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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Don't Boldy Deny Your Racism; Humbly Acknowledge It

This post is inspired by the series of blogs "Going There" on Diedre Riggs' "Jumping Tandem" page .  Diedre is daring to go there and talk about race.  She is an African American woman and she and friends who write guest posts discuss there personal experiences, positive and negative, of race encounters in America.

I remember her as "D.D. Shelton," Karen's older sister.  We all went to First Baptist Church in Royal Oak, Michigan.  And all the kids (except me ironically) took piano lessons from my mom.  My parents and D.D.'s parents were (and still are) good friends.  Karen was a year older than me and D.D. was at least a couple years older than Karen.  In my young mind, that made her ancient.  She was practically, gasp, an adult.  They seemed so foreign, adults that is.  

What did not seem foreign was the Shelton's presence - a black family in an otherwise all-white church.  I don't know how it was in other homes.  But at my house, they were never our "black" friends.  They were our friends.  In fact, I never discussed race with Mr. & Mrs. Shelton (it still feels weird saying "Emerons" and "Sandy") until I was an adult.  As a young college student, my dad traveled to Washington DC for the "I have a Dream Speech."  As a fresh-out-of-college teacher in Detroit, my mom had classes where the only white person was the teacher.  I was raised in an environment where race was never an issue.  

Our family moved away from Michigan when I was 12, so I never really got to know those people as I came into my adulthood.  Karen and I briefly reconnected in the early '90's when I was a seminary student.  Her parents had moved to Richmond, VA and I was a seminary student in that city.  Then I graduated and life took me a way from Richmond and my contact with Karen again became a part of my past.  I am thankful that with my parents in Roanoke and the Sheltons in Richmond, I still do get to see them (the parents Emerson and Sandy) once in a while.

And I am thankful for Diedre's blog.  I don't know the last time I have seen her, but I believe the internet is something God has redeemed and something Satan and sin have corrupted.  It is both.  The online community Diedre is creatiing is definitely a Kingdome-of-God community. I am thankful to reconnect with her there. And her outstanding "Going There" series is just one example.  I was particularly inspired by the guest post written by her friend Dolly Lee (whom I have not met) - .  

She describes some experiences where white Americans see her Asian face and assume she is a 'foreigner' (a word I have come to hate).  She has to tell people English is first language.  When I read Dolly's experiences, I really felt for her.  I pastored in Arlington, VA for 9 years, an extremely diverse environment.  The first person I truly mentored, I as pastor and he as aspiring youth minister, is Keven, an Asian American.  

Yes, Kevin is ethnically Chinese.  Yes, Kevin's parents are from China.  But if talked to him on the phone, you wouldn't know it.  Kevin grew up in Chantilly, VA, playing high school football and baseball.  He is as it goes, 'American as apple pie.'  Kevin is certainly as American as I am.  My relationships with him and now with my current ministry assistant Dina (a woman from San Franciso who happens to be ethnically Chinese) and with many others has enabled me to lose assumptions about people.

However, before I get puffed with pride at how I am not racist, I have to remember I have lost assumptions.  You lose something you used to have and I used to have racist tendencies.  They were not mean-spirited.  There is racism born out of insensitivity, ignorance, and assumptions.  If you read Dolly's post, and I hope you will, note the pastor's statement about speaking Chinese.  He wasn't being intentionally mean.  He was inadvertently mean, racism from an assumption.  The women at Mount Rushmore who didn't include Asian-Americans when she said "we Americans" was racist.  It was racism born out of ignorance and extreme insensitivity.

I have been guilty of this very thing.  When I was in army basic training, I was moving sluggishly when our squad needed to hustle.  Our squad leader, a black guy and a very tough guy, shouted, "Move it, boy!" I barked back, "I am coming, boy!"  Later, another black friend in the platoon explained to me why white guys should not call their black friends "Boy!"  Honestly, I didn't know.  That day, it was only my charm (OK more likely his restraint) that saved me from the ass-kicking he had delivered to others.  

On another occasion, I was on a date with a beautiful young Filipina girl.  Clearly race did not bother me.  I went out with her.  But, even though I was very happy to date someone from another ethnic background, I still said dumb things.  I made some comment like, "Gosh, you don't talk like someone from the Philippines."  She handled my ignorance with aplomb.  She mimicked a Filipino accent.  Instantly, I realized how much like a doofus I sounded.  (Jennifer, thanks for handling me with kindness).  

Recalling those blunders, I don't claim much street cred just because I have adopted two black kids.  I love people and I love having relationships with people who are different than me.  It is a privilege, but a privilege wasted unless I go into the relationship ready to learn and knowing I will make mistakes.  These mistakes can be overcome and lead to deeper care and understanding if our hearts are right.  Jennifer knew I was a white guy who didn't really know how "Filipinos talk," so she forgave me.  So too did my fellow soldier.  Stanely did not slug me because he knew me enough to know I did not mean anything untoward when I said "boy."

In all of life, humility is important.  It is extremely so in race-relationships.  Lose your pride, be able to laugh at yourself, and love people past any small insults that inevitably arise.


  1. Rob,
    I am honored to be part of your post...I realize now I should have asked for your blog URL when I read your comment on Deidra's blog because I googled your name and I couldn't find your confession...and yes, in all things, humility is important, and God is always gracious when we fail...blessings to you and thank you for your comments on my guest post.


  2. Dolly, thanks for your kind words.