3rd Sacred Conversation on Race and Diversity

3rd Sacred Conversation on Race and Diversity

August 24, 2008


On May 18th, 2008 Seekers Church, Covenant Christian Community, the Divinity Center for Better Living and the National Spirituality and Science Center who all call the building at 276 Carroll Street NW their faith home  joined together and formed a community of communities and began a sacred conversation about race and diversity.  The 2nd conversation took place on July 27th during the sermon time of Covenant Christian Community.  Today Seekers extended its worship time to embrace the 3rd conversation as the sermon time.  Each conversation has centered around the telling of stories, personal stories of how the experience of coming to terms with issues of race has brought each storyteller to the place in their faith journey in which they find themselves at the telling.


This is Jacqie Wallen’s offering:


I graduated from Munich American High School. It was a military dependents’ school.  Children of civilians attended the school but most students came from military families.  In the military, rank is the primary classification system and rank affects all aspects of your life.  Except the schools, I thought.  I loved my high school and believed it was completely egalitarian, unaffected by issues such as rank.  I could belong to any group, participate in any activity, that I wanted to.  I had a smart friend named Ralph and he and I edited the literary magazine together our senior year.  His father was an enlisted man, not an officer.  I later learned from him that we had gone to two completely different high schools.  In his Munich American high school, a kid’s father’s rank shaped the entire opportunity structure.  Children of officers and children of enlisted men were not friends with one another.  Children of enlisted men did not feel comfortable or welcome participating in extracurricular activities.  Editing the literary magazine with me was the first and only extracurricular activity he had been involved in during his high school years.  Whose high school was the real high school?  Both of our stories were true.  There were two different Munich American High Schools, based on a person’s rank.  I came from a civilian family and could move freely through the rank structure.  He came from an enlisted man’s family and was constrained by rank.  I soon came to learn in my college sociology classes that the rank structure is always more visible to those in the lower ranks than it is to those in the higher ranks.


When I was a young child in Washington DC in the early 1950s when the Jim Crow notion of “separate but equal” dominated race relations, especially in the south, which Washington was.  Public  schools were segregated.  Bathrooms, drinking fountains, and public recreation facilities, including swimming pools, were segregated and, of course, so were most private facilities. 


Around that time, there was a little African-American girl just my age who lived in the building next door to me in Georgetown.  I noticed her playing with her doll at the window and began stopping by to talk to her and play with dolls.  I had never ever seen a black doll before.  The little girl’s name was Jackie, just like mine.  We became friends through the window.  I even met her parents through the window.  They never invited me in.  One day I asked my mother if Jackie could come over to our house to play with our dolls.  My mother said “no.”  I asked her why and she said, “I don’t think she would be comfortable at our house.”  What did that mean?  Why not?  Many years later I asked my mother, who was otherwise an advocate of racial equality, why on earth she said that.  She said that she really didn’t know.  The only thing she could think of was that when she was a little girl, some 27 years earlier, she had made friends with a little Black girl and had asked her mother if the girl could come over to her house.  Her mother had said, “No, I don’t think she would be comfortable at our house.”  Who would have been uncomfortable?  I don’t think it was Jackie—she would have loved the chance to play with me.  I think it was my mother who would have been uncomfortable for reasons she didn’t understand herself and in spite of her conscious beliefs.  But who knows—maybe Jackie was much more aware of the meaning of the race difference than I was.


A few months later my mother and I were on the SS Independence traveling to Europe where she was to work in Germany for the next several years.  The children on the ship (all white) were fed at their own tables supervised by the child care workers from the children’s playroom (also all white).  Our waiter was a Black man who told us to call him Sugar and we did.  I don’t think I had ever been in such close contact with a Black man before.  We loved Sugar, he was the funniest, nicest man.  He was very kind to us.  One day I said to Sugar, “I know sometimes people say bad things about your people but I never do.  And I love you.”  It seemed as if the entire dining room froze.  The child care workers were shocked and one of them said, “What a nasty thing to say, you should be ashamed of yourself.”  Sugar said it was okay, he loved me too, but I knew right then that any authentic conversation about race was seriously taboo, even if it was loving.  

So, at the tender age of 5 I had learned the important lessons about race:

1.       It matters

2.      Don’t talk about it


In 1954, when I was 10, the Supreme Court’s  Brown vs. the Board of Education made segregation in the public schools illegal.  Even though the diehards insisted that “you can’t legislate morality,” we were all supposed to get together but continue to ignore race.  God forbid we should mention it. The politically correct attitude (although the term had not yet been invented) at that time was something called “color-blindness.”  Race was the BIG UNMENTIONABLE.  We were to eat, study, play, and work together and to treat one another as if race did not exist.  This in the context of blatant de facto segregation that basically maintained the Jim Crow status quo.  Pretty crazy.


The Black Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the 1964 the Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act but it also stimulated all kinds of other rights groups: women’s, gay/lesbian rights, disability rights.  I got caught up in feminism (then we called it Women’s Liberation).  Feminists and the Black Power movement both used consciousness-raising groups, in which people discuss their own personal experience to identify instances of oppression in order to increase their awareness and promote solidarity.  Both groups had separatist tendencies.  The feminist movement of the 60’s was primarily a white movement.  There were many Black women who didn’t identify with the feminist movement for that reason. The concept of political correctness began in the 1960s,  some say the term was derived from Chairman Mao’s little red book, which was, indeed, a handbook of political correctness for Chinese Marxists.


I tried very hard to be politically correct in those days.   At one point there was a pregnant Black Panther in jail on the other side of Woodlawn (I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago at the time).  Our little white feminist group decided to walk across Woodlawn, an almost entirely Black neighborhood, to the jail where she was being held to visit her and show solidarity.  We were a motley little group but handfuls of people stood on the street here and there to watch our procession. The Black Panthers were quite the gentlemen and didn’t act annoyed or condescending but I felt that we were mainly a big pain in the neck to them and wondered whether they were embarrassed as they escorted our group of hairy-legged white women across a virtually all Black neighborhood to show support for a woman who probably didn’t even know we existed. 


I myself underwent a lot of race and diversity training and consciousness-raising in the 70s, 80s and 90s, some of it formal and paid for and a lot of it gratis, courtesy of black friends and acquaintances, clients, and students.  Some of it was gentle and some of it was quite brutal.  But all of it has been enlightening.  I find I love having my consciousness raised.   Of course, my biggest consciousness-raising came from raising a black daughter.  Racism is a lot more visible, even for a white person, when it hurts someone you love dearly.


When I began teaching at the University of Maryland, in 1990, I began working with the concept of race awareness in my classes.  To me, it was important that the students in my department, many of whom would go on to work as human service professionals of one kind or another, achieved a degree of self-awareness about how racial and ethnic differences affected their clients’ lives and the interaction among clients and human service providers.  One of my heroines is Elaine B. Pinderhughes, a black social worker who sought to raise the consciousness of clinical practitioners concerning racial and ethnic power differences.  She did not use the in-your-face approach of many of the race-consciousness-raisers of the 70s.  Writing mainly in the 1980s, she used a softer, gentler, and, I think, ultimately more effective approach.  The goal of her racial and ethnic awareness education was to promote empathy among races and ethnicities, particularly between social workers and their clients.  Pinderhughes gave a list of 5 excellent reasons to seek to promote our racial and ethnic awareness.  I think they are relevant to our efforts here.  They are:


1.      To understand the complexities involved in cross-racial or cross-ethnic communication

2.      To recognize our own biases and the underlying dynamics of these biases

3.      To develop tolerance for the differences in our own and others’ perceptions

4.      To understand feelings and behavior in any situation that involves a consistent differential in power

5.      To enhance our ability to perceive ourselves and the other accurately


Pinderhughes argued that to be aware of the meaning of racial and ethnic differences, we must understand our own racial and ethnic background and how it has affected us.  This is true no matter what our race and ethnicity.  In her race awareness trainings she would ask some version of the following 5 questions:


1.      What your your racial/ethnic background?

2.      In what locality did you grow up and what other racial/ethnic groups resided in that community?

3.      How did your family see itself as like or different from other racial/ethnic groups?

4.      What were your earliest experiences of racial or ethnic differences?

5.      What are your feelings about your racial/ethnic identity? How are they influenced by the power relationships between your racial/ethnic group and others?


I’ve already talked about most of these questions in terms of my own life.  I’d like to say a little more, though, about how my feelings about my racial/ethnic identity are affected by power differences between my group and others.


From 1993 to 2001, there was a magazine called Race Traitor.  The group that published this magazine argued that the only way to solve the problem of racism was for white people to defect from the white race—simply to reject membership in this group which, based on skin color, automatically had a higher status in society that people with darker skin.  They suggested that we all—all we white people—become race traitors.  The first step was to refuse to accept the privileges that went with being white and the ultimate step was to simply stop being white.  For example, if you are around white people and a racist joke is told, go over to the person who told the joke, put your hand on their arm, and say, very seriously:  “I need to tell you something.  You probably don’t know this and that’s why you felt comfortable telling that joke, but actually, I am Black.”


I am, in many ways, a race traitor.  My immediate family is more Black than white.  I do talk about race to both white and black people.  I am an equal opportunity offender, in that sense—I can easily offend either black or white people.  Actually, I would be quite willing to leave the white race and join another race but I haven’t yet found another race that will have me.


In recent decades diversity has become complex, and there’s a lot more of it.  It’s not just a white-Black thing.  When people from diverse groups communicate with one another, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding.  I have recently been reading a book called Sitting in the Fire by Arnold Mindell.  He points out that, as in my high school, rank is a feature of all social groups and interactions.  There are lots of different ways of ranking high or low in a group and rarely are all of the members of a group of the same rank.  Bases for ranking include skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, education, religion, age, expertise, profession, health, psychology, and spirituality.  Many of these are ranking categories are taboo topics and, in many ways, political correctness has driven ranking underground.  We do it, but we are, especially those of us who are of higher rank, by and large unaware of it and we rarely discuss how it shapes our interactions with one another.  Misunderstandings arise in multicultural interactions because the existence and meaning of differences in rank are not openly acknowledged or discussed.  We are afraid to sit in the fire of open communication about these differences.  But the fire is transformative, especially if we ask God to sit in the fire with us.  When you sit in the fire with Higher Power and someone who is different from you, you are both transformed.


Fortunately, each of us has a faith context and a concept of divine love that transcends individual differences.  I believe we can sit in the fire together and be real with one another.  I believe we can be transformed, and I really want to be a part of this process.

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