Originally published May 30, 2015, at “Reluctant Xtian.” Republished with the permission of the author.
It is absolutely a sign of my privilege that I forget that racism is alive.
I get “down time” from the uncomfortable, awkward, demeaning and violent ways that racism infects conversation and interaction. I don’t mean it’s not there. I mean that I get a rest from realizing it.
Which is no rest at all.
At our Synod Assembly yesterday, I came out of a workshop session and was talking with a colleague. A member of a local congregation that he knew came up and started chatting as well. And then it got typical:
Colleague: “How did you like the morning workshop you attended?”
Congregant: “Wasn’t helpful.”
Me: “Yeah, I think we were at the same one. It wasn’t helpful for me, either.”
Congregant: “Yeah. All I want to know is what you do when your confirmation students look like this.”
And as he said the words “like this” he pointed to a chair sitting nearby.
A black chair.
Colleague: [red face]
Me: “I don’t get your question.”
Congregant: “You know, like this.”
Me: “What are you saying?”
Because if you’re going to say it, say it.
Congregant: “When they’re black.”
Me and Colleague: “You teach them.”
And I turned back to my colleague and resumed our conversation – and the man left to go somewhere. And I knew I was giving him the cold shoulder. And I knew I was angry. And I knew I didn’t know what to say. And I knew I felt bad about not knowing what to say.
And then later on we would go to vote on anti-racism legislation for our church and vow to be against racism in all its forms – a sea of blue cards would fly up, easily passing it.
Send the medicine, Lord. We’ve got the sickness already.
And here’s the thing: I don’t think he knew his words were hurtful. That’s not me making an excuse for him; there’s no excuse. Equating anyone to the color of an inanimate object is really inexcusable and tacky and all sorts of sad.
But it was another knock on my heart at how deep the system is. Because I imagine that this man probably thinks he’s open and welcoming to everyone. I imagine he thinks that he’s an ally.
And I imagine that in some ways he is. But in subtle ways, he’s not.
Louis CK had a stand-up bit on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” a few weeks back. It was really awkward, as most of his bits are. But this particular act was really in poor taste, I thought. Nothing is funny about child molestation. Social commentary is one thing. He went too far.
And it’s too bad that the parts about child molestation overshadowed the whole routine, because I actually think he hit on a nugget of reality in the monologue that is good to ruminate on, even if uncomfortable.
He talked about how he’s not racist and how when a black man in a hoodie walks into a convenience store late at night while he’s shopping the aisles, he has to continue to repeat to himself, “I am not racist. I am not racist. I am not racist.”
And that is what I’m talking about. Because for as much as he’s “not racist,” the subtle triggers that have been given to him by the media, by privilege, and by his own unease in being present in situations that test the tribal mentality of his cultural upbringing still persist.
Because Louis CK is racist. And an ally. He’s both. And pretending he’s not won’t do any good. And he knows that. Because the minute we forget that the system is alive is the minute it steals from you, like it stole from me in the exchange with the man yesterday.
Because if I had been present in the moment, I would have been more forceful in telling him, point blank, how uncomfortable his words made me feel. How when he pointed to that chair, all I could see is my own confirmation students sitting there. And how their heritage is so important to them. And how I could see them looking down as this man pointed at them as if they are an issue that he had to figure out.
If the man is having trouble teaching students of any race, then the man is the issue, not the student.
I speak out about the overtly racist system all the time. I forget about the subtle racist systems – and it always steals my voice, because it exists in me, too. And it is pernicious. And it operates under the radar for most of us (and in most of us) who consider ourselves allies.
Oh the subtle ways we’re racist – even in the church – maybe especially in the church.