One of my closest friends, a white American woman, is married to a black Jamaican man. She doesn’t really watch the news and so I was explaining to her what I had read/heard about the situation that has been unfolding in Ferguson, MO. She mentioned her own awakening awareness of racism since marrying a black man and, unfortunately, his introduction to racism since moving to the U.S.
At the age of 22 I worked for the summer at a camp in Wisconsin. Most of the kids coming to the camp were from inner city Chicago. Black city kids at a mosquito infested Christian camp with an almost only white staff. It was a particularly difficult summer for me and likely also for them. This was partly because I had just been kicked out of Bible college, and my inner brokenness made me more fragile and less capable of connecting with my campers.
White people who want to steer clear of being called racist tend to do an opposite kind of injustice to their fellow brown humans by pretending that skin color is the only difference, missing the rich differences in culture. I have never heard a black person make this same mistake. On my first or second week as a counselor at camp, I was wrestling heavily with the communication-by-insult factor. On my insistence that regardless of how ubiquitous this was in their families and communities, it was still not nice, one savvy 12yr old said with great inflection, “You don’t know many black people, do you?”
I didn’t bluster and say, “I have black friends” because I honestly didn’t. Growing up in the suburbs of North Seattle did not bring me into contact with very many black people….
So when my white friend married to a black man asked me how she could help him learn about and process our American racism, I had a sad internal question mark.
But let me be clear about my ignorance. It goes a lot farther than problems that I don’t have. It has only been in the last few years that I have begun to realize what a problem sexism is. And I am most definitely a woman. Being largely unaware of social misogyny has had less to do with its non-existence and more to do with a deeply imbedded world view which has blinded my eyes to its manifestations.
What I’m coming to understand about the oppression of women is something that I think is also true of the varying infestations of racism. At a base level people seem to view differences as negative and somehow proof that The Other, if we do not make them Less, will try to make us Less. I have been the only despised American in a group of Europeans but I have also been pulled over by a cop here in the U.S and treated like a fluffy little lamb on her way to school. Regardless of my guilt the reaction of the people encountering me had only to do with how I looked and talked and nothing to do with who I actually am.
Am I racist? This is a question that haunted me when I was growing up. Racism seemed like a virus that may lie dormant in some unsuspecting innocent and then one day come blaring out like that monster in the movie Alien. I can’t be black. I’ve spent time in other countries and know what it means to be The Outsider, but I don’t know it means to be considered an outsider in my own country.
The only thing I know how to do right now, pathetically, is say that I believe you and I care about your pain. Even as I continue to wake up more and more to our inherited misogyny, I am waking up also to our racism and I will do whatever I can to call it out and oppose it. May God give us the grace for real change to finally occur.