I suppose it falls to me to be the first to introduce Irene’s Daughters to the blogosphere. Let me say that this blog begins as an experiment in faith. Lately our little circle of friends has been talking an awful lot about race and how the dynamics of race in America affect our lives. We came to our conversations from different parts of the country, from different ethnic contexts, and with different agendas.
Two of us are, by our society’s definition: white. As one of the two, it has been a thrilling opportunity to talk frankly and openly about race among people of color. It has been especially comforting to explore this issues with women I know to be sisters in the faith—a faith characterized by confession and forgiveness. I know as I’ve entered this conversation, I have been grateful at several points for the grace given me by women who see me earnestly stumbling my way along in a search for truth and understanding about these issues.
It would be easy for a woman like me to be intimidated in this community. I was born and raised in the American south (which in itself has an airport carousel or three full of baggage). I came up in a white, upper-middle class family and was educated in essentially segregated schools (with the exception of two years in a middle school where the ratio was roughly 55-45, with whites retaining the smallest majority that I had ever known).
I was also a child of the 80’s and many of my favorite TV shows involved black characters. While I had friends of different races in school, sadly, sitcoms were often my only source of information about African-American people. I remember getting up early, before my parents’ alarm went off to watch reruns of Julia with Diahann Carroll. She was beautiful and loving, and much like my own mom, a working mother. I saw every episode of Good Times and The Jeffersons, along with all the shows that were making (occasionally overtly romanticized or stereotypical) “progressive” attempts at integration: i.e. Gimme a Break, Webster, Benson. I left with Denise to go to college in A Different World, and like most kids my age of any race, was regularly addicted to The Cosby Show.
In high school, our junior English teacher gave my homogeneously white class Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as if any of us had the intellectual or moral tools at the time to understand such a tome. A friend told me that she told her college professor about reading the book in high school and the professor openly laughed at the idea of high schoolers dissecting Ellison’s work. Still, my curiosity about that one novel led me to seek out an African-American literature class my senior year that would expose me to the genius of Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Jean Toomer.
I was able to meet these writers again when I got to college, and by that point, I became even less confident about engaging in racial dialogue (particularly in classes where I was one of the only white students). I wanted to talk about what I was learning, but feared that I would be viewed as a usurper or someone who was clumsy and incapable of connecting in any meaningful way to the texts we were reading. In one of my courses, there were two black women who gave me the courage to get involved in the conversation. The first was herself, a minister who had returned to school later in life, who spoke with such love and admiration for anyone who contributed to the discussion in class that I felt safe expressing my new found understanding. I didn’t deserve that measure of grace, but it was gratuitously demonstrated to me time and again.
The other woman was much younger, probably my age at the time. She was a strong Christian woman who was able to connect every injury and every triumph we explored in class to her faith in God and her knowledge of Scripture. In listening to her, I realized I wanted my own faith to permeate every aspect of my human understanding. We didn’t always agree in class, and many times I or another classmate spoke she would have some hard questions for us. Our relationship was not an easy one, nor was it a close one, but her decisiveness and confidence dismantled some of the expectations and thought patterns that had me locked up in a misguided sense of ethnocentrism.
Both of these women taught me that while getting in the fray will be messy (even ugly at times) and it will involve suffering the loss of my sense of entitlement, ultimately if I persevere, I can become part of a community that is honest yet forgiving. As I have learned more about the systemic problems we will be diving into on this blog, I am both angered and brought to my knees by the indignities all of us have suffered and continued to suffer in our nation. As dehumanizing as racism is for people of color, it does not come without serious consequences for white folks. I am discovering that even more as a mother struggling against the forces of privilege that seek to raise my children as racists by default.
I am beginning to see that any attempt at reconciliation over these issues will come at the cost of my own pride and ignorance. But with that loss comes the opportunity for real change, friendship and healing; and, perhaps one day, victory over the evils that have pursued us through the generations.
The only way to exonerate myself from the white guilt that plagues so many of my like-minded white liberal friends is to begin to act on what I know. To speak out in the face of denial and the “all that’s over now”/post-racial mentality. So with my sisters, other daughters of peace, I start my walk down this new road. Even though our journey will involve a thorough recounting of our shared history, I march ahead with the hope that sometime soon, by moving forward together, we can shake some of that old dust of off our feet.