Racism Below the Surface

I wept for the vulnerable citizens of Baltimore as I read articles detailing the Department of Justice (DOJ) recently released report.

I love my city. I was born in Baltimore at Church Home Hospital where Edgar Allan Poe died. It was a hospital for the poor and a home for elderly women that served the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.

I pray for Baltimore to wake up to embrace her people of color and poverty as fellow citizens contributing to the beauty of Baltimore and in need of protection.

It takes effort and energy to stay awake. It rattled me. I’m angry and frustrated; looking for someone to blame.

I’m tired of the racial disparities in our justice system.  My first instinct was to write a post about how angry I was at everyone who allowed this to happen and send out a rally cry for an advocate with authority to hold everyone accountable.

The tension between black and blue lives has become a bruise that refuses to heal – another civil war.

I have loving, caring responsible friends in blue that would be hurt and alienated with such a broad brush response. It would fuel the war and increase the divide. I’d be hurting people I respect to show my allegiance to other members of the family. It would be juvenile, immature, and irresponsible and counterproductive.

I hate conflict. It makes me tired and exhausted. I yearn to return to my peaceful slumber.

Resting in the deep embrace of helplessness to change the system and lack of responsibility for sins inflicted upon others.

By sleeping just below the surface, I could enjoy the warmth of its covers, knowing I need to get up but repeatedly slipping back under its spell, while hopefully appearing a strong advocate for my siblings of color without betraying my friends in blue.

I comfort myself with assurances that I would never do the cruel and degrading things described in the report. I’m a good person. I’m not racist. I have black friends. I had a black roommate. Diversity is important to me. I’m an advocate.

Black lives matter.

It’s not my sin. I’m not responsible. I’m not a police officer. How am I  part of the justice system?

Ignorance is a sin I’ve taken far too many words to confess without confessing as I wrestle to pretend I ‘woke’ a long time ago when I barely got out of bed. I judge my neighbors slumbering next to me feeling superior to their ignorance (Matthew 7:3-5). I struggle. Should I wake up my neighbors or let them sleep? Do I confess or defend my ignorance when I look in the eyes of everyone who witnessed my slumber? Because once again I found myself resting just below the surface.

I knew what I needed to do.

On July 19, 2013, around 1:38 p.m., I woke up.  I didn’t know I was asleep. Like Peter in Acts 12:7, an angel shook me and suddenly I was awake. I wasn’t fully awake but I was much more aware of my part in racism and social injustice; and couldn’t claim to be an innocent bystander.

It began when I heard my President of the United States say,

‘when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.’President Barack Obama Remarks on Trayvon Martin

And I pulled my head back, eyes wide open, I noticed President Obama and Trayvon looked very similar. And then President Obama continued,

‘There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store.  That includes me.’ 

Guilt washed over me. I’ve done that. I worked retail.  I didn’t physically follow them but I watched them.  I notice African-Americans in stores, which means I am still watching them.

Do I watch or notice all people with my flesh tone?

When I waited tables, I heard the stereotype that African American’s wouldn’t tip well, would try to get their food for free or run out on the check.  This means consciously or unconsciously, I was less likely to believe them when they had a problem, slower to serve them or served white customers first; and watched them.

I don’t recall any of the stereotypes to be true.

They tipped well but why would anyone give a good tip to a waitress who was giving better service to everyone around them?

I want to make excuses and explain myself but the cycle has to stop.  My behavior was wrong. I confess. I sinned.

President Obama continued,

‘There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.  That happens to me — at least before I was a senator.’

Oops!  I do that.  No excuses. I would be hurt if everyone locked their doors when I walked by. My behavior was wrong. I confess. I sinned.

President Obama continued,

‘There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.  That happens often.’

I knew I did this. I tried to reassure myself that I didn’t hold my breath or was eager to get off but even a few floors is a long way to go if you’re trying to avoid eye contact.

I was trained to protect my purse. But it wasn’t a safety issue. The President wasn’t talking about safety. He wasn’t suggesting to be unsafe or unprotected or foolish. He was talking about racial bias. Assuming danger solely on the basis of a person’s skin color.

Was I clutching my purse every time I saw an unknown African-American man and did I do the same with white men?  This would take time to realize how programmed I was to grab my purse or avoid talking to African-American men.

I warmly greeted most women and white men but rarely African-American men. I looked at white men’s faces, how they dressed, how they carried themselves and lots of other assessments to decide if they were safe. But the only African-American men I looked at were co-workers, children and family of friends.

I wouldn’t even know I was on an elevator with President Obama unless he was with his wife and children.

Racism isn’t about how kind I am to the people I know.  It isn’t even about whether I’m courteous to strangers.

It is altering those subconscious evil thoughts that cause me to act or think differently about someone based solely on their appearance.

It means applying the same thoughts,  memories, conclusions and actions to all groups of youth. And treating everyone with the same respect I have for the President,  my family and friends. 

The first time I “woke” for a moment to become aware of racism and social justice in my community was my senior year of high school when my family moved to a diverse community.  I wish my siblings of color could say the same.

I confess after hearing and acting on President Obama’s remarks I realized my efforts to become more racially aware were about me.  I was creating a better resume, developing tools to learn how to connect with people of color, so I was successful and likable, so I could declare – “I’m not racist” – “I’m not prejudice” – “I’m a good person”

But had I changed?

I mock the mob that brought their lunch to the crucifixion, while I stand there shaking my head and eating my own.

While I greatly appreciate the many accomplishments of the Obama Administration, especially guaranteed healthcare for my medically fragile daughter, the next part of his remarks will always have a profound and lasting impact on me and my future. And it was also the key to my current conflict.

‘And then, finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.  … a conversation on race… [can] end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.  On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?  Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?  That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.’

And this is also true for blogs and Facebook. I realize this post won’t change anyone but me. It is simply a letter of appreciation to my President for giving me the greatest tool to chip away at the biases, preconceived foolish notions, attitudes and prejudices that hold me back from loving my neighbors of color.

It took time and effort to purposefully reprogram myself to stop grabbing my purse, relax and trust.

The challenge to answering, Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” was paying attention to my thoughts and how I acted with friends, family and strangers with my same flesh tone, and learning to share those same behaviors with everyone.

Such as back to the elevator, I was shocked and ashamed to realize I was more likely to hold the door or allow people with my same skin tone out first.

My awareness of African-American men young and old changed.  I greet them on the elevator the way I greet everyone else.  Deliberate behaviors become natural. 

Awareness shatters stereotypes. I noticed men interacting with their children, their success, their wedding rings and their smiles.

Exploring my own biases and sins awakens empathy to embrace others in hope.

am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?’ 

This is a powerful and difficult question. It is a prayer I ask God to help me to answer as I spend my entire life wringing as much bias out of myself as I can especially in elevators, on the streets, in church, at home, at work, in my community and for the city I love – Baltimore.

God help us to be a better place.  Amen.

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