Let’s Talk About Race

One way to talk about race is to just blurt stuff out. You speak out of your obliviousness. CollegeHumor, the comedy website based out of New York City, calls it “diet racism.” “Diet racism: the beverage of choice for your quietly intolerant friends.” It’s “the same sweet ignorance of regular racism, but with none of the guilt or self-awareness. It’s there anytime someone starts a sentence with ‘I’m not racist, but . . .’ and the next thing that person says is super offensive.”

That’s what today’s video mockumentary—“If Asians Said the Stuff White People Say—is about. It wants to portray the obliviousness we see in too many white folks, and it wants to give these white folks a taste of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of people just blurting stuff out.

Thus the article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from this past Wednesday, entitled “Honest racial dialogue? Be careful what you wish for.” The author, Bill Torpy, appears to see blurting stuff out as equivalent to honest racial dialogue, and he despairs over the flack that people can get. One of his main examples is Atlanta Hawks ex-owner Bruce Levenson and his email to general manager Danny Ferry about the basketball team’s failure to sell tickets to suburban white guys. Right there in the email be just blurts out a lot of stuff about how the crowds, the cheerleaders and the music are way too black. Just blurts it all out. And now he’s being raked over the coals. “We all harbor biases, preconceptions and frustrations,” writes Bill Torpy. “Psychobabble says we should openly talk through our inner feelings to get through to an understanding and even inner peace. But during these bursts of ‘honesty’ we usually remain within safe zones, saying things that we figure polite society wants to hear.” In other words, stay within the “safe zones” and the dialogue is like walking-on-eggshells, not truly productive. Dare go beyond them, though, and you get zapped. Like Atlanta Hawks ex-owner Bruce Levenson, whose transgression led him to have to give up his team. So the choice is either to continue the discussion or “zip it.”

For writer Bill Torpy, the answer is: “zip it.” That’s his solution.

Well, folks, I’m here this morning to say that that does not need to be our solution. SHOULD NOT BE our solution.

For one thing, it’s not just a matter of psychobabble.

For some folks, yes, they are so privileged that the farthest it can go is getting your feelings really hurt or even losing the basketball team you own. But as for other folks: the farthest it can go is they die. Racism kills. Racism is in the eyes of police officers when they see a black man in a Wal Mart and to them he is waving a rifle about and to them it looks like he’s about to go off when, in fact, that man, John Crawford III, on August 5th of this year, four days before the events of Ferguson, Missouri, was just shopping for a toy pellet gun. Here’s what the Wal Mart surveillance camera shows: in one hand he’s holding a cell phone, talking; the other hand holds the pellet rifle like it’s a walking stick. The police shoot him. He crumples to the floor.

Racism makes you see things that aren’t there. Our police—who do so many good things—can do bad things when their eyes get filled with racism. Contrast all this to a story coming out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, from this past May. A white guy waving a real gun around like crazy, he’s drunk, he’s saying inflammatory things, the police swarm the area, they cordon it off, but they stay at a respectful distance, they talk him down off the ledge, and when they feel he’s calm enough they let him go home with his gun and don’t even charge him. I am not making this up. You can see video of the whole thing. http://www.salon.com/2014/09/05/gun_nuts_special_privileges_how_police_treated_a_dangerous_open_carry_zealot/

Talking about race is not just a matter of psychobabble. There can be no excuse to disengage. But again and again, folks do. A recent New York Times/CBS News nationwide poll reports that forty-five percent of blacks say they have experienced racial discrimination by the police at some point in their lives. Yet whites are, frequently, incredulous at this. Frequently, they can say, “I don’t think a police officer would stop anyone for no reason at all.” Or: “You must have done something suspicious.” Or, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

And we’re back to “diet racism.” We’re back to just blurting things out and confusing this to be honest racial dialogue.

Which goes nowhere.

But the alternative is not to “zip it.” This is my main point.

This past August, here in Atlanta, I was at a Colombian food restaurant called La Casona, and with me were the members of EnterCulture. It’s Friday night, and while eating empanadas and Bandeja Paisa and lots of other tasty things, we’re having a “meta” conversation, we’re talking about how to talk about race. How do we do that? How do you talk when you know you’re ignorant but there’s no other way to proceed but on the basis of your ignorance?How do you talk when you’ve been immersed in race all your life and now there’s folks who are well-intentioned and white and they are only now realizing they have been AWOL from the conversation and so they are showing up but they are at a completely different level than you and you have to be patient but, dammit, you’ve been patient your whole life, you’re TIRED of being patient…..

How do we do this?

At one point, one of the EnterCulture members shared some experiences he had had in a previous work-related racial diversity training. He mentioned some questions that had come up: “What are three things that would improve in your life if your race changed overnight?” And, “If you could avoid changing to a certain race, what would that race be?”

I’m almost tempted to stop everything right now and ask you to partner up with the person on your right, to answer the questions…

Very definitely, one of the things we all agreed on, sitting around that table at La Casona, and since then, is that talking about race is something our religion of Unitarian Universalism challenges us to do. It’s not optional. Racism violates pretty much all our Seven Principles. And the healing of racism touches on the deepest strands of our history. Unitarian Universalism’s parent is Christianity, and in Christianity we see Rabbi Jesus sharing meals with folks that society in his day said were wrong wrong wrong and he does it again and again and again because Jesus believed that whatever the Kingdom of God is, it’s an open and inclusive place. Everybody belongs. No one left out of Love. This is part of our DNA, part of our essence that continues on even as today we are no longer consider ourselves as only Christian but more-than-Christian, post-Christian.

That’s one thing I and the EnterCulture Team agreed upon—what Unitarian Universalism calls us to. The other this is this: to talk race, let’s don’t just blurt stuff out. Blurting stuff out is NOT, in fact, what honest racial dialogue is all about. People can get confused about this (like the AJC writer we heard from earlier, Bill Torpy), but we don’t want to go down that path. Let’s not just blurt stuff out. Instead, start listening to people, listen to their stories, listen to your own. Build relationships, ground conversations in trust that if you happen to say something insensitive, no one’s going to shame on you in a way that feels destroying, no one’s going to make a video mockumentary about you….

Covenantal relationships are key for honest racial dialogue. Also, a mutually-shared understanding that we are on a journey together, that we don’t necessarily know how to do this but we are going, heaven knows where we are going, but we’ll get there, we know within. That, very definitely, it’s no longer enough to feel proud about not having to check your brains at the door to worship at UUCA. It’s also got to be a point of pride that no one has to leave their culture in the parking lot to come inside. It means that we all have to prepare to dislike something—to give up the sense of prickly personal entitlement that everything must feel good or be meaningful to you. And it’s OK! What’s bitter to one person is sweet to another. If you don’t like something, see it as a sign that someone else probably likes it a whole lot! Make peace with your dislike as a part of loving UUCA’s overall diversity.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

People, problems in the larger world are problem here in our midst. We are not hermetically sealed off. But this also means that solutions here can be solutions in the larger world. So we need to see this community—this Beloved Community—as truly the place from which new things can grow and become and be. Of course conversations about race can be hard and take folks into difficult places—this is one reason why the main focus for EnterCulture right now is being trained in how to facilitate race conversations. But hard does not mean bad. Discomfort is not a sign that something is wrong but rather may be the sign that you are exactly on the right path. “Don’t ask don’t tell” kills the spirit of this place. “Zip it” is the wrong way. Let’s talk about race. Let’s try.

We are spiritual family. We are charged to be together, to look out for one another. Aren’t we on our way to the freedom land—together, as brother and sister?

Hear this story from one of our own, Dr. Tony Stringer:

I was recently reading an article in the AJC Living Section that purportedly was the text of a conversation between a black father and his sons, advising them how to keep cool when stopped for no apparent reason by the police.  This has only happened to me once, in my youth, in Detroit.  I was in a car with 4 other young black males when we were stopped by plainclothes police in an unmarked car.  They never showed us badges.  They didn’t have to. Three young white guys don’t stop a car full of black men in a black neighborhood unless they are police officers.  They ordered us out of the car and frisked us.  Then they searched the car, looking, they said, for drugs or guns.  Ironically, my friends and I were on our way home from a church meeting (though it wasn’t Sunday and we were in everyday casual clothes), and were in possession of neither drugs, nor guns.  We weren’t driving erratically, weren’t playing loud music, really weren’t doing anything that should have attracted suspicion.  It was obvious we were only being stopped because we were black and there were five of us.  We had to be up to something.  

This was the era when Detroit had it’s STRESS program, which stood for “Stop The Crime and Enjoy Safe Streets.”  STRESS officers were young white guys who dressed in plain clothes and did things likely to provoke a crime.  A common tactic was to walk through a black neighborhood at night, counting a roll of money.  Not surprisingly, this would provoke a robbery attempt, which would be met with an aggressive police response.  Numerous young black men were gunned down in these situations, until the body count got so high the community revolted and demanded an end to STRESS.  

When my friends and I were stopped, we had this program on our minds.  Which is why we mostly kept cool.  My friends made little jokes with the police officers and kept big grins on their faces.  They had all been stopped before.  I was the youngest in the group, this was my first time, and I was seething with anger.  The police saw it in my face and in my manner.  I was the only one who wasn’t smiling and joking (or “shucking and jiving” as we used to call it). They were much more careful in frisking me.  I think they expected trouble from me any moment.  But I also kept cool.  I knew better than to pick a fight I couldn’t win.  It all ended without incident.  Finding no reason to hold us, the police let us go, but followed us in their car for several miles.  

What surprised me the most afterwards was that I genuinely was the only one among my friends who was angry.  They all had been through this before and fully expected to go through it again.  It was part of being a young black man.  I was being initiated into a new experience.  

What makes it so hard for young black men to keep their cool in these situations is that it really becomes a test of manhood.  Despite the impact of feminism on our culture in the past 30 years, there is still a sense among men (or at least some men) that part of being a man is not allowing yourself to be subjected to this kind of indignity.  If you don’t fight back, you’re not a man.  For young black men, the emasculating experience is compounded when the police officer is white because you especially don’t take this kind of treatment from a white man.  Not if you have any self-respect and pride.

There are so many deep layers to these encounters between white police officers (or armed white men in general) and young black men, that it is hard to see these situations ending in any way other than tragedy.  I consider it a moment of grace that my own seething anger back when I got stopped didn’t lead me to do something that could have been lethal for me and my friends.  

**

Thank you Tony.

And now the next step in honest racial dialogue is to let it sink in. Don’t blurt anything out. Stay with it, as opposed to disengaging, saying stuff like “I don’t think a police officer would stop anyone for no reason at all” or “You must have done something suspicious” or “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.” Ugh. That’s the voice of privilege. Just empathize.“ That must have been really hard. I am so sorry.”

How do you feel, congregation?

Feeling lots of feelings, I’ll bet. Especially lots of sadness.

But you know what? We get to feel sad together, in this place.

And, above all, do you know what’s underneath all that sadness? New life.

That’s just the way of it. Can’t get to Spring and Summer unless you first go through Winter. Nature teaches us this truth.

Don’t zip it. Let the stories come out. Everyone has a story—I don’t care what your skin color is. Know your story and tell it. Listen. Believe that in the sharing and the hearing we are building Beloved Community that has power to change lives. Solutions here become solutions in the larger world. If we can break through the “don’t ask don’t tell” here—if we can refrain from just blurting stuff out—then we will have really accomplished something.

Some call it the Kingdom of God.