Sunday, July 28, 2013

the conversation about race we really need to have....

I've talked to several people over the last week who I like and respect who just didn't 'get' what President Obama said about 'race' in his surprise appearance before the White House Press Corps. Those folks heard the words and understood them, but just didn't 'get' why he was talking about race.

That, it seems to me, is the problem and why we need to have the conversation about race that the President suggested we really need to have. What I heard him saying was that white folk just don't 'get' what it's like to be Black in America. And that's what we need to talk about: why we white folk don't 'get it' about what it's like to be Black.

It's akin to saying Jews don't understand what it means to be Palestinian. And vice-versa.

I'm part of a group that does a lot of work in Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. And what we've discovered is that if you ask Protestants in the north of Ireland to explain how the Catholics feel, they can do it. And if you ask Catholics to explain how the Protestants feel, they can do it. They can, to a great extent, 'tell each others' stories'. They really can. That doesn't make it any better, but it is interesting.

Black Folk and White Folk, in this country, can't tell each others' stories. We just can't. And that is the conversation we need to have. I suspect, deep down, that Black Folks can tell our White Folks story a lot better than we can tell theirs' because they pay more attention to us than we do to them. That's just me thinkin' out loud, it's not the Truth.

I grew up in the southern most county of West Virginia. We were farther south than Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. And the place I grew up was almost equally divided between White and Black--about 50-50. Nowhere outside the deep south in those days had those demographics.

So I 'knew' Black Folks from my birth. And I paid a lot more attention to them, since there were so many of them, than I would had I grown up in suburban Connecticut or suburban 'anywhere', where Black Folks are in a distinct minority.

And here's the Truth about my experience (it's not just me talkin') I was never ever afraid of a Black person when I grew up. But then, I wasn't afraid of any White person either. AND, the Black folks the age of my parents called me, almost invariably, "Mister Jimmy" and I didn't know any Black folks my age since my father forbade me to play with them and I was an obedient boy. And, until I was in my teens, it never bothered me that Black Folks of a certain age called me "Mister Jimmy" or that I didn't know any Black Folks my age.

How crazy is that? I grew up surrounded by African Americans and never once questioned why the adults treated me with deference (even knowing my name when I didn't know theirs) and I don't remember a single conversation with a Black child my age though there were at least as many of them as White children. How crazy is that?

I never went to school with a Black kid until my Senior Year of High School when the Black school since over three male athletes and two brilliant girl students because everyone knew the schools would be combined the next year and those 5 young people (football and basketball stars and honor roll students) were to pave the way.

I liked them all, and because I was smart, I was in the same classes with the two girls and one of the boys. It was the first time I ever talked with Black Folks my age. (When I went to college, I became good friends with Ron Wilkerson, who went to the Black high school about a quarter of a mile from the White high school. He used to tell his friends, when he introduced me, "Jim and I went to different schools together!" It always got a laugh because we all--Black and White--back then, understood what that meant. We were noble enough to know it had been wrong, but not yet empowered to critique and reject it.)

My first call as a priest was to an African-American parish in Charleston WV. Our children grew up around Black people and when we moved to New Haven, Josh and Mimi would rush over to Black Folks on the street or in a store and embrace their knees. Most of the Black Folks were horrified and would raise their hands to show us they weren't touching our children.

How crazy was that? In the 80's of the last century, good and decent Black folks were afraid that a white child hugging them might be misinterpreted?

I also served two other parish that were deeply integrated and worked for a few years in a Training Center that was 95% minority students.

So, I have some 'creds', as we say. I have lived and loved and had my being among Black Folks for much of my adult life. And here's the awful truth....

Tonight, a Sunday in July, I was out on the back porch and saw two Black teenaged boys walking down Cornwall Avenue, in the road, not on the sidewalk.

They were dressed no differently than the dozens of white teenage boys I see every day on Cornwall--mostly in the road and not on the sidewalk. And I felt, for just a moment, until I caught myself, an irrational feeling. Like this: 'what are they doing here?' 'what is this about?' 'Who are those kids?'

Then I caught myself. Then I took a deep breath and thought how important it is for us, as white folks, to have the discussion on 'race' the President began.

More than most people in Cheshire, and I feel safe in saying this, I 'know' Black Folks and have been taught much about race by them and have loved them and been loved and accepted by them.

So, if I could feel those irrational feelings about those two innocent black teens for even a few moments....

Well, you know what I'm saying. We need to talk about 'race' in a way we never have before. And we have to approach it in a way none of us wants to approach a conversation--we need to admit, straight up and from the beginning, that we have much more to learn, as White folks, than we have to teach, that we come at a 'race' conversation as people who have been half-asleep while Black people have been wide-awake, that we don't have a clue what it means to 'be Black', no more than we know what it's like to defy gravity. We can't levitate and we can't 'be Black', but we can begin to listen and commit ourselves to learn, and we willing to discover how stupid--I really mean that, how "STUPID" White Folks are about Black Folks.

Only if we're willing to do that can the conversation begin....Only then.....That's the only way it will work and that's why it hasn't worked yet.

So agree not to levitate and to be really 'stupid' so the conversation can begin....

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.