Thursday, March 5, 2015

White in America: Can I Get a Witness? (9-14-08)

White in America:  Can I Get a Witness?
Rev. Jane Page
September 14, 2008
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
“Have you seen but a white lily grow – before rude hands have touched it?”
That’s the first line of a song that my voice instructor assigned to me this summer.
This song was written for the play The Devil is an Ass by Ben Johnson (first presented by the King's Men, the early 1600s theater group of which William Shakespeare was a member).  So the words were written a long time ago and it’s known as a classic solo.  I had already previewed the solos in the book the teacher told me to buy – and decided on two or three that I’d like to work on – and this was NOT one of them.  The song starts off praising the whiteness of the lily and the new fallen snow – that’s not really a problem – but it ends with praise for the whiteness of the woman he loves – and that just didn’t sit right with me.  SO – when my voice teacher encouraged me to work on this song, I told him that I was uncomfortable singing it.  He said, “Well I know it has some challenging parts – but I think you can do it and it provides good exercise in variations for voice.”  We were obviously not talking about the same kinds of challenges.  I had to do a little talking to myself.  “It’s just a song Jane.  And he’s the teacher – you are the student.  Sing the dang song.”
“Oh so white, oh so soft, oh so sweet is she – so sweet is she.”
Maybe I’ve gotten too sensitive!  -- Or maybe not.  Sometimes I feel like I’m balancing on a tight rope when considering and discussing issues of race and privilege – but even that is a form of privilege – because I have the choice to get up here on this tight rope or not. 
As a white person, I don’t have to think about being white.  In fact, when this topic comes up there are some that say, “You know, I don’t see why we need to focus on race – we should move on.  I personally don’t think about race.”  Or those of us submerged in academia may say something like, “Ultimately we humans made up the concept of race as we attempted to increase both our understanding and manipulation of our world.  In other words, race is socially constructed.  It has no natural, biological reality.  We are all a part of the human race with lots of variability within it.”  Blah Blah Blah.
All that may be true, but as Cornel West states, “Race Matters.”   
This group is well read – you know that race still matters greatly today.  You probably know that even today, job applicants with white sounding names are 50% more likely to get called back.  You may have already heard of the study done just 3 years ago in which white men and black men were sent out to look for jobs with the same basic credentials.  Half of them – both black and white – shared with the prospective employer – for the purpose of this study, that they had a criminal record.  Now of course we know that those with a criminal record were less likely to be called back.  But what was found was that whites WITH a criminal record had a significantly higher rate of being called back than blacks without one.  And I could go on and one regarding how race still matters in housing opportunities, education, health and wellness, income security, etc. etc.  And if you aren’t familiar with this information, I can share reading recommendations.  But most of you know this.  And from the results of my little survey, I think most of you white folks have at least given some thought to what it means to being white.  But it’s not something we white folks really have to think about.  We are like fish swimming in the water.  We are in the middle of a white dominated society swimming in white privilege and so unless we make a conscious effort, we don’t really know the water is even there. 
Here’s a homework assignment for you white folks.  This week – just this week – every time you look at your watch to note the time, also note that you are white.  Then think about what your current situation is at that time and place and consider the implications of your whiteness.  I’ll model this for you.  (Look at watch).  It’s now _____ o’clock.  I’m white.  And I’m currently here in the role of your minister at this UU church.  Now believe me, I could spend days considering the implications of my whiteness for that situation.
Shelly Tochluk states: 
“As we leave our relationship to race unexplored, unquestioned, and untreated, our whiteness becomes analogous to the far side of the moon.  We never see the mysterious side that scientists tell us appears far more battered and beaten than the visible side facing the Earth.” 
So today, I’m going to play the part of Hecate – the primary figure often linked in pagan religions with the dark moon.  She’s sometimes seen as a nagging hag – the bearer of uncomfortable truth – poking and prodding.  On the other hand, Hecate is also seen as a sort of a fairy godmother stirring up brews for magical transformation as we become attuned to the hidden sides of ourselves.
In any case, my sermon topic today is “White in America:  Can I Get a Witness?”  Now in preparing for this topic, I read, reread, or “sort of” read lots of books.  Here are some of them.  I’ll provide a reference list on the sermon that I post on the web.  (See end of sermon.)   I also went to hear Tim Wise at GSU recently. He’s the author of White Like Me_. 
Now if we have loads of books written on this topic, and courses and workshops – what in the world am I trying to do addressing this in a 20 minute sermon?  I thought about doing a powerpoint and hitting the major developmental stages of racial identity development as Beverly Tatum outlined in her book, and follow that up with some of the privileges identified by Peggy McIntosh in her book – and follow that up with steps for witnessing whiteness or something like that.  But you’re not going to remember that stuff – and you can look it up later anyway.   I’ve decided instead to just tell three stories in this short time I have.  Because when it comes down to it, the most transforming parts of my life have come because of stories or narratives in story form that I can connect with.
The first story was one told by Tim Wise the other day when he was trying to explain why he has devoted his life to working on antiracism.  I didn’t have a tape recorder – and he doesn’t tell this story in his book – so this isn’t a direct quote – this is just my memory of it. 
Tim had just graduated from Tulane in New Orleans and to save money he made the mistake of moving into an old house with 9 people.  Now this seemed like a good idea at the time because they shared expenses and responsibilities.  One of the responsibilities was cooking.  Tim says that one night he came home late from his job and smelled the wonderful smell of shrimp gumbo.  (Well it at least had a few shrimp in it.)  There was the pot of gumbo on the left front burner of the stove.  His roommate offered to dip him up some but Tim explained that he had eaten earlier and wasn’t hungry.  He said it would be great if the roommate could put some in the refrigerator for him though – and he’d take it to work with him the next day.  And that was the agreement.  The next morning Tim came down the steps and noticed the pot still on the front left burner.  And there was the leftover gumbo still in it.  He looked in the refrigerator and none was there for him.  He wasn’t so upset about not having any though – he was more upset that his roommate hadn’t cleaned up.  He looked at his watch and wondered if he had time to do it – but then thought – NO- this is his responsibility.  He made this mess and I’m not going to clean it up.  So he goes off to work coming home that night to find another roommate cooking on the front right burner but that gumbo pot still on the left.  Tim says the next morning he didn’t need an alarm clock to wake him up.  He said the stench from that spoiling gumbo had taken on legs and had climbed the stairs, come through one of those big ole keyholes like they have in old houses and made its way right up his nostrils.  It STANK bad.  Tim went down the hall to find the roommate but he was no where to be seen.  His choice seemed to be to continue to try to ignore that big ‘ole pot of spoiling shrimp gumbo – or start the job of cleaning it up himself.   He realized that he was living in that house and would have to deal with that stench if he didn’t do something.  So though he didn’t make the mess, he started to clean it up. 
I don’t think with this group I need to draw the lines connecting his story with why white folks today need to become active antiracists even though some one else may have put that pot on the stove. 
The second story is an account with names changed – of something that happened to me this past Tuesday.
While I was writing this sermon, Richard came over to look at Greg’s fender bender and give an estimate...  Richard used to work at my son’s body shop back in the 90’s and now has a small body shop in his backyard.  Richard’s one of those “hard working white folks” that we hear about in the news these days.  Richard and I used to have some heated conversations around race and sexuality issues – with him quoting scripture and sharing what he thought was just the natural and right way of living.  Richard happened to see a campaign sign that I had on my driveway and commented that he saw it.  And I thought, “Oh, here we go again.”  Then he said, “I’m with you all the way on that one.  We can’t afford the other one.”  (Now you folks notice I’m being careful not to name any names of candidates up here from the pulpit – and I’m not trying to get political – but this is a good story.)  And I probably looked shocked and said – “Well, Richard – I’m glad to hear you say that because – you know – they say that a lot of hard working white folks like yourself are just going to vote against their pocketbooks for some reason.”  And he said, “Well, Miss Jane – (he’s from the old school) – he said – “Miss Jane, Ida been right there with’em too.   But I’ve changed.   You know some of my nieces got into mixed marriages – and I told them that was their decision – but that I didn’t want them comin’ round to my house because I didn’t want my children exposed to that kind of thing cause I didn’t believe it was right.  But one of them called me this summer – one of Mike’s daughters – and said, ‘Uncle Richard, you know I’ve always loved you and I think you loved me when we were growin’ up. You were like a father to us when daddy died.  And I know you didn’t approve of me dating and marrying Joe.  But I know you loved me. And I’m callin’ now because I need you.  I need you because our little baby just died and I wanted you to come to the funeral home tonight if you could.”  And Richard said he went to that funeral home and went up to that casket and saw that beautiful baby lying there and just wept.  And he said, “God – you got my attention.  I had a month and a half that I could have known and loved this precious little girl, and because I held on to those stupid racist attitudes that had been ingrained in me from birth, I missed that opportunity.  But I’ll never do that again.”  The next weekend he invited the whole family – with all the mixed children of various marriages that he had not gotten to know – to come to his home – and they shared food and love.  He said, “Miss Jane – I sometimes slip up and something will come out of my mouth like it used to – but I’m really trying.”  And I said, “Richard – you’re recovering – just like me.  I’m a recovering racist – and I mess up too – but I keep trying and if you keep working on it, you will get better – but it takes work.  And like any good work – it’s worth it.”
Story # 3 is more personal.  It’s a bit of my own story.
I was born here in Statesboro in 1950.  (Go ahead – do the math.)   I grew up in the days of Jim Crow laws. But these laws did not affect me in obvious ways. My white privilege allowed me access to every store, restaurant, and entertainment spot in town. And I went right in the front door – not to some side or back window.  And for the most part, I was pretty naïve about the evils of racism. Oh, I did notice things – as all children do. I remember when I was 5 or 6, standing in the “Whites Only" line at the Dairy Queen with my dad, waiting to get a cone. It was a hot day and there were lines at both the “white" and “colored" windows. Perhaps that’s why I noticed the differences. So I asked my dad why all of the white people were in our line and all of the colored people were in the other line. My father shared this explanation with me. He told me that we were white – and that we stood in our line to get vanilla ice cream, while the colored people stood in the other line to get chocolate ice cream. Well, of course, I immediately told him that I wanted chocolate. And he said, “No, you are white, so you get vanilla. That’s just the way it is and you have to accept it." Well, I didn’t realize that vanilla was the only flavor served at Dairy Queen. (That was even in the days before dipped cones.) But his unusual answer stuck with me. And it has served as a metaphor for what happened in my life. Indeed, I just accepted the differences and did not question them further. Yet, I still took notice – like when boxes were being filled at my elementary school (Mattie Lively) with our old worn-out textbooks. I asked what was going to happen to them and was told that they were being taken to the “colored school" for the children to use there. “Separate but equal" was never the case in Bulloch County.

To be fair to my parents, they never overtly taught me to be a racist. They didn’t have to. Everything in my society, from the Dairy Queen windows on, taught me that white folks and black folks should function in separate social environments. And my society not only taught me that “separate" was right, it also taught me that I was in the superior group. All I had to do was look at the water fountains. The “whites only" fountains were clean with cool, refrigerated water. Not so for the “colored" fountains. And of course, my church reinforced these standards. In the 60’s we also were witnesses to television news programs showing activities of the Civil Rights movement. But these were presented in ways that made me fearful. I’m sure it must have been covered, but I don’t remember seeing much of the peaceful demonstrations that I can now view in documentaries of that time. The emphasis on our news seemed to be on riots and angry black people wanting to “destroy our way of life." The propaganda worked. I was afraid and fearful of the possibilities of integration.
When I entered Statesboro High School in the fall of 1965, there were 12 new faces – darker faces than I was accustomed to seeing in my schools.  And I was afraid of these new folks – and even somewhat angry that they had disrupted to some small degree that pool of white privilege water I was swimming in. I could not understand why they would want to leave “their” school to come to “our” school.  But I made it through those years with very little interaction – except with one special girl that I connected with.  She and I were both kind of cut-ups, and we’d have a few laughs in the hallway together.  And I began to realize that in many ways she was more like me than my white friends – so that put a little crack in my racist armor that was the beginning of a long journey and transformation. 
Fast forward to the year 2008.  This past year I was on the planning committee for my 40th high school class reunion – held this past June.  We had not had one in 30 years.  I had volunteered to try to find the addresses of the black students who were in our class.  And if I had not – it would have been easy for the group to just not invite them.  They had done that at the last one we had 30 years ago.  And as I found some of these folks on the internet and read about the great things they were doing, I thought --- I could known them.  What an opportunity I had missed because of my racism.  So I wrote them a letter, sharing with them some of the background I’ve mentioned to you, thanking the one girl who helped me to begin my journey, and offering an apology.  I closed the letter with this list of sorrows.
I’m sorry that I did not make an effort to understand why you were coming to Statesboro High School.
I’m sorry that I did not meet you outside of the school and say hello.
I’m sorry that I was afraid of you and avoided being in places where several of you were gathered together.
I’m sorry that I avoided sitting by you in class.
I’m sorry that I was involved with negative conversations about you and did not speak up when you were put down.
I’m sorry that I didn’t encourage you to join the clubs that I was in or join the flaggette team.
I’m sorry that I didn’t invite you to my 16th birthday party. It would have been a lot more fun with you there.
I’m sorry that I didn’t find ways to get to know you – really know you and understand you individually, rather than seeing you as “one of those black students."
I’m sorry that I didn’t recognize the remarkable opportunity that I had in that place and time in history to be a part of something special with you.
And I’m sorry – oh SO sorry, that it’s taken me 40 years to say, “I’m sorry."

I hope you can forgive me.
On March 17, 2008 I mailed that letter to the seven classmates whose address I could find.   I have since met with five of them – who have generously forgiven me, and a couple of them have become email buddies.  But you know the one that I thought was my “sort of” friend – the one that I singled out and thanked anonymously in the letter – I didn’t hear from her.  Now at first I thought, “maybe she didn’t get the letter.”  And that was a little bit of white privilege too – thinking that surely if she got the letter she would forgive me.  That’s what we white people do when we mess up – we just say – “Oh, I didn’t mean to offend you.  I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.  I didn’t realize it would be a problem.”  And folks that we’ve really hurt, who we’ve cut to the core with our comments or actions or non-actions – are just supposed to say, “That’s okay.”
 I think she probably got that letter.  But I probably hurt her too much.  Because I was just friendly enough with her for her to perhaps think that I might accept her as an equal. But then of course – that was just when it was convenient – when I wanted to have a good laugh with her and break the tension – and perhaps relieve a little of the guilt that I was already beginning to feel.  I realize now that I used her and I hurt her – and I should not expect her forgiveness.  I can’t go back and change my actions, but I can actively work to change what I do in the future.  And my intention is to be an active antiracist and white ally and to be a witness to racism and white privilege when I see it. 
This sermon title – “White in America” – has a secondary part – and that is “Can I get a witness?”  Because I’m asking you to explore your own privileges – be they the result of race, gender, sexuality, physical abilities, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or class – and I know you may have some oppression as the result of some of these things – but most of us have great privileges too, especially if we are white.  Of course, a witness doesn’t just see something.  A witness attests to it.  They call it out.  And there are ways to do this that can live up to our principles of respect and dignity for all.  We don’t have to lay a lot of guilt on folks or belittle their backgrounds.  We can witness with love.  But I won’t lie to you.  When you witness, when you work actively as an antiracist, you will sometimes hurt someone and you will sometimes get hurt.  Many of you may be able to attest to that as well.  This is not an easy journey. 
But you know – if you heart is in the right place, if your heart is in a holy place, you will be blessed with knowing that you are trying to do the right thing. 
 “When our hearts are in a holy place, when our hearts are in a holy place.  We are blessed with love and amazing grace, when our hearts are in a holy place.”
Amen and Blessed Be.
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Kendall, F. 2006.  Understanding White Privilege.  New York:  Routledge.
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Loewen, J. 2005.  Sundown Towns:  A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.  New York:  New Press.
McIntosh, P. 1989.  White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.  Peace and Freedom.  Philadelphia, PA:  Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. 
Singley, B. (ed.) 2002.  When Race Becomes Real.  Chicago, IL:  Lawrence Hill Books.
Tatum, B.D. 1999.  Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?  New York:  Basic Books.
Thandeka 1999.  Learning to Be White:  Money, Race, and God in America.  New York.  Continuum.
Tochluk, S. 2008.  Witnessing Whiteness:  First Steps Toward an Antiracist Practice and Culture.  Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield.
Wise, T. 2005.  White Like Me:  Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son.  Brooklyn, NY:  Soft Skull Press.
Zinn, H. 1980.  A People’s History of the United States.  New York:  Harper & Row.

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