Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on August 23, 1963 just down the road from where I now sit. I was born a year later in August of 1964, a month after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, but into a country where Jim Crow laws, school segregation, and the concept of “separate but equal” lingered for many more years. Some would say vestiges of those immoral practices are with us still.
In my lifetime, we have seen undeniable forward progress. I stood with thousands of my fellow Americans on the mall in Washington, D.C. on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as our 44th president. I had tears streaming down my face as I watched the faces of the older African Americans surrounding me and talked to them about what this day meant to them. In spite of this progress, this past year we have had far too many reminders the work is far from over.
In response to these ongoing issues, our church is in the middle of a sermon series called “Race Matters” this month. It has been a powerful experience to hear our pastor recount the history of race relations in our country and remind us we are still far from where we need to be on these issues. This past Sunday, he talked about how we are living in the tension between the “already and the not yet.”
Our pastor challenged us to begin this journey towards reconciliation and owning our part in the solution by pausing. He said “we have a propensity to shut down the conversation by not being willing to live in the discomfort.” As part of my process of pausing, I decided to look back on some of the experiences I have had with issues of race which have formed me and informed me.
I apologize for the length of this post in advance, but I’m pretty old 🙂
As a Child- When I was in 4th grade in 1973, we lived in the suburbs of Richmond, VA. Desegregation had recently been instituted in that community, so I rode a bus into inner city Richmond to attend what had traditionally been a “black” school. Many of our white neighbors sent their kids to private schools, so I was one of only 4 white children in the 4th grade. Because we had recently moved to the area from a progressive school system in Ohio, I was well ahead of the other children academically and spent large portions of the day separated from the rest of the class for my lessons. In spite of being “different” in a myriad of ways, I was treated with nothing but kindness, acceptance and love by the other children and the primarily black staff.
Already- Just as Rev. King had “dreamed” only a decade earlier, black children and white children played and learned together in my 4th grade class. Because our homes were still mostly segregated, going to this school gave me a positive experience with people who looked different than me and it changed the way I looked at the world going forward. I like to think the black children who might remember me as their first white friend feel the same way.
Not yet– In spite of their desire to do what they considered the right thing, my parents were ultimately faced with the reality of the quality of education I was receiving. The school I was attending in downtown Richmond was dramatically under resourced. Because they had the means to do so, they transferred me and my sister to a private school the next year. To this day, schools in economically disadvantaged areas with large minority populations perform far below their counterparts in areas with more resources. We have not yet lived up to our commitment to educate all our children equally.
Raising my kids- In 1997, when my girls were 1 and 3, we moved into a suburban cul-de-sac here in Virginia with a family who had children the exact same ages. We laughingly refer to the time when our children were young as the “commune” years because the kids ran freely between our two homes, seldom knocking as they let themselves in and raided whichever kitchen was closest when they got hungry. We are still friends with this family almost 20 years later and spend Christmas Day with them every year.
When my youngest was 4 or 5, she learned about Martin Luther King and his dream in preschool. Prior to this discussion, it had never occurred to her that playing with a friend with brown skin was something about which anyone would think twice because her best friend, her “commune” sister, had brown skin. When she got home that day, she was crying in anger and disbelief because of what she had learned that day about the history of how people who looked like her friend had often been treated in our country. She wanted to fight anyone who would be mean to her friend and, at one point, in the conversation she said “I am embarrassed to be white.” I told her and her sister that day to never forget that feeling when they see racism and prejudice in the future. While they were not responsible for what happened before they were born, they are responsible for what happens next.
Already- My children and these children who I love like my own had the experience of growing up with someone who looked different than them. They will never hear a racial joke, slur or stereotype without the face of someone they love like their own family being attached. My husband and I have had the opportunity to examine our own response to issues of race in light of our relationship with our dear friends and have frank discussions with them about their unique experience and how they differ from our own.
Not yet- Though we live in the same community, our experience raising our kids has been different from my friends’ experience. Even in a seemingly diverse community, their kids are still by far the minority and have dealt with differing expectations and treatment because of the color of their skin. When we watch the news, I am heartbroken, but my friend is terrified. She fears for her sons’ safety in a world where young men of color are more likely to die from violence than any other cause. I don’t have the same fears for my blonde daughters. As my pastor said yesterday, as followers of Jesus, we can’t rest until all our children are seen as God’s children and are valued and protected equally. Black lives matter.
My own family– I had a complicated relationship with my father. He suffered from alcoholism and his disease often kept him from being the father he might have been to the three of us. Born in 1943 in the south, he was the first in his family to finish high school and college. His parents, wonderful Christian people, used the N word on occasion without shame because it was accepted in their community. My father attended college in the 1960s and tried to break from his “red neck” roots, but he still occasionally made racial observations which made me cringe, perhaps a product of his generation’s confusion and ambivalence about matters of race.
However, in the last years of his life, in spite of his ongoing battle with his disease, my father found some degree of peace and happiness in the arms and in the faith community of his young, African-American wife. We celebrated with him in her traditional black church in North Carolina when they got married. The same loving, healing community of faith welcomed us back 8 months later when he died. In spite of his illness, this community loved him well in his last days when it was hard for us to do so because of years of emotional baggage. I will never forget singing with the choir at the wedding and again at his funeral.
Already- My dad was 25 years old when interracial marriage was finally legalized in 1968. While still not commonplace, interracial marriage is now accepted in most communities and biracial children are not seen as unusual. He was able to be with the woman he loved with few repercussions.
Not yet-The fact that I mentioned my dad’s church as being a “traditional black church” is a symptom of the glaring disconnect we are still experiencing in terms of our places of worship. While our places of business, our schools and the military are increasingly integrated, Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week, with only 5% of American churches being racially integrated.
So now what? This is a glimpse into my story, what about yours? Where do we go from here? As a white person, what is my role and responsibility in fighting ongoing racial discrimination? How do I offer support to my loved ones whose skin color is different from mine? How does my white privilege blind me to racism that may be all too apparent to people of color? What unique part does our generation have to play in this conversation? What example are we setting for our children if we remain silent?
What about MLK’s dream? Already and not yet.