But for many African-Americans, it’s just one more humiliation, one more moment in a long and sad history of discrimination - the failure of virtually every system in America - schools, churches and courts.

I was a racist, and though much of it has been removed from my life, the stains remain on my soul and in my memories - stains that can’t be removed, and that’s all right, because then I can never claim innocence. 

So I know racism, because shreds of it still flow around the dark edges of my spirit and mind. I hate it, but that’s the way it is. It’s my reality, and if there’s grace in this world, it can operate only in my reality. Grace, thankfully, doesn’t need a clean environment in which to do its work. Though grace cleanses, not even grace can remove the stains of the past.

So I know racism when I see it in others, because I know it so well in my own life.

The racist looks at the Trayvon Martin story and says, “Justice was done.” That’s that, and like Lady MacBeth, simply washes her hands, endlessly.

But I look at it and say, “It’s one more sad chapter in a story of unrelenting sorrow and humiliation.”

I cannot pretend this kind of hurt isn’t real. It is real, all too real, for millions of people.

I will not close my eyes to the sorrow of others, and though the jury may have rightly ruled, though I think not, many in our nation see this as one more episode of justice denied, a moment filled with all the usual suspects of hoodies, black teens, white women frightened, racist males acting tough with a gun in their hand, nonchalant police and courtrooms where defending white honor is more important than the truth.

That’s how I see it.

And don’t anyone tell me I don’t know what racism is.

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