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.

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