Exploring My Early Encounters with Race

Screenshot_2020-06-21 Maggie Keller ( maggie e keller) • Instagram photos and videos

I visited George Floyd’s Memorial with my grandson

The murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer has knocked me out of my comfortable middle-class status quo bubble.   “I am not a racist – I don’t use offensive language or avoid black people on the street.” I would think to myself,  “I am sorry that African-American or Hispanics or Hmong immigrants have trouble with police or other white people, but I didn’t cause it or participate in it.”

Yet as I pray and reflect more deeply, I can hear the still, small voice of God saying to me, “Yet by ignoring such crimes against your brothers and sisters in Christ, you have ignored me and my suffering”  (Matt 26:31-46).  I confess that I simply want the protests and trouble to go away, that I want the police to find a way to eliminate the one or two or three (or ??) bad police officers from their system and then I can get back to my “normal life.”  But my complacency is major part of our culture’s problem.  I have adapted to the “white privileged” view that there is no systemic racism in America, that I have not been shaped and molded by my white majority status with which I grew up.

My parents did not converse on race concerns.  We might watch the violent Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama on the TV news but never discuss it at our kitchen table. I do remember the morning my mother woke me and told me, with sorrow in her voice, that Dr. Martin Luther King had been murdered but she said nothing more.  I could feel her pain, but I also heard her silence and discomfort at  discussing MLK’s death.

I grew up in two small towns in Washington state. The first, Port Angeles, had very few minorities.  My elementary school and my Lutheran church certainly did not have any.  The second, Bremerton, was a naval port and there were a few African-Americans in my High School.  I rarely interacted with them or thought about their perspective.  I attended a Quaker liberal-art college outside of Philadelphia where I encountered many more African-Americans, but only a few as fellow students or professors.  More often they served in roles of custodian, clerk, or conductor that I simply took for granted.  I didn’t understand that these jobs were often the ONLY jobs they could find.  And I rarely stopped to ask, “why is that?”

Two moments in college started to crack my “oblivious white privilege.”  The first was an annual Black Gospel Concert that my white history professor hosted each spring. He invited local black church choirs to come and “raise the roof.’  The choir members not only raised the roof in song but preached about the power of Jesus Christ.  Along with other white Christians, I made a joyful noise during the concert.  One year some students protested outside the concert.  They said they loved the music, but they didn’t need the preaching.  “Their preaching is intolerant towards many religious beliefs here on campus,” they said.

The host professor listened to their complaint, but then tried to help the students understand that the singing and the preaching are part of a greater whole – they cannot be separated.  They were both part of the black church culture.  I also learned that my Black brother and sister in Christ often had to bear criticism and attacks from whites who had never taken the time to understand their unique story.

The other crack was studying the story of John Woolman, an American Quaker just before the American Revolution.  He preached to his fellow Quakers that owning slaves was wrong on a spiritual level.  “They bear the same light of Christ as we bear it.”  At first he was a lone voice crying in the wilderness.  Many Quakers refused to relinquish their slaves because it would mean a huge financial loss.  Woolman was considered a radical and agitator. But he continued to preach his message of love and simplicity and slowly the Quakers “woke up” and sold their slaves and relinquished slavery.  I learned that justice is possible, that change can come, but it takes persistent courage and difficult work.

Part of Woolman’s preaching was asking questions for his listeners to hold and reflect.  The questions do not ask for quick and easy answers, but deeper reflection and prayer.

Questions like:

  • How do I react to the words of “white privilege?” What feelings does the idea provoke in me?  Is it anger, or fear, or guilt, or shame?  Am I willing to listen to these emotions and learn from them?  Am I willing to ask God’s guidance?
  • What was my childhood like regarding race and racism? How did my parents, grandparents, or respected elders talk about it?   How do their perspectives continue to shape my thoughts on racism?

Talking about race is awkward and difficult but also healing and hopeful. God seeks to breathe new life into God’s children, even old white males, like myself.

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