If I Think I'm Not Racist...one lesson of white girl growing up in the 1970's
The first time I flew on an airplane was the summer of 1971. I was fourteen years old and we were moving to Ft. Worth, Texas. My mother dressed us in matching outfits - she and I wore blue dresses with white stripes, white sandals and floppy white straw hats. My dad and brothers wore blue and white striped shirts with white pants and white shoes. There’s a photograph of all of us at O’Hare airport in Chicago waiting to depart. I barely remember sitting for that photo and I have no memory of the flight. Memory is curious that way, leaving out huge details of one’s life while other aspects remain in sharp detail.
That year I was in the ninth grade and attended Southwest High School in Ft. Worth. I played bass clarinet in the school band, took Spanish which I loved and algebra which I hated. The whole school would turn out for football games and the stadium vibrated when we sang the school song, “Dixie” while the Confederate flag flew above us.
Before moving to Texas I had only lived in areas that were completely white, I had never met a person of color. I had only seen people on television, Martin Luther King, Jr., and footage of people rioting in the streets.
Now, here I was in a school that sang Dixie and flew the Confederate flag at the same time that it was preparing the student body and teachers to receive the first black students, a brother and a sister. Desegregation was the law and this school was trying to comply.
I don’t remember anything about the process of preparing us, only that it happened. There was an electrical charge in the air, like famous celebrities were about to show up. Not long after the brother and sister arrived however, the atmosphere changed. Seething just below the surface of polite behavior hummed the unreconciled racism of teachers and students. The band teacher started telling “jungle bunny” jokes in class. I didn’t understand them and turned to the black girl sitting next to me and asked her what they meant. She told me he was making fun of black people. I was mortified. That night I told my mother. Then I wrote a letter to the principal reporting the horrible behavior of the band teacher and how wrong it was of him to tell these jokes in class. A few days later I met with the principal, who in my memory was even-keeled. I followed up the letter and the meeting with the principal by quitting band, in protest of the teacher’s behavior.
As an adult I am surprised that the timid 9th grader version of me took this action of protest. I stood up for something that was wrong and tried to right it.
Lately, though, with the resurgence of racial tension and violence in this country I’ve been thinking again about my behavior in 9th grade. I think that if I had really wanted to take a stand against racism I would not have quit band. I would have reported the bad behavior and then returned to class and been present, holding me and others accountable to the racism in our midst.
Memory is funny that way. We can go a long time thinking one thing and then, with a sudden insight, our perspective can completely change.
Each one of us can tell a similar story as mine, of a failure to build relationship, of a time when prejudice and racism prevailed in subtle or not subtle ways. It is the reality of being a white person in the world. Racism resides deep within us even when we desire to not be racist.
What connections do you hear between my story, the reading from Ephesians, and the sin of racism? What connections do you hear about tearing apart communities or building up of community?
(Leave time for people to respond).
Today, the Vestry has designated the open plate offering, the loose cash and change, to the Rebuild initiative, an effort of churches in this diocese to raise funds to help the black churches, that were burned this summer, rebuild. There is a concert today at 4pm at Church of the Messiah on Grand Boulevard in Detroit with a donation of $20. Or you can submit a check, payable to Episcopal Diocese of MI with "Rebuilding the Churches" in the memo field, and leave it in the collection plate or send to the church office, we will forward them to the Diocese.
A reflection on racism and the reading from Ephesians for Proper 14B: Ephesians 4:25-5:2