My name is Jay. I am a racist.
Oh, I’m trying to be in recovery. I’m trying to cast aside my upbringing and heritage and cast aside judgement by skin color. I’m trying to address systemic racism both in and outside the church. I have good friends, who I love and respect, that are folks of color. I live in a community that is racially mixed. I’m trying to develop relationships with some of the ethnic churches in our community.
But then something happens that reminds me that I’m not as healed, not as progressive, not as forward thinking as I like to think I am.
Today I took my youngest daughter Anna to the local playground in our neighborhood. It’s not much — a slide, some swings, a merry-go-round — but Anna likes to go whenever she can and I have been putting her off for a couple of days so it was time to go. Next to the playground is a basketball court enclosed in a chain link fence. Folks from the subdivision that we live in hang out there and there is often a game in progress.
I was pushing Anna on the swings when the car pulled up. It was low and long and white. The bass was pounding from the back, a Speakerbox of rattling cans like Outkast sings about. The car passed by my parked minivan and pulled onto the grass beside the court. Three guys got out, dressed in a variety of attire, taking a couple of balls onto the court. At the same time I looked up and saw two other guys walking through the yards towards the playground and the basketball court. Both wore their shorts low, one had a cap pulled almost over his face, the other was talking up a storm and flashing his gold capped teeth. As they walked across the playground, the said hey and I responded back in kind. They headed over to the other guys and started playing ball. They were all in their teens or early twenties. They were all handsome and in good shape. They joked back and forth as they played, using language that isn’t fully a part of my vocabulary. And they were all black.
As I watched them play, keeping an eye on my daughter, I realized that I had tensed up. I felt uncomfortable, afraid, uncertain whether we should stay or not. I felt like these guys were watching me, wondering why a white guy was in the neighborhood. My daughter Anna was oblivious, playing and running and having a great time. But I was suddenly fearful and tentative.
My racism had kicked in. All the media voices and stereotypes, all the voices of negativity, all the times that relatives told me to “be careful” in the middle of black communities came flooding back in. Understand that this experience wasn’t in the middle of a housing project. This is in a neighborhood where the average home cost is around $200,000 (not a lot of money for the folks in California, but quite a bit here in Nashville). There was no reason for me to be fearful other than the fact that I was in the presence of five black men, and the voices from my past told me to be fearful.
No, it’s not intentional. Yes, it is a conditioned response. But it’s there, always lurking underneath the surface, ready to rear its ugly head at a moments notice. And I doubt very seriously that I’m alone in this.
You see, there is a difference between racism and bigotry. Many of us think that since we don’t talk like Archie Bunker (for those of you old enough to remember Archie Bunker) we must not be racists. But racism is more insidious than that. These days its rarely overt. In the Southland that I live in it gets camouflaged in a layer of southern toxic Christian niceness (to use a phrase from my wife). But the fear continues and relationship hindered.
I’m not proud of my racism. I hope and pray that God will eventually heal me from this sin. But the scars remain, just like all the scars that remain in each of our lives. And I have to be reminded every so often that I am indeed a recovering racist.