Despite people's disclaimers, they held plenty of stereotypes. I saw glimpses all the time—the assumption that I had grown up in a ghetto, that of course I could sing and had rhythm. But my dance moves, which these off-the-wall white folk thought cool, had sent my siblings to the floor in fits of laughter. Most outlandish, however, was their admiration of my basketball savvy, which was non-existent. But I wanted approval so desperately I actually did my best to act out the stereotypes, faking it all the way.
I held within me a question that I didn't know how to formulate nor had the courage to ask: What hides behind white people's claim not to notice race?
During the fifties and sixties, as social mores liberalized and racial intolerance became stigmatized, white liberals chose color blindness. Not seeing race at all proved—to themselves at least—that they were not prejudiced, and served as a way to say, “I'm not a bigot.” For white liberals, facing glaring racial inequities and knowing the game was rigged in their favor, the feeling of guilt was unavoidable—as was the suspicion that blacks couldn't help but hate them for it. Saying “I'm color-blind” was like an incantation invoked to ward off these feelings. It was more a defense than a virtue, a willful naïvete which, like so much else, served white self-interest. If you ignore my color you can't understand the oppressive social reality that impinges upon Afro-American lives at every moment. Yet if you notice only my color you misread who I am. Color blindness protects whites from knowing that which they have to labor not to know. [And their need not to know keeps them from] simply asking me, “How is it for you?” [From In Between by Mark Morrison-Reed, pp. 92-93]
In between. In between. We all live parts of our lives in between. In these times of great anxiety and great possibility, we live in between our awareness of the world as it is and our hope for what the world can become. Today, November 9, 2008 is the 70th anniversary of the infamous Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, where State sponsored rioting terrorized German Jews destroying Jewish homes, Jewish businesses, Jewish synagogues, and Jewish lives. Today, November 9, 2008 is also the 19th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We live in between. We are not as divided as we might be nor are we as unified as we might be. We are in between.
One of the perks I enjoy is that am frequently asked to review books published by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s publishing house. What this means is that I get emails from Boston offering me a free copy, often an advance copy, of one of their books in exchange for my willingness to write a review of it. When I got an email asking me if I would be willing to review the memoirs of The Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed, I jumped at the chance. Days later, a package from Boston arrived containing a copy of the book In Between: Memoir of an Integration Baby.
An Afro-American minister in a predominantly white denomination, Morrison-Reed writes about his own struggle to develop an identity while growing up on Chicago’s South Side first during a period of neighborhood tumult caused by white flight, then during the 60s civil rights movement, and then as a college-aged young adult during the Black Empowerment movement.
The blurb on the back of this book gives a not at all subtle hint as to why I’ve decided to place this book at the center of my sermon this morning. The blurb says, “In Between gives voice to the unspoken story of those Afro-Americans who were among the first to bring racial diversity to their neighborhood, school, church, or workplace.” Now that we can add the Oval Office to that list of firsts, the lessons Reverend Morrison-Reed’s life has to teach are all the more important.
My words this morning, however, will not just focus on the story of his life, nor will they exclusively dwell on the significance of our nation electing a black man to the white house. This sermon is for us. It is for us. I want to challenge the way we think about race. I want for us to grow in our awareness of what it means for us to be a predominantly white church. I want for us to understand a little of what persons of color experience when they walk through our doors. I want us to think about what it means for us to be a church that is located two blocks, almost visual distance, from a Head Start that is extremely racially diverse, about what it means for this congregation to be situated in a community that is one of the enclaves of growing racial diversity in Johnson County. And, I want for us to explode the concept of Johnson County as racially monotone. We know that Olathe has a substantial Latino population and that Roeland Park and Mission both have growing Latino populations as well. Just to our North the neighborhood is growing increasingly diverse. If you have taken a tour of the Stowers Institute on the Missouri side, you know that it attracts world class talent. Its research scientists hail from Korea and Japan, India and Indonesia, Turkey and Brazil, Germany and Sweden. So too do corporations like Sprint add to the multiculturalism of our suburbs, hiring talent who practice Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and even Zoroastrianism.
Early in Mark Morrison-Reed’s memoirs we learn something astounding about his family story. His great-grandmother had been a slave, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and by the Civil War. Her grandson, the author’s father, was a graduate student in nuclear chemistry who went to work on the Manhattan project during World War II, working on the chemistry of heavy metals that would be used to build the first atomic bomb. While remarkable, this rise from human bondage to the hallowed halls of academia within the course of two generations did not mean the author’s family was immune to the effects of racism. His father described his work on the Manhattan project as helping “democratized racism to defeat racist fascism.”
To give you an idea of why he felt this way, consider this: All of the white scientists in the laboratory enlisted in the Armed Forces, were quickly advanced through an officer training course in a matter of weeks, and returned to the laboratory with rank. Mark’s father was denied this opportunity on account of the color of his skin. Following the war, his co-workers were allowed to dip into all kinds of veteran benefits. For example, because he was not allowed to enlist, Mark’s father was ineligible to use the G.I. Bill to pay for the completion of his academic preparation.
There are some things I want to say about racism. First of all, I think there is a great imprecision in how many of us think about racism. We tend to confuse racism with race-based prejudice. They are not the same thing. Prejudice deals with what happens inside our own individual brains. Racism is something that is systemic. Racism has been defined as the multiplication of power and prejudice. Under this definition some scholars of racism have argued that it is impossible for almost all African-Americans to be racist. While it is possible for a person of color to harbor prejudicial feelings about people of another race, this theory holds that most African-Americans lack the systemic power to actually deprive other people of anything based on the prejudices they hold. Other thinkers who deal with systemic racism disagree, saying that this theory denies the agency and power that people of color do have.
You may or may not agree with these theories of racism, but there is another part of racism that I think is important to point out. Racism is not only systemic, but it has a time component to it. It has a history, a past, present, and future. Over the course of history, racist systems have granted privileges to some and not to others. White privilege means a lot of different things. It means, for example, that as a white man I can go into any neighborhood of this city, any restaurant, any store, any gated community without being asked why I am there, or getting stopped by the police because I seem suspicious and out of place.
Suppose I go to a fancy event at a hotel. I show up wearing my sharpest suit, but the friend I am supposed to meet is running a little late so I wait there in the lobby. White privilege means, if I am standing there, nobody is going to hand me a suitcase, thinking that I am the bellhop. Or, if I wait for my friend outside, white privilege means that nobody is going to toss me car keys thinking I am the valet. When I do weddings I never cease to be amazed (although I’m never that surprised either) when I observe an African-American guest being handed some white person’s empty wine glass or dirty plate because the white guest assumes that the black man in a suit must be with the caterer. I’ve seen a black man stand in front of the guests as a groomsman at the wedding only to be mistaken for event staff during the reception.
Tim Wise, a writer and public speaker on anti-racism talks about white privilege in very personal terms. [You can find one of his lectures here on YouTube.] He talks about growing up very white and very poor in the south. When it came time for him to go to college, he was accepted to Tulane, a school that is prestigious and expensive. His family could not afford it. Fortunately, Tim’s grandmother lived in a fairly upscale neighborhood and was able to put her house up as collateral so that Tim could get the money he needed for tuition. So far, this story is not all that different from what many families do to allow their children to get a leg up by attending an upper tier school. Only Tim’s grandmother had bought her home in a white-flight part of a city that was bound by racial covenants and where a person of color would not be allowed to live. This house was a great investment. Its value skyrocketed. It paid for her grandson’s college. This is how white privilege passes from generation to generation.
Before the election, some of you may have seen the email authored by Tim Wise looking at the candidates for office through the lens of white privilege. (You can find it easily if you google it.) One paragraph in that email compares the education of the candidates for office and asks, “What would people say if Governor Sarah Palin had been African-American?” As you may know, Governor Palin received her Bachelor's degree from the University of Idaho after attending four different schools (not including two separate stints at the University of Idaho) in three different states in the span of five years.
And, I want to pause right here to say that I bring this up not to take a cheap shot or to pile on. Because the question before us is how we make sense out of this fact. If Palin had been African-American, chances are somebody would have said to her, “You know what? Maybe college is not for you.” Or, “Maybe you are not smart enough.” And, some people would have inevitably thought to themselves or muttered to others, “Well, you know the only reason she was accepted is because she is black and the school was just trying to fill a quota system. That’s why she can’t keep up. And some deserving white student lost was deprived because they took her.”
A white student is less likely to hear this. A white student who goes through a string of transfers, a back-and-forth between community colleges and the University, is adjusting, is trying to find himself or herself. A white student seldom hears, “You’re not smart enough for college,” seldom hears, “College is probably not for you.” In fact, it is often a foregone conclusion that the white student deserves that degree because it is assumed that the white student possesses the innate intelligence that is required. The white student just needs to choose to apply himself or herself. Having other people assume that you are intelligent is white privilege.
And again, this is not about taking a cheap shot or piling on. This is to point out that other people will tend to take our actions, our stories, and place them into some kind of narrative in order to make sense out of them. And, the stories that people create to talk about the lives of African-Americans are often different than the stories people create to make sense of the experiences of whites. People who have skin color like mine are given the benefit of the doubt.
White privilege means also never having to live with the pressure that your behavior or your actions will be taken to represent your entire race or ethnic group. If I finish this sermon today and then decide to go hold up a convenience store (and whether I do this or not will depend on how much we collected in the baskets this morning) my actions will not be interpreted as me acting out some tendency of the white race. However, if I were a person of color, my actions would be seen as fulfilling a tendency of my race. I get to be an individual, not a caricature. I get to be a person, not a stereotype.
The Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed grew up in between. His father, as a star scientist at the University of Chicago, was a black man in an almost exclusively white profession. As a child, his mother rigidly enforced a standard of manners and personal conduct lest he be seen, in her words, as a “common negro.” His life was literally in between, neither one thing nor another. Though growing up with access to the world of educationally elite whites, he did not fit. White parents forbade their daughters from dating him; the University denied housing to his parents. Though growing up in a neighborhood with other black children, he was equally and always an outsider to that culture as well. He was a target of gangs and exiled for not supporting black militancy in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination.
His parents joined the First Unitarian Church in Chicago, a church that until the middle of the 20th century had a by-law stating that blacks were ineligible for membership. It took a resolution from the women’s group and then the threat of resignation from their popular minister for this rule to be done away with in 1947.
Perhaps there is no more poignant passage in the book than his passage about him singing with the Chicago Children’s Choir, started by the First Unitarian Church not long after the church had begun to integrate. When Morrison-Reed joined, there was only one other person of color. He tells of avoiding her, of looking away, because recognizing her meant recognizing himself and recognizing his own difference was too painful. My own heart breaks at the thought of these two young children doing something brave, joining an all white choir, taking on that pioneer role. My heart breaks thinking of them not recognizing each other out of some deep place of shame or pain, of forsaking the support they might have been to one another because it was too hard for him to see himself in her and for her to see herself in him.
Last Tuesday the election was called at 10:00 Central Time for Senator Barack Obama. By the time the dust was settled, he would claim 365 electoral votes, 95 more than he needed, meaning he could have conceded the two largest states he won, California and New York, and he still would have had votes to spare. Just as Mark Morrison-Reed was among the first to bring racial diversity to his school, church, and workplace, President-elect Obama is the first to bring racial diversity into the Oval Office, an office once held by a slaveholder named Thomas Jefferson and by the man, Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, an office once held by Andrew Jackson, who ordered the Trail of Tears, and by Lyndon Johnson, who signed into law civil rights legislation.
The day after the election, the Unitarian Universalist Association sent flowers to the descendents of James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, two Unitarian Universalists who lost their lives taking part in the march on Selma led by Dr. King. In part, it was their sacrifice that made possible the election of a person of color to the highest office in the United States. In his victory speech on Tuesday night, President-elect Obama asked us what we would be willing to sacrifice so that our children might see the same advancement of human liberty in our time.
In between. In between. These words not only describe the life of this one UU minister, living in between two worlds divided into black and white. They describe a society in which people live in between the reality of their condition and the high ideals and promises of liberty. They describe those in our world who have slipped in between the cracks of the foundation of a good and just nation.
In Seamus Heany’s poem, “The Cure at Troy,” he writes,
History says, Don't hopeMy challenge for you today is this. My challenge to every white member of this congregation is to grow in your awareness and your understanding of white privilege, to more fully recognize all of the advantages afforded to you by your skin color. My challenge is also to ask yourself, “What is my responsibility knowing that I belong to a society that affords me privileges I did nothing to earn?” And, my challenge for all of us is to believe and to never stop believing, in the poet’s words, that hope and history can rhyme. Amen.
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.