Thursday, April 19, 2012

Racism is prejudice plus power

This morning a member of Spirit of Joy asked me if I'd ever written a racial autobiography. The answer is, sort of. Yes, I've written about my experiences of race, but it's been in the context of preaching. And yes, I've talked about my awakening to issues of power and prejudice, but usually it's been in the context of teaching or part of a dialogue group.

So, here goes...

We moved to Eureka, Illinois, from the south side of Chicago when I was a few months old in 1965. Dad was a minister working on his doctorate at the University of Chicago, and Mom was a first grade teacher in a newly-integrated school. This was the same year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was used to overturn local ordinances against a person of color spending the night within the Eureka city limits. It was news when the first black family moved to town. They were not welcome and didn't stay long. We were white and therefore more welcome, and we stayed.

Dad had taken a position as chaplain at Eureka College. His most controversial sermons in chapel dealt with Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Sometimes when he preached , we'd get burning smudge pots thrown up into our yard by students. This wasn't Berkeley, after all. Not all college students in the 60s were advocates for justice. Some were more comfortable with the status quo.

One of my earliest memories was helping Mom sew banners to be used in the College chapel. By helping, I mean getting in the way, of course! One that fascinated me was of four interlocked hands: black, red, yellow, and white. Another was a large peace sign. I didn't know these would be seen as radical statements. They were just our values.

Mrs. Colburn taught second grade. She used to spend her summers on the Navaho reservation weaving with tribe members. She brought looms and weavings back to class in the fall, and she taught us about Native American culture through activities and stories. I learned something about acts of solidarity from her, even if I didn't understand yet about economic and political oppression. She taught me to weave, and so my Grandpa made me a simple loom based on a Native American pattern. I tried to recreate some of Mrs. Colburn's Navaho designs in my own weaving. I still think of her when I think about race and economic and political justice. She planted a fertile seed.

During middle school our family moved to Bethany, West Virginia. I learned in WV history classes how the state formed out of the racism of the Civil War. But the only "race" concern my friends and I really noticed was who was Italian or Irish, Polish or Greek. If you were a mix or couldn't identify with one group or the other fully, you didn't fit in.

It was in college that I became more fully aware of the white privilege that precedes me everywhere I go and the institutional racism from which I benefit every day without having to lift a finger. A teacher who'd fought in the Battle of the Bulge helped me understand just how elite my position is in our culture. Nobody pays attention when I walk into a department store past the jewelry counter. I won't ever be racially profiled. I can go to court and expect a fair trial. I can trace my family back to our origins in Germany because public records are available and family lines are intact. I take such things for granted. Those whose ancestors came here as slaves cannot.

White privilege was driven home for me when Katy and I discovered we were approved for our first rental house because the landlord preferred us to an Hispanic couple. Why? Race. Does benefiting from white privilege make me racist? Sigh. Yes. Let me explain.

In Dismantling Racism, Joseph Barndt argues convincingly that racism is prejudice plus power. Of course, anyone can be prejudiced. Most of us are. We make judgments about people based not on full knowledge but simply first impressions. Cultural assumptions are our starting place. Most, if not all, of us are prejudiced. But not everyone has power to act on prejudice. In our society, power (which means wealth, education, health, and access to decision-making) is still largely held by white, heterosexual, married males. Power is personal, yes, but it's also institutional and cultural. People like me hold all the trump cards. And we don't give them up without a struggle.

Does this make me racist? I'm white in America. So, in a word, yes. The playing field isn't level. I start every touchdown drive at first and goal. Or to use an apt metaphor from hockey that has a nice double meaning, I'm always on a power play, whether I want to be or not. I benefit from the prejudice plus power equation culturally and institutionally, even if personally I don't want to think of myself as prejudiced. The reality is that even with the liberal, aware parents I had and the education and awareness I've gathered over the years, I live in a white power culture that gives my voice credibility before I've earned it. I have access where others do not. If you're white, so do you.

Yes, this makes me squirm.

But It's a matter of faith for me to share this, to confess it, because I know full well that many of us have more in common with Jesus' oppressors than with his disciples. I read the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 as a challenge for my life: to empty myself, to pour myself out. This means divesting myself of power while at the same time using what power I have to empower others. I'm not very good at it yet, but I'm getting better. This awareness shapes me theologically and politically. It gives me a deeper sense of God's redeeming and saving presence among those I may think of as marginalized but who don't need my guilty pity. They need justice. And I need it. God expects it.

My hope is that as the church of Jesus Christ, we can recognize injustice when we see it and work to balance the playing field, and in doing so completely change the game. Equal opportunity won't exist until relationships are fair and just, and we treat each other not as types or races or genders but as beloved children of God.

I realize the conversation is only starting. And this is a weighty place to begin. Still, as we set off along the way, I wish you:

Blessings and Peace.

Getting to know each other

This summer I'll enter into a new pastoral relationship. Spirit of Joy Christian Church in Lakeville, Minnesota, has called me to be their next pastor. Jan and Joy Linn gathered this community over a dozen years ago and have served as co-pastors since its conception. I have the distinct honor and challenge of serving as their successor in ministry.

When I talked to some of the leadership of the church yesterday, we agreed that it would be good for folks to have some way of getting to know me better. We talked about sending a letter to the church, perhaps sharing some things in my ministerial profile on my Search and Call papers. Some of that will happen. But we agreed that whatever else we did, it needed to be personal and direct.

Just this morning I got a facebook message from a member of the church. He was gracious and welcoming. He also started a conversation with me about race and racism. I started to respond privately but then realized I was writing a blog-length post. Epiphany! I have a blog that's been inactive a while. Why not reactivate it and use it to help the church get to know me? That's what you'll see here.

If you're part of Spirit of Joy, feel free to be in touch. Friend me on facebook or follow me on Twitter, or simply email me, and if there's a topic that might help you get to know me better, I'll share what I can here.

Blessings and Peace,