I do not have any close friends who are black.
Which is hyperbole.
Which is true.
As a white, European-American Caucasian, I’ve had friends, colleagues, fellow students, and neighbors that were red, brown, yellow, black and white, and all precious in God’s sight**. And precious in my sight, too.
And yet, as a pre-teen kid who once watched TV, riveted by the shaky black-and-white images of fire hoses aimed at fellow citizens, and attack dogs released into Birmingham, Alabama crowds at African-American men, women, and children, how many close friends did I have who were black? And this question also, right now, over a half-century later: while viewing the high-tech drone footage of a Dodge Challenger accelerating into a crowd of Charlottesville anti-Nazi, anti-white supremacist, anti-hate protesters, have I ever had a deep, heartfelt relationship with someone who is black?
You probably have.
I was raised in the California ‘burbs of the 1950s and 60s. When looking back at the school pictures, from Kindergarten through high school, I see a sea of white faces. Mine. Others. Nearly everyone. In high school’s four awkward years, there was one black family: the Bakers.
When is our world view—what I think, based on what I’ve seen—fixed and established? At what point are personal values—my beliefs, my prejudices, my codes of right vs. wrong—embedded within us? I’ve read that before the fifth candle on the cake is lighted, most of our personality has been formed. In our first years, who raises us and how we are raised, literally makes all the difference in our selfish, selfless, grave-bound, graceful lives.
I was stunned by diversity when I started college. Red, brown, yellow, black and white, oh my!
But even before college, because of that electronic box in the family room, I’d seen and heard Martin Luther King, Jr. preach. Why did I think, in some palpable, magical way, that I did know him? And what did it mean for me, an introverted white kid in the whitest of white suburbs, to have the New York Giants leave the east coast for San Francisco in 1958? During high school, if you’d asked me to quote statistics on the greatest baseball player of all time, I could’ve told you “everything” about Willie Mays. What if I’d been born earlier and resented that Jackie Robinson “broke the color barrier?” How much does when we are born or where we are born influence us?
Were my parents prejudiced? Like most families then and now, we worshipped on Sundays during America’s most segregated hour. And yet, whatever their biases, whatever their beliefs, my very white parents never once said or did anything in my presence that caused me to feel that my “color” was superior . . . or another’s inferior. I recall no awkward jokes, no belittling of any racial/ethnic groups, no subtle or overt actions that might plant the seeds of hatred.
Still, though, I’m white.
I am a white, male, heterosexual, born-in-America citizen who has never worried about my skin color causing me problems. Not once.
I’ve been stopped for speeding. I was speeding!
I’ve been rejected for jobs. I wasn’t the best qualified for the position!
I’ve had undercover “cops” detain and question me. As stupid as that incident was, I didn’t dread unfair consequences.
(Explanation: two plain-clothes National Park rangers stopped me in Yosemite Valley. They thought me a drug dealer, running away from them. Just before being released, I asked one ranger: Why me? He said their suspect was white, had a beard, wore boots, jeans, and a down vest. It was spring! That description matched every white dude roaming Yosemite!)
No one has ever introduced me as a white preacher.
No one has referred to me as the white guy that does grief support for a hospice.
No one has asked me to write something from a “white perspective.”
If I am not a person of color, what color am I?
Does Crayola still offer flesh-colored crayons? Not since 1962, when it was dubbed “peach,” Hmmm?
Why, on a health care form I completed yesterday, was “White” at the top of the race choices? Why weren’t “Asian” and “Black” alphabetically above “White?”
I grew up with “pictures” of Jesus looking like . . . me. Well, me if I was handsome, had long flowing hair, and sported a freshly-ironed robe. In the Sunday school illustrations, God, was an old man (my age now) with an impressive beard and was . . .
I am ashamed that some Christian faith traditions have referenced the “mark of Cain,” claiming that a darker-skinned brother was the killer in the mythic story of Cain and Abel. I am ashamed that the “Good Book” was used to justify owning a slave. The Bible abounds with slavery references, each like low fruit, waiting to be plucked as a lazy excuse for hatred. I am ashamed to be an American, with a Constitution that identified slaves as 3/5 of a citizen. I am ashamed that as a young child traveling in the Jim Crow south for a vacation, I stared through my safe rear seat window and thought all blacks were poor. On that vacation, only a “No Vacancy” sign would’ve prevented my family from staying in a nice motel for the night.
I have lived my life with the luxury of having no fear. No hatred. No violence.
My country’s deepest wound is racism. A nation proclaiming life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has enslaved Africans, slaughtered Native-Americans, and imprisoned citizens because they were of Japanese lineage. These travesties weren’t isolated events. They were perceived, for centuries, as SOP . . . standard operating procedure. How long before we are healed? Better question: how can I, here and now, help the healing continue?
It’s not about making a friend, but creating true community.
I am angered and ashamed by President Trump. His reactions to the tension and tragedy in Charlottesville were not impeachable offenses. But his trite tweets and stilted statements were deplorable. How simple can it get? If one side flaunts a swastika, they are to be condemned. Need me to repeat that?
Were groups like the scary, aggressive Black Panthers inevitable? Do we now need the confrontational Black Lives Matter? Sadly . . . I believe more yes than no. Back in the 60s, did I prefer Martin Luther King’s way over Malcolm X’s way? Sure. In our tormented, history-forgetting, let-freedom-selectively-ring country, is there any justification for groups espousing Nazism, white supremacism, or hatred toward blacks, Jews, and others? Never.
My faith, the best part of it, the hardest part of it, the daily struggle part of it, the pieces of it gifted to me by my parents, the shards borne by the cathode ray tubes showing Rev. King, the costly slices demanded by Jesus’ unsettling call to love your neighbor (with no exceptions), all scratch against my pale skin. It digs through my flesh and bone. It plunges into my soiled soul. And I, with few friends, and personal experiences limited by birth and zip code and era, believe in my heart of hearts, that my faith as a Christian means that all are . . .
** C. Herbert Woolston (1856-1927) wrote the original lyrics to “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” which may not have included “brown” in the original list of colors. Hmmm? And the tune used by George F. Root was apparently inspired by a Civil War-era song, “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching.” Me, I just remember belting out this song in Sunday school . . .