pre-blogging to prep for the Ferguson discussion

Posted: August 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

When my daughter Julia was a toddler, one of my great fears was fire.  I had survived two house fires (one of which I was home for – I was the one who woke the rest of the household so that we all got out) and I had heard quite a few stories in the news about children dying when they played with matches in their rooms and inadvertently burned their homes down around them.  So as soon as she had any language skill at all, I was impressing upon her the importance of never, EVER playing with matches – that she shouldn’t even TOUCH them.  I also had read too many horror stories about kids being hurt or killed by taking meds that they discovered that were not properly secured, so I hammered her about never taking any pills that her mom had not given her, EVER. 

In response, we had two separate incidents.  In one, I fumbled and dropped a box of matches.  Its contents flew out all over the floor.  In the other, a bottle of Tylenol fell out of my purse, with the lid popped off, and the tablets scattered.  In both cases, little toddler Julia froze in her tracks, spread her arms wide, palms up, and sort of held her breath. She didn’t move a muscle until I had picked up the offending dangerous items.  It was as if she expected the matches might light themselves, or the pills might somehow make a move on her.  In logical terms, it was an overreaction.  But in each case, I sure was glad to see that she had heard, believed, and chosen to obey my directive, even if it was to an extreme. 

The discussion surrounding what’s going on in Ferguson can feel for me a lot like those spilled matches and tablets felt to my daughter.  Danger, part of me silently shouts.  Don’t touch it!  So when the story first broke, I was very intentional in not reading about it.  Just the little bits that crossed my Facebook feed wrecked me, and I didn’t want to go get my heart broken again over a problem that just won’t die. 

But then I visited with my son Caleb, and he was gently corrective on that front.  I raised my kids to be aware and knowledgeable.  To have a conscience.  To speak up for what is right.  To be brokenhearted at the brokenness of this world.  I raised them to do their best to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, nor part of the oblivious, self-centered masses.  I raised them to understand that we are among the privileged rich folk of the world, even as much as we struggled financially while they were growing up – and that such privilege and wealth comes with great responsibility.  My faith does not equivocate on that point.    So here he was, calling all of this up in me.  Not letting me turn a blind eye to something important happening – something which I have a moral responsibility not to ignore.  Ugh.  Reluctantly, I started reading, following his very good advice to avoid any and all “comments” sections of news stories (why let the trolls stoke my rage, after all?) 

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My senior year in college, we got shafted by our school, where our financial aid package was concerned (I would later be told this was a fairly common practice of many schools for the senior year.)  Julia was 3.  My husband and I were both already working as many hours as could be managed with a full school load.  We considered our options; I saw only three ways through.  We could send Julia to live with family during the weeks for the entire school year, depending on the kindness of relatives, seeing her only on weekends, and thereby saving about $200 a month in daycare fees (this was 1987; wouldn’t you parents LOVE to get daycare for $200 a month now?!)  One of us could drop out of college to pay the bills.  Or we could move into the local low-income housing project. 

I couldn’t face the prospect of being a weekend-only parent.  And neither of us was willing to drop out of school, having worked so hard to get this far.  So I made an executive decision and forced the decision on all of us: we moved to the housing project.  This cut our expenses by about $200 a month, making it possible for us to eke our way through, with the help of food stamps and TANF and heating assistance and Medicaid and I think I was still receiving WIC as well.  We moved there in September, and the plan from day one was to move out within a few days of graduating in May. 

A few months later, I saw a sign on a wall as I went to class inviting anyone interested to attend a retreat weekend on racial reconciliation.  I walked straight from the sign to the professor whose name was at the bottom of it, and I signed up.  When we got to the retreat, I (one of the very few white faces in the room) was asked to share what brought me to the weekend. 

My first three years of college, I explained, I had lived in one of the college rental homes in a largely white neighborhood on a nice street.  There, I had almost never locked either my front or back door.  I had almost never locked my car.  I had come and gone freely, and I had never felt threatened.  Not ever.  Now, I lived in the housing project, where almost no one was the same color as me.  Family members who had lived there previously had told me not to hang my laundry on the clothesline outside of my front door unless I had time to watch it dry – it might be stolen.  In the middle of the night, we would regularly wake up to the sound of large groups of agitated young males just outside of our bedroom window, sounding like they were up to trouble.  It wrecked me, the difference between the two addresses. Something was horribly broken in our culture, and I wanted to be a part of the solution. 

I don’t remember anything else about the weekend, except for what a foreigner I was there.  The girls all bunked in one room; I, the lone caucasian and only wife/mom in the bunch, was as outsider as I could be. I was a white girl from a small town; we had a handful of black kids in our county, most of whom were foster kids being cared for by white parents.  I had never known a black person.  I didn’t know how to bridge the gap, but I watched and listened, fascinated, trying to understand people whose world and perspective were so different from mine.  The girls were nice,but they didn’t know quite what to make of me, either. 

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Fast forward about a year.  We had graduated from college; my husband had found a job teaching, after graduate school grants had fallen through.  We had moved to the country.  I was hugely pregnant. I worked sometimes as a substitute teacher, and along the way I picked up some work teaching GED classes in the evenings.  When I finished the course, Julia and I drove to the office that had hired me, which happened to be located next to a housing project in a different city, so that I could turn in my materials and get paid.  We got out of the car; as we walked up the sidewalk; the local preschool let out and a flood of beautiful children came streaming, yelling, joyously running out the door.  None of the children were the same color as us.  Julia, walking placidly beside me, reached out to hold my hand.  Calm, she inquired, “Mom, did you lock the car?” 

I was devastated by her question.  In our 9 months in the housing project, we had never even mentioned to her that we were now locking up – but she had noticed.  We had never thought to talk to her about the change in our lives, and she had drawn her own conclusion, even without us speaking bigoted words to her:  she believed the color of the neighbors was the reason for the need for locks.  This had NEVER been my reason, nor do I think it had been her dad’s thinking, either.  It was a rough neighborhood.  This was not due to the color of anyone’s skin, as far as we were concerned.  I was horrified, and ashamed that my child would be led to such a conclusion.  I spent quite a bit of time and energy working to dispel the lie that we had unknowingly sown into our innocent 4-year-old’s life.  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fast forward to 2007 – 2009.  I worked in a domestic violence shelter that was not located in my mostly-white, all-rural county.  That was my first up-close exposure to anyone black.  A shelter is a hard place to be.  If you have never had to be in one, you might suppose that the people staying there are filled with gracious gratitude.  That is largely not true.  A life that has landed in a shelter is full of pain and chaos, broken bridges, awful relationships, abandonment, and, where I was, abuse.  Most of these ladies were in too much pain to be graciously grateful.  Their awful lot in life brought that pain to the surface, and ladies of all colors tended to let it all hang out.  Regarding the ladies who were not the same color as me:  the culture they came from was markedly different from the one I did.  Being from a small, rural place had left me believing that people are all generally the same.  Encountering these ladies showed me how far from true that was.  Again, I felt like an alien among them.  As I struggled to understand them and pray for them, over and over again here’s what would happen:  I would catch myself judging “different” as “wrong.”  This was down to the smallest things, like speech mannerisms and volume.  I would watch, listen, and catch myself silently condemning them for not acting white. 

This horrified me, every time I bumped into it.  It was easy to see that the things I was judging were not wrong, just different.  So why was I so quick to think so harshly of them for the difference?  This was when I came to understand:  as much as I don’t want to be, I am a bigot.  This is something I will probably need to prayerfully work on correcting for as long as I live.  I hate it.  It is gross.  But it is in me. 

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Somewhere along about this time, I sat in my Sunday school room with my junior high kids.  We were working through a “survey of the faith” project that I was making up as I went along.  I wanted my kids to understand where Christianity had started and how it had changed over the years.  We were Southern Baptists, and one thing I knew about our denomination was that it was filled with certainty – we were the butts of this old tried and true joke:

One day a man dies, who was a devout Christian. Saint Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates and begins to give him a tour of Heaven. As the tour goes on, Saint Paul points out all the different Christians. “There’s the Catholics, there’s the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Presbyterians”, and so forth. As they come to this one group way off to themselves, Saint Paul motions for the man to come closer and whispers. “Now, for this next group, we need to be really quiet. They are the Baptists and they think they’re the only ones in Heaven.”

Before we started the project of studying and visiting other denominations, I wanted us to be humble.  So I taught my class how the Southern Baptist denomination originally split itself from the other Baptists:  it was an argument over slavery.  The other Baptists decided that holding slaves was a sin, and took a stand on it.  The Southern Baptists quoted scripture that they believed showed the Bible supporting slavery.  So they made their own “right to hold slaves” denomination.  And they didn’t get around to apologizing for that particular bit until the Clinton era. 

My class was horrified.  That was a somber, sober, fairly awful morning, when I told them about this.  I’m pretty sure no one wanted to be a Southern Baptist any more.  That was not my aim, in educating them; I just wanted them not to walk into every church with the Baptist “we are right and you are wrong” mindset that can be so prevalent. (Disclaimer:  I know and love a whole lot of Baptists – even Southern Baptists – who are not like that.  It’s just that there are enough who do to create a pretty believable stereotype, ya know?) 

That class was a really great bunch of girls.  Oh, how I loved them all!  All of us were white except one, who had a black father.  I challenged them, on another occasion.  I told them that if we are being honest, all of us struggle with racism to some degree or other.  The girl with the black father raised her eyebrows at that.  “Even me?”  I confirmed that yes, surely even she was.  She was a sweet and wonderful girl, and she was very polite with me that day, but I reckon that was hard for her to hear.  I still admire her, every time I remember how graciously she listened to me.  The thing we have to remember, I reminded them, is that racism isn’t only about black and white. Even if you have managed to have a completely equal and fair view of whites and blacks, there are all of those other races.  How do you feel about a dude in a turban?  A lady in a burka?  The tech from India who answers the phone, barely speaking English, to try and fix your internet problem?  Some are more evolved, more open than others.  But seriously:  if we are being honest, we are all racists to some degree. 

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The first time Obama was elected president, my kids and I sat up late watching election results and we cheered.  I was elated and tearful.  I knew this didn’t mean the end of racism in the USA, but it sure did seem like a hopeful beginning of the end.  We had finally elected a black man president.  His color was not our primary reason for casting our votes for him, but still – maybe our country was taking a baby step away from bigotry.  Caleb’s hope was so bolstered that he enlisted in the National Guard within days after the election, wanting to do his part for positive change. 

I went to his graduation for boot camp many months later – my mom and Julia and her then-fiance Zack and Caleb’s girlfriend all piled into a borrowed SUV and road-tripped to Fort Leonardwood for the big event.  We milled around near the building where the graduation was to be held and soon, here came marching soldiers.  Lots and lots of marching soldiers.  The ones at the front were all white.  And then, bringing up the rear, were the black soldiers. The segregation was not mandated – it was just how the boys lined up (and that still makes me feel sick and sad.)  Caleb was the lone white face in that bunch, all the way at the very back – he had been so disturbed by the racism of many of his fellow white soldiers that he couldn’t be friends with them.  My heart was proud at the physical and mental feats that my son had overcome to get to graduation, but doubly proud to see the affection that flowed between him and his many black friends.  To me, it looked like hope.

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I have a young friend who is doing his second prison sentence.  He is as white as I am.  I don’t know how this is playing out, this time around, but the last time, he had trouble and had to be kept “in segregation” for almost the entirety of his sentence?  The reason?  He befriended black prisoners, and white prisoners were systematically attacking him in response to that.  Basically, the prison was afraid he was going to get himself hurt or killed by being friends with black folks. 

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Recently several friends (none close friends) posted items on Facebook that pushed my white-hot-rage button, and poor G has had to listen to hours and hours of rants from me about that.  I don’t waste my white hot rage on white supremacist types or just plain idiots.  It is easy enough for me to just take a step back from that type and shake my head, and try to pray for them.  What pushes my button is “nice white people” who would absolutely never acknowledge to themselves, much less anyone else, that they are racist.  People who say things that will never in any way build toward racial reconciliation.  People who don’t believe that white privilege is a real thing.  You understand, it is NOT my right to judge, what with me not being God and all, but with that being said, I have to acknowledge two important points:  1)  I struggle with bigotry within myself – I will always fight it with everything I have, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get it killed; and 2) I judge nice white folks who won’t/don’t/can’t acknowledge their own bigotry.  I judge the crap out of them. I judge them mercilessly and unrepentantly, even though I know I have no right.  Part of me stepping into this blog, which I expect to be a series of two or maybe more entries, is an attempt to slap both the bigot and the judgmental wench that live inside of me.  Maybe I can get her to STFU already. 

My pastor taught this morning about compassion, and I understood as I listened that God was showing me to right way to look at/think about/talk about Ferguson.  This is no easy feat for me; on top of my own journey is the fact that my brother is a police officer, and I have deep respect for the work that he and many other officers to.  You will never find me universally trashing cops here, based on the behavior of a few – that would be as wrong as universally trashing a race based on the behavior of a few. 

Today’s blog was to show you a bit of my journey.  My next blog (which almost certainly won’t be done tomorrow) will be an attempt to share my perspective through a filter of compassion.  I feel like somebody dropped a box of matches at my feet, and I’d rather stand here, breathless and frozen, until someone else picks them up.

But my faith requires that I be a voice of reconciliation.  Fearful as I am, that’s where I shall tread next time we meet here. 

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Comments
  1. laurie says:

    I love this discussion. The response about locking up the car/house driven by color of skin –
    have to say I see that one differently.

    For me locking up would not be driven by the pigment tone of skin, but because of humanity’s internal character to embrace the opportunity to victimize should an unlocked door be found…….What the statistics show of who is committing the crimes…………..it is what it is. Loved this read and will read this again – thanks for making me think K!

    • karen says:

      Ahh, but you see, we didn’t lock at the address BEFORE the project and we didn’t lock at the address AFTER the project, so you can perhaps see why she didn’t come up with the explanation that you offer!

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