May 9, 2008
It’s Time to Open up
I was blessed while growing up. My parents were able to regularly take me on trips to warm and sunny places. I recall being surprised when white friends in school would ask, “what happened to your skin?’
upon my return.
I would reply that they were being silly. Of course, my skin tans and burns just like theirs. The disbelief
on their faces was truly extraordinary; they just couldn’t comprehend that I was like them. This scene has unfortunately played out repeatedly during my life.
It was the same in college and in law school. And, it didn’t matter
if the friends or acquaintances were the most progressive and compassionate people around.
By the time I was a young adult I started getting mad, and asking myself “How can they not know this?”
or “Why haven’t they bothered to educate themselves?”
Generally speaking, the white community’s ignorance
about African Americans is astronomical, astounding; and, well hurtful. Moreover,
my community and its culture are complex and nuanced.
I remember the occasion of my freshman English class
College when we were studying “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”
by Maya Angelou. When we got to the part that described parents using vaseline
to cover the “ash” on black children’s elbows and knees the teacher looked at the two blacks in her class
and asked about ash. I’ll give her credit for being inquisitive and thoughtful
enough to ask.
The young lady and I both denied knowing what ash
was and shot a quick glance toward each other. We were too ashamed to admit that
our skin wasn’t perfect. We didn’t even want to get into that. It was tough enough fitting in as it was.
Remarkably, twice during my formative years I was
confronted with young women whom I did not know who were depressed and on the verge of tears because their peers would not
accept them because they were from poor white families. Being an outsider myself,
I had great sympathy for them.
The only thing I could think to tell them was that
they should be grateful that they were not black. They perked up right away both
times. Not only was I reminded on these occasions that white people can be poor
and that there are many kinds of people who don’t fit in, but I realized how ridiculous my statement was. I quickly added, “Well, you could be handicapped or paralyzed.”
My experiences had led to a self-hatred, but the good news was that there was sufficient goodness in my heart to use
How did I grow to be so self-loathing?
In the late summer of 1975 I started attending a
private school in Bethesda, MD just outside of Washington, DC. My first week there while showering after sports three white classmates gang tackled me. Having spent four summers at sleep away camp I had seen a lot but never this—I figured they had to
be joking. By the time I realized they weren’t there was little I could
do except throw an ineffective punch or two and call for help. God blessed me
that day because my route’s bus driver was walking by and everything stopped before it got started.
This was my introduction to Landon School for Boys. Two years later, two of these young men would be stars on a football team that included one player who
went pro. After three years at Landon the only fair word I have now to describe
the place is: demonic. It bothered me a little that the bus driver didn’t
seem to be surprised by this behavior. And, the incident doesn’t really
stand out because there were so many unpleasant things that occurred there.
Suffice it to say that this was and is one of the
most prestigious schools in the country. When I was there its student body included
the sons of prominent senators, congressmen and real estate developers. One of
my classmates is married to the president’s sister. I attended parties
in palatial homes in Potomac, MD that most poor folk in Southeast Washington (the poorest part) have only heard stories of and can only imagine. The families of at least two of my schoolmates owned Rolls Royce’s and periodically dropped off or
picked up their sons, sometimes sending the chauffeur.
These are the fruit of the top people in the nation,
if they were this bad what does it say about our society? As I came of age, I
came to learn that this type of shower ambush I experienced is far more common than is typically believed; and the farther
South you go the worse it gets. It’s also a feature of growing up in the
projects, but that’s a different story.
The other stories about some of the ugly things that
happened to me while attending this elite private school and the two times in my life that parents prevented me from contacting
their white daughters who had expressed a social interest in getting to know me are almost too cliché. I’ll leave those for another day.
It wasn’t just at school. It was being stopped and questioned by police if you were in the “wrong” neighborhood. It was being served last at the counter when you were the first one in the store. It’s the degrading experience of having a shopkeeper follow you around the store
to see if you are stealing. These things happen to people of other backgrounds,
and sometimes there’s an innocent explanation.
The difference is that most white people don’t
have the gnawing troubling question pounding in their mind, hearts and souls: did they do it to me because of my race? This is an advantage, privilege and luxury that even wealthy blacks do not have.
The fact is that just about all blacks have many
stories like these. And.
I’m sure that there are many whites that have had troubling experiences with blacks.
I thank God for my experiences. How else would someone like me who was
from an upper middle class family understand just a little bit about the discrimination that poor people face if he didn’t
have similar experiences?
I imagine that things are much better now than in
the 1970’s when I was growing up. You see young people who are much more
open minded; and you see diverse groupings of friends when you are out. Interracial
dating and marriage has grown dramatically.
But I wonder if the classism that I saw is not still
rampant just below the surface. The children of those I attended school with
may be even more elitist than their parents (see “Members Only,” a Washington DC’s
City Paper story from 7/12/07; beware this story is graphic, I apologize
but it is both illuminating and troubling).
As I’ve moved amongst some of the wealthy and
powerful during my adult life I have been constantly amazed at the ethnocentricity of many whites that I meet. They either know nothing apart from the mainstream culture, or show no interest in anything different than
their “world.” I am shocked, even amongst educated people of all
stripes, how little they know outside of their own small spheres of interest.
Whether it’s a get together with colleagues
or a small dinner party with family friends I have always been surprised at how often me or my coterie are the only blacks
in attendance. I really should be used to it by now. Many of us have the obligatory “token” friend from another race, but how good friends are they
really? Is it just one? Are they
a coincidence or did you go out of your way to reach out?
Whether one has friends from different races and
religions and whether you invite them to parties certainly isn’t a scientific assessment. It’s not the only measure, but I believe that it’s a significant one. Inviting someone into your home to serve and entertain them is a serious sign of hospitality. It’s an invitation to comfort, intimacy and trust.
As Christians, are we making ourselves hospitable? Are we open to making new friends? What
if they are “different”? The apostle Paul said, “Be willing
to associate with people of low position” (Romans 12:16). We are supposed to love and treat all people the same (1 Thessalonians
5:15, Galatians 6:10).
The Lord is calling for all people to reconcile not
only with Him but with each other (Colossians 1:20, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). When are we going to do it in earnest?
The bible says, “…confess your sins to
each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
When we tear down the walls between us we find that
we are all the same inside--sinners. Unity, and being of one accord are sure