I’m Re blogging a post from June of 2015. Well before the age of this man who has rekindled our nativism, our fear and the racism that never goes away. It never goes away because it continues to lurk just below the surface of each of us who are white. Many will disagree vehemently with that statement, but the truth is there for all. The law enforcers who treat blacks differently and throw them onto the ground or shoot an unarmed black man on a cell phone. The members of a golf course who call the police when they see two black women on the course. Turns out the women were members, merely on a walk on the course. Then there is the white college student who sees a black young woman who is asleep in the lounge of the dorm. She calls campus security and they find out the black woman was also a student. It happens every day in the lives of people of color. It is demeaning on so many levels, for as we are now being given permission to be racists from the highest office in the land, we merely have to scratch it a little and it comes spewing forth from inside our fearful selves. It, of course, demeans the person of color who has to go through it and it demeans us who inflict our racism on others for it is not what we are created to be.
I as I did in June of 2015 I repost again for yes it’s still true and I am a racist.
“John, look at how you are sitting? What are you doing?” It was with those words that I was prophetically told that I was indeed a racist, someone who was from the dominant culture and power structure was suddenly thrust into a world that I didn’t expect to see. Let me give you a bit of context. The place was a bar, see Bob Ahern I do have these incredible bar experiences, it was in Queens, New York and it was the day before I was to get onto a plane and fly to South Africa. I should tell you it was 1985. I was part of a mission trip to that troubled land to gain information, travel the country and see for ourselves what the dominant white culture was doing to the blacks in their own country, it was to be a time when we came back and tried to galvanize a country that was being led by a conservative president who liked doing business with South Africa.
That night I was filled with my own sense of purpose and feeling pretty good about myself. Just three years out of seminary, newly elected leader of a World Mission Committee for the Eastern District, American Lutheran Church, I was proud to be going, proud to soon to able to say, “I have seen oppression and we need to speak out against it.” I had all the marks of white privilege and sadly didn’t even know it.
I was blessed that night though. I was enlightened that, while it was a good thing to be going to South Africa. It was, more important to find out what I was, rather than tell others about what I was going to experience. You see, my good friend, Pastor Stephen Marsh, who was and still is an African-American pastor in the ELCA, then LCA, was with me this night. He took me out to that bar, something we had done many times before in Columbus, Ohio at Seminary. Most of the time we went to places in German Village or some place near the Seminary, the Leipzig House was one I remember. We went there with a mixed crowd, well mixed in that Steve was there and probably one of one or two African-American classmates were also in the crowd. This time it would be different, this place of good liquid refreshment was in a neighborhood that Steve served so well at that time. I suddenly realized that I was the only white person in the bar, which should have been okay, but it wasn’t. It seems that I was the one who suddenly felt more than a little uncomfortable. Steve could see it and he called me out and said the words printed above. Why? Well, because I was sitting there straight-backed against a wall, facing all those other people, not with open arms welcoming conversation and getting to know some people Steve knew, but with my arms tightly folded against my body. It was then that my eyes were opened and I knew it was true. I only had played at being enlightened, but actually was just hiding my true self too well.
So I discovered that night, thanks to Steve, that I am a racist. Now perhaps you might say I am being hard on myself since I had named my sin and confessed it as you will. But I don’t think so. I believe it still hangs with me. The events of the past few weeks have moved me to think again, to confess again, to acknowledge again that I still participate in that white privileged culture. I am and always will be a racist. I won’t be burning any churches down or calling for repeal of affirmative action programs, but I still am one. If I don’t examine myself and my motives often I suspect I will always be finding excuses for my occasional uncomfortable feelings when I am in the minority.
You see for me I was more than just uncomfortable that night, I was afraid. I who was filled with the indignation of a middle class white male at what South Africa was doing to their blacks that I didn’t know we were and still are doing it to our African-American brothers and sisters in this country and I was part of the doing of it too. Fear does that to us, doesn’t it. It makes us circle the wagons, in this case encircle my arms, to try and be safe at any cost. My luck and blessing that night was I was with someone who called me to a better understanding of who I was, a more honest understanding of myself.
When Steve and I and our friends would go out in Columbus, I never detected any of that from him. He never had his arms folded, stiff backed against a wall. He found a way to adapt, to be a part of, to accept his own differences from us and us from him. He who has every right to be afraid of white people did not give into fear. He chose love instead. It was out of love that he spoke to me that night. He was and is the better human being than I am. I thank him for his courage and honesty even after all these years.
I am glad I went to South Africa that year, I even got to meet Bishop Desmond Tutu while there, I talked to him and received communion from this joyous man. I was able to tell two white Americans, who if they weren’t CIA they were something even more secret, that they were, wrong for advocating more not less constructive engagement, actually I said, after they had made their pitch. “I grew up in a small town in Washington State and where I come from we call what you just said as Bull Shit!” I am most glad though that I went into that bar with Steve before I had even left and experienced the power of a prophetic and spirit filled word that continues to be with me now 20 years later.
Yes I am a racist and I daily ask God to transform me from being a fearful, white privileged older male to something brand new, someone who truly does believe and act like all are welcome. I believe God sent Steve into my life so that I could continue to wrestle with the Lord. I need those voices and memories more than I would like to admit, but am glad they are there still.