Tuesday, September 15, 2009

They Took a Chance

The words I most dread hearing when listening to the local news are “The suspect is a black male.” It may seem strange to you that I dread those words more than something more imminent like “The suspect is just outside your door.” If the latter statement were common or even likely, you would be right to question me. But the words I dread are all too common and likely. So much so that when real criminals want to distract attention from themselves as suspects in their crimes, more often than not they blame it on a fictional black guy or two.

I mention the dread not to say that suspects shouldn’t be identified by race and gender. Nor do I fear that, since I too am a black male, I become automatically suspect (although the statement puts me into the suspect pool). No, the dread has to do with reinforcing the fear that grips our national psyche and its attachment to certain types of people.

It is not only black men who suffer from the attachment; just ask my tattooed and pierced young adult white sons. Or ask any group of teenagers who gather in a public place. But tattoos are chosen, piercings can be removed, and teenagers grow up. We black males will always be black males (like the brown people who speak Spanish or who come from the Middle East will always be who they are).

The image in the national psyche is so indelible that not even the traditional symbols of “having arrived” erase the connection. You could be a Harvard professor or President of the United States, and large segments of American society still see you as a dangerous black man. The fear simply takes on a different sophistication.

No pity and no guilt allowed! Even black people have internalized the myth of the dangerous black man, which is a tragedy that will take decades to rectify. And it is made more tragic by the fact that, despite the disproportionate number of black men who are arrested and incarcerated over any particular charge, the vast majority of black males are law abiding citizens just like the rest of y’all.

Against that backdrop, I write to express gratitude. I want to thank parents of white teenagers in four states—north, south, east, and west —who grew to trust me with their children week after week for nearly twenty years. Their trust is not unique in the grand scheme of youth ministry. But that they were mostly white Evangelicals, that their children were mostly young teens, and that I could easily be perceived (even with my small stature) as a dangerous black man, I thank them that they took a personal chance on me. Those kinds of courageous chances might begin to chip away at that national image of the dangerous black man.

Lest you think I’m making too much of their courage, let me describe how deep their trust got here in the American South. On one retreat, four white seventh grade girls challenged me to a basketball game. If memory serves, I won (yes I can only win at basketball against white middle school girls). The bet was that the loser takes the winner out for lunch. So the four girls took me to Arby’s. The retreat and the lunch are perhaps a common youth leader level of trust from the parents.

But let’s up the ante. In each church I worked in, I tried (with uneven resolve) to guide the kids into leadership. To that end I once asked Ken Ray, a high school junior, and Derek Waltchak, an eighth grader, to travel with me out of town to check out a campsite for an upcoming retreat. Their parents okayed the trip. We were out of town from morning into evening one Saturday. We had a great time and chose a great site, but even then I realized that I had been given great trust.

Their trust didn’t compare to that of the Hudsons. On another occasion I was talking to Nikki Hudson, a homeschooled eighth grader about another retreat site evaluation. She asked me if she could go with me. I hesitated, but then said, “I’ll take you if your parents allow it.” I figured that would be the end of the question.
I don’t know how much discussing Chuck and Carol Hudson did before making a decision. But I know that they loved their 3rd of six children, their 2nd of five girls. And to my surprise they agreed to this venture. I think Nikki and I traveled on a weekday, since it was seen as a sort of homeschool project. I remember us stopping on our out-of-town trip at a gas station. I walked in with this tiny blonde young teen. I admit that I enjoyed seeing people’s faces in rural Tennessee.

Daytime retreat trips are one thing. Overnight stays at the apartment I shared with another young guy are another. At least three times a group of white parents allowed their kids to stay the night at my bachelor pad. The fist time was with a small co-ed group of kids during the summer between their 8th and 9th grades. The second and third times involved a co-ed group of 7th and 8th graders.

In yet another experience, parents of four white high school girls trusted me to escort their babies on a two-week mission trip to Mexico City. That’s out of the country, folks—and not just over the border!

Most of these instances came with protections that made the parents feel safer. Sometimes the group setting eased their fears, sometimes other adults were along for the ride. And surely someone will say something like: “Tony, this only happened because you’re such a great guy.” Thank you for saying so.

But being a great guy is too often not enough to overcome the fear of the black guy. These parents forgot all about the image of the dangerous black man, because their kids loved me and they themselves had grown to trust me. I don’t think most of them even thought they were being courageous.

As long as we deal only in the abstract—black man, Latina woman, Asian man, white woman, etc.—we get nowhere on these issues. And I do not agree that color-blindness is a possible or valuable goal. But if we can just step back and treat persons as persons in all their racial and gendered glory, we might actually get somewhere that enriches us all.

If you start with the pity or guilt, I’m coming after you! I might be standing right outside your door.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Way Forward on Race

Reasons that discussions of race often go nowhere:
1. Some people are afraid the conversation will end with somebody being called a racist.

2. Some people believe that the conversations SHOULD end with someone being called a racist.

3. Some people believe that every mention of the racial element in a particular situation MEANS that you’re calling someone a racist.

4. Some people believe that racism should never be called out.

5. Some people believe “Racism only matters if I can see it.”

6. Some people (even those who think racism is real and really ugly) believe that racism only matters if you can prove it.

7. Some people believe that any mention of unprovable racism adds more to the problem than does staying silent about it.

8. Some people believe that race problems will only be solved if “those other people” would
  • a. stop their racist ways
  • b. stop calling racism out
  • c. stop mentioning race
  • d. grow thicker skin
  • e. pretend they are not in the skin they are in
I don’t agree with any of these.

I believe that we can talk about race without only talking about racism.

I believe that we need to talk about racism. That racism talk can be productive at the beginning of the conversation (rarely, when sparked by an incident) or in the middle of the conversation (preferable), but should NEVER be the end of the conversation.

I believe that, while race issues come with a host of possibilities of misunderstanding and over-reaction, the ability to perceive race problems rests with those who HAVE to deal with race on a daily basis, more than with those who do not.

I believe that in order for us to grow beyond our race problems in conversation, we have to be able to talk through stories and feelings even more than through logic, observation, objectivism and proposition.

I believe we will never achieve total healing of race relations in this life, but if we are willing to bravely and humbly enter the conversation we can get substantial healing and we will all be the better for it.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Lesson Plan: How to Do Ugly

I’m no political historian, but from what I hear, when President George Herbert Walker Bush was planning to speak to schoolchildren in 1991, Democratic politicians called “foul.” They feared that the Republican president was trying to indoctrinate young minds with partisan ideas. Turns out Bush’s remarks were nothing of the sort. It was straight down the line “Work hard to get a good education” stuff.

But as innocent as the speech was, the Democratic politicians had reason to be suspicious, since when President Reagan, Bush’s former boss, was in office, he had also spoken to schoolchildren in 1986. And while President  Reagan’s speech was also harmless, it clearly included more than glancing mention of his governmental ideology. No harm done. He probably inspired the minds of today’s brightest (as well as not-so-bright) young conservatives.

So if Democrats and other progressives objected back in 1991, why didn’t their objections reach the levels of today’s? Why were there no calls for nationwide boycotts? Why were school boards not forbidding the speech? Why weren’t parents choosing to keep their kids home because the President of the United States wanted to speak to them? Why weren’t permission slips sent home to allow the President to urge kids to work hard in school?

Some folks like the tit-for-tat and see the two episodes as equal. They clearly are not. CNN commentators almost uniformly suggest that the difference is today’s “politically charged atmosphere.” They are not far from the truth, but their assessment begs the further question: What is charging the atmosphere? I’ll leave that question to open speculation.

But I will take a stab at my first questions. And I will surely alienate at least as many as I amuse, educate, or inspire with my theory. But it’s a chance I’ll take in an effort to spark some positive change. I think there are two reasons that this effort of a President to speak to schoolchildren is different from the effort in 1991.

The first reason is that narrow-minded Republicans and conservatives do ugly politics way better than narrow-minded Democrats and progressives. I say this meaning no disrespect to the noble efforts at ugliness from the leftists. They try. But they are no match for their rivals. If the progressives throw the first punch, the conservatives knock them out with the counter. If the cons act first the libs come back with an anemic response. It’s like their heart’s not really in it.

So in this example, Democratic politicians cry foul in 1991 and Republicans (both elected officials and unelected media leaders) Never Forget. So they up the ante with a thunderous “scare the parents, call the names, pressure the school boards and teachers, boycott the President” assault.

I say all of this without intending to attach moral superiority to either side. I’m no fan of ugly, especially when it comes with its own air of moral superiority. But on both sides (and to some degree in the middle) there are people who decide to operate out of ugliness. I’m just saying that when it comes to ugly, conservatives do it better.

But there is another reason that this time is different from 1991. It has to do with President Obama, the man in office, more than with his political philosophy, his policies, or his ideology. It has to do with other feelings people have about him. It has to do with denial of his legitimacy to the office of President of the United States. It has to do with something else lurking.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Equally Yoked, Part 2

We lived at 3939-C Montague Street at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, when I was in fifth grade in 1969. Another black family, the Davises, lived next door at 3939-D, and for a few months their household included Sgt. and Mrs. Davis’s four-year-old granddaughter. She was the first person to say to me with resignation, “You’ll probably marry a white woman.” The second person was my black girlfriend when I was a teenager.

Popular opinion on interracial relationships has certainly shifted in the past few decades since 1967, when the federal Loving case struck down state laws against interracial marriage. Still there is no universal consensus; in fact everyone seems to have an opinion about the issue.

In the late 1970s at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, whenever my friends and I discussed interracial marriage, the most common comment was, “I think it’s okay except for one thing: what about the children?” The concern always amused me. My thinking was that (and I hope my biracial friends will set me straight), while biracial children would certainly have an upbringing different from other people, it is not likely that it would be more difficult than the experience of most black people.
Before Laura, I had only two “official” girlfriends—one black and one white. And, while in 18 years of single adulthood I had dated only black or white women, my “interests” came in many hues and ethnicities. That’s why the question of why some black men “prefer” white women always seemed strange to me.

In 1992, when Laura and I were dating, Ebony Man magazine published the article, “Interracial Dating: What Black Men Say About It.” They didn’t ask me, but I responded with this letter to the editor, dated March 24, 1992:
“Dear EM,
I was glad to see that someone is finally asking black men about interracial relationships. But if you had asked this black man, you would have gotten an answer that was not covered in your article. I am involved with a white woman because I love that woman. I did not search for a white woman. I did not
choose white WOMEN over black WOMEN. I chose this woman over all other women of any race. My involvement with this woman does not diminish my love and respect for my black mother, my black grandmothers or black sisters everywhere. The woman I love is strong, has come through hard times, is loving and selfless—just like my mother.
At the same time that you say Ebony Man does not endorse or condemn the choices black men make in women, you state that black men should “hurry home.” You are missing the point of relationships. I do not choose a mate to make a political statement. My home is with a woman I can love and who loves me. My home is with a woman whom I can love for a lifetime. There are women of every race who might fit that description. The woman in my life is white—not because I prefer white women but because I prefer THIS woman.
I am proud to be a black man. But if building up black people means that I cannot love people of other races, then I’ll settle for just building up the human race. And I won’t be counting on Ebony Man or popular opinion to tell me whom I should love.
So thanks for running the article; but as far as my interracial relationship is concerned, Ebony Man, like most everyone in the media, has missed the point.”
Years later in 2005 I expressed similar sentiments in a blog post, saying,
"Let me make clear that Laura and I did not marry to make a point. It was (and is) pure love, but it was a hard-fought decision, trying to anticipate possible problems for us and our children. In the end, hard-fought (not mushy) love won out. The hard-fighting hasn’t ended, though I think we’d both say it is mostly internal, along the lines of the theological tension mentioned above. The love of God and one another, and the shared mission to follow Jesus have sustained us."
A commenter graciously replied with a series of provocative questions. The beginning of his comment:
    “Grace2U, and Peace.
    You obviously made a decision, and I assume that you grew up during the 60's, that you had some wrestlings with. I do have a question or two, though, and I hope that you don't mind...

    I grew up in Gary, IN AKA Choklit City. My wife grew up in Pomona, CA and Leavenworth, KS. We are both African Americans. Because of the complex issues relating to romantic relationships between blacks and whites, particularly the issue of the desirability of white women, I have always said that I would not disrespect a sista by rejecting her for a white woman.
    My wife was formerly married to a black man who left her and her (at that time) 1 year old for a white woman. As you can well imagine, she views mixed race relationships somewhat differently than you and your wife do.
    I believe you when you say that you married her out of love, but was there ever an element of “I married up” for you?”
When I read the comment to Laura, she laughed out loud. If we’re going to take seriously all of those ridiculous on-paper measures (race, income, education, family of origin, life experiences) of “marrying up” or “marrying down,” Laura’s assessment is that I got the short end of the stick. She does suffer from runaway humility, but the commenter’s question demonstrates why we have no business looking from the outside at someone else’s relationship and trying to determine how it happened or what it means.

Like I said: everyone has an opinion. Only a few weeks ago, Laura was having one of her regular breakfasts with Miss Emma, a seventy-something white woman. A mixed-race couple walked into the restaurant. Miss Emma leaned over and said sweetly to Laura, “I don’t know how you feel about this, Dear, I just don’t think that, you know, that people should mix like that.” Laura leaned over and whispered just as sweetly, “Miss Emma, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m married to a black man.”