Sunday, December 30, 2007

Thoughts on racism (part 1)

[This series of posts is inspired by a troubling discussion elsewhere on the internet, that in turn led to my reading on the topic of "kinism". I am not planning to write some sort of theological treatise or sociological paper. I have been accused of being "hysterical" on this topic. I don't think I am. In fact, I am praying that God would help me to be more passionate about the sin of racism in all its forms.]

I am pale of skin. In my silly youth, I tried many times to get a tan. Actually, as I would joke with a friend of mine, I tried to "de-pale my skin". All I did was turn red, get more freckles, and accumulate some sun damage. Sometimes I lost a bit of my ghostly pallor. One summer that I spent almost every weekend at the beach, I told my co-workers that I had a rare skin condition that caused the sun to bleach my skin. Two of them believed me.

The civil rights movement had a big impact on me as a child, even though I grew up in small towns largely untouched by it.

I was raised in a bi-cultural family. When I was in elementary school, I was teased about my "other" culture, once it was discovered. Sometimes the teasing grew quite ugly and mean-spirited. At least one parent refused to allow their children to play with me because of where my mother was from.

The high school I attended for 10th and 11th grade had a significant number of Hispanic students, reflecting the community demographic. (In fact, my father, a pastor, helped start a daughter Hispanic church that has long since grown to outnumber the "Anglo" congregation.) In our entire high school student body of 2000, there was only one black. The small private school I attended for my senior year was more racially diverse, but still predominantly white.

So what do I know about racism? In many ways, I'm an unlikely person to write anything on the topic.

During my junior high, high school, and college years, a surprising number of people would assume I was Jewish. (This tends to happen in our extended family. It turns out we do have Jewish ancestry. But we also have a lot of Old Testament names among us, and some other aspects to our family life and culture that sometimes lead people to think we're Jewish.) I made more than one Jewish friend that way. But I also learned, especially when I was collecting signatures for a petition regarding the plight of Jews who were "Prisoners of Conscience" in the former Soviet Union, how unashamedly and vocally anti-Semitic a surprising number of people were.

Other than that, I was pretty much --- like most WASPs --- blissfully unaware that all racism had not died out after the civil rights era. Befriending some black students at a denominational college-career camp knocked that naive ignorance right out of me. I was shocked to find college kids --- from California!! in the late 1970's!! --- loudly refusing to swim in the same pool as my new friends, just because of their color. That opened a floodgate, as one night we spent literally hours talking about the subject of race. I was shocked to discover how different the lives of these students were from mine, even though one of them had grown up just three miles from where I lived. I was horrified and grieved to discover that racism was still rampant in the hearts of many --- including those who called themselves Christian.

And I began examining my own heart...painfully...I confessed to my new friends my own prejudices, ideas, and actions, many of them based on ignorance. Some of them they explained and forgave, others they laughed at and assured me that I was hardly a racist or a bigot. ("No, playing with your friend's cute little 'fro doesn't make you racist --- we've all done the same thing!")

Fast forward a few years. I worked for an employment agency. On an almost daily basis, I had to deal with racism. I was flabbergasted, angered, and saddened at how many people didn't want to hire blacks. Some of my clients asked me what race every applicant was. Legally, I was not allowed to answer. I grew more and more outraged at the racism that I was supposed to try to dance around in an attempt to keep our clients happy.

It seemed as if, more often than not, the best candidate for a particular job working for racists would happen to be black. My dilemma: send a lesser candidate, even an unqualified candidate, or send someone into a potentially ugly situation? I tried to follow the golden rule: I certainly wouldn't want to be interviewed by racists who had made it clear they didn't want to hire someone of my race!

Once I sat down a young man and told him, "I've got a job that would be perfect for you except for one thing. The owners of the company are racist. They told me that they are never going to hire another black person, only they didn't put it that nicely. For all I know, if you show up there, they might lynch us both."

"I can handle racists," he said, "I'm willing to take the chance if you are." After the interview, he told me, "You're right. They are just about the worst racists I've ever met. But I'm desperate for work and they're desperate for someone with my unique set of computer skills." They hired him, and he used the job as a stepping stone for a much better job, working for better people. (Not long after that, this small business was closed down and the owners jailed for illegal activities that had nothing to do with their racism. But I have to admit that I was glad to see them end up in jail.)

I grew up with stories of the holocaust. My mother's family had lived, as devout Christians, under the Nazi regime. Their lives had been threatened more than once. God had spared them. Because of those stories, and family friendships with holocaust survivors, racism has always seemed far more ugly and frightening than it is to many others as pale as I am.

Knowing that my family heritage includes a hodgepodge of races and ethnic groups that have been discriminated against and marked for destruction has made the topic of racism more personal as well.

But it's not just personal. Far more importantly, it's a Biblical issue.

No comments:

Post a Comment