I was listening to the great coverage on MPR of the recent murder of black men and the relationship between African-Americans and the police. A guest on the show I was listening to quoted a white police officer who frankly revealed that he was afraid of black men, especially large black men. Of course, fear drives behavior, often causing very irrational behavior, and if you listened to or saw the video taken after Philando Castile’s murder, you could hear the fear in the voice of the officer who killed him. As I listened to this story, it struck me, I am too. I’m afraid of black men too. I’ve been at least aware of my own racism since seminary, since 2002 or so, probably. It’s one of things I’m most grateful for about seminary, that I got a little anti-racism training and came to accept that “racism=prejudice+power,” and therefore most white people, especially and including myself, are racist whether we want to be or realize it or not. It’s a system we’re born into, again whether we like it or not. I could quote the statistics, but any earnest person reading this can quickly find evidence of systemic white privilege, of disparities between whites and blacks in wealth, in opportunities, in arrest and incarceration rates, and I could go on and on. I’m not really writing to debate these truths. I’m writing to confess my renewed awareness of the depth of my own racism, and perhaps discuss what I might do about it.
Naturally I like to think of myself as being fairly egalitarian, fairly self-aware and justice minded. When given the opportunity to interact with colleagues at work who happen to be people of color, or when out in the community in various settings, I like to think that I try to treat everyone lovingly, or if not lovingly, at least justly and kindly. I’m sure I fail at this as I do at so many things, but again that’s not really my point. My point is that I’ve long thought that in some small ways at least I was arguably moving in the right direction. There’s evidence even that I’ve had in my life very loving relationships with black folks. Take Willie and Nate for example.
That’s Nate there on my back, where he basically lived (on my back) the summer I did Kingdomworks. Willie, his brother, has his back to the camera. I worked hard to build a relationship with and love Willie that summer, such that as the summer ended, just as I was leaving, after witholding such displays and words of affection all summer, at the last possible minute Willie told me he loved me. I have other evidence too. Many years after that summer, Kirsten and I became foster parents to two young black boys:
That’s J’air and I. He’s the younger of the two boys we were foster parents of for a while. Do these efforts to love people of color, in these two cases black kids, make me some kind of saint? Of course not, and here’s just part of the reason why.
Black boys grow up to become black men.
And, I must regretfully confess, like so many white police officers and white people generally, I believe, on some level, in some way, I am afraid of black men. I know this in part because despite decades now of being aware of this impulse and what it represents, in non-controlled settings if I pass a black man on the street I still instinctively reach for my wallet at some point, just to make sure it’s still there. Maybe this is just “street smarts,” but in those non-controlled settings when passing black men on the street, I still keep my head on a swivel as much as I can. My senses are heightened; my mind is churning. I don’t like that I do this, and I don’t want to do it, but it feels instinctive.
What is this instinct then, I wonder? What is this really about?
Remembering that “racism=prejudice+power,” I think much of this “instinctual” behavior on my part has to do with my power, my power as a historically and statistically rich white person. My wallet grants access to my identity and also to all the money I’m supposed to be stewarding. My privilege usually insulates and protects me, thereby reinforcing that economic and systemic power I so often unwittingly wield. I have a car that I often drive alone. The townhouse my family rents has an attached garage and is located in a largely white, though changing, suburb. The congregation I too seldomly participate in is mostly white, and (again historically and statistically) wealthy. My kids go to good schools. In too many ways to count, all the systems that support me in my way of life also isolate and insulate me, protecting me from situations when that power and privilege might be put at risk.
The proverbial non-controlled situation when I might pass a black man on the street, then, is inherently one that finds me stripped of many of those isolating, insulating protections, and the resultant physical proximity to a black man stirs fear in me that my privilege might be at risk. Again statistically, chances are that my economic standard of living is better than the proverbial black man I’m passing, or at least that’s what I assume; so I likewise fear and assume that he might try to take what I have. Look, crime happens, and I don’t want to be naive, but there’s something wrong with this picture.
There are many things wrong with this picture. It starts with why statistically I’m likely to better off financially than my black brothers and sisters. It starts with all the systems of white power and privilege that perpetuate my way of life. That’s where it starts. But where does it end? I know that I must renew my efforts to not just “not be racist,” because I benefit from most of society’s structures in ways that make that well nigh impossible. I must work harder to be actively anti-racist. I must work to strip away all the barriers that protect my privilege, and isolate me from people of color, trapping both of us in our relative positions of power or lack thereof. Working to love and serve black kids in the ‘hood, even bringing them out of it as a foster parent, those are arguably nice steps in a better direction.
But they’re not nearly enough. I know I need to educate myself a little more, a little better. It would be helpful to have a better grasp on the issues including the mass incarceration of black men, the militarization of local police forces, unjust housing policies, lack of mental health resources, the education and technology gap, and so on. More than that, though, I need to be a learner and listen to the stories of black folk. I need to let them teach me where they’re coming from, what they need, what they want. I know my efforts won’t be perfect. I may fail. I probably will. But let me not fail for lack of trying. None of this can happen, though, if I keep on living in my silo, in my own affluent “ghetto.” I need to increase my opportunities simply to be in relationship with those who don’t look like me, especially those who don’t have access to the resources I take for granted.
I think participating in Mile in My Shoes is one halting step in that better, if not quite right, direction. Mile in My Shoes (MiMS) seeks to empower those experiencing homelessness and build community through the power of running. MiMS is about “running together to change perceptions and to change lives.” Mile in My Shoes creates opportunity for relationship between unlikely allies, between those experiencing homelessness and those that aren’t. It destigmatizes homelessness as people like me get to know those experiencing it. Perhaps it destigmatizes wealthy white people like myself too. In doing so, barriers are broken down. As perceptions are changed, lives are too. For those experiencing homelessness who adopt running as a lifestyle, success at running can build momentum for success in other areas of one’s life. For those not experiencing homelessness who get to know those that are, those relationships can lead to better advocacy and more effective efforts in the community to end homelessness, and maybe someday, racism too.
I need to have more pictures like this one:
Black boys grow up to become black men, but I don’t have to fear them. May I one day grow up to become a man who much more effectively loves them.