Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Thought on Racism

It is a beautiful day. Despite the autumn chill, the sun is warm, soaking through every surface it touches, and gilding them with its liquid gold. I transplanted all the plants on my balcony yesterday while it rained in preparation for bringing them indoors, and spots of caked potting soil and the reds and oranges of fallen leaves had formed collages on my little balcony patio. I decided to sweep: put on my red apron and enjoy the sunshine while I straightened up the mess I’d made.
Outside the neighborhood was drowsy with the lazy energy of a Sunday afternoon. A few people strolled along the fence that surrounds the pond in the green. One of my neighbors had his radio on, blaring a sermon through draped windows. I gathered the dirt and dust in little piles, shifting the leftover pots around on the concrete slab to get at every nook and cranny. I heard a muted bark, and looked over my shoulder, glasses falling slightly along the bridge of my nose. My neighbor had come out on his patio, and teased his eager dog with a football, training him to sit. I watched, smiling. I love dogs, and this chocolate pit bull was wriggling with joy at the prospect of one-on-one attention from his master. The neighbor saw me watching him, lifted a hand in greeting. I nodded at him and turned back to my sweeping. A breeze tufted my hair, and I could smell the roast inside that my husband was preparing for dinner. All things were good.
I finished sweeping, and scooped my big pile into a garbage bag, then set about inspecting the few plants left out on my patio. Their emerald coils concealed a few brittle dead leaves here and there, and I plucked them out, dropping over the railing and watching them flutter to the grass one story below like little brown moths. My neighbor had gone back inside, and let both dogs out to tussle and play on the balcony. I watched them briefly. The sermon was gaining in volume and speakers, a few classic resonant black preacher’s voices, booming with characteristic tremulous emotion. I caught a reference to Isaiah, then to Daniel. I smiled again, a secret smile of satisfaction to be one in on a secret membership, that of faith in a loving God. I felt a warm increase in goodwill toward my neighbor.
Suddenly I heard a word that stopped me cold. I frowned, sure I had heard wrong, but no. Here the voices were again. Only now, where there had been the impression of holy faith and pious zeal, the fa├žade had melted away to reveal something ugly, something disturbing.
“… that’s because those idiots, those stupid fucks worship themselves a white God…”
I was frozen to the spot. The voices went on to discuss stupid white people and their single-minded bigoted devotion to a white God, and the incineration they would receive in Hell for their trespasses, but I barely heard them anymore. Occasionally the sharp punctuation of a “shit” or “fuck” broke through to my numbing consciousness and I cringed.
Finally I set down my broom and fled inside to my husband. I told him what had happened, and he launched into a characteristic tirade on the real racism problem in America. He grew up in this place, made miserable in school by black bullies who tormented him for the whiteness of his skin. But I always thought—secretly—that perhaps he overstated things, just a little. Maybe they just weren’t nice to him, didn’t trust him. But surely, nobody could be so bluntly racist, not in modern day Obama’s America. Surely, he was wrong.
I am from Idaho. This ham-hock-shaped state in the north-west has built an undeserved reputation as a backward, racist state, due to its harboring of the infamous Neo-Nazi commune near tiny Couer d’Alene, Idaho in the north. Though the commune has long since been driven out and the gates of that compound locked for good, people still tend to cling to old rumors and false information. But I am from the biggest city in Idaho, still a small one by most standards, yet beautiful, sprawled along the winding banks of the Boise River Valley. My high school graduating class was proud to claim the few black students there were. Though black families are unusually rare in Idaho (earning it a joking nickname for some of “White-aho”), they are welcomed, and often treated with the surprised pleasure of rare celebrities by most Idahoans. My first boyfriend, in fact, was a half-black boy named Jeremy, and I used to marvel at the way our intertwined hands resembled the creamy consistency of a chocolate-vanilla swirl cone as we walked home. Jeremy was immensely popular with nearly every clique in our school. Welcomed by theater geeks and Goth kids alike, he could also throw one back with the Saturday night partiers, try his foot at hackey sack with the Stoners, or conjugate French with the Nerds like a pro. Everyone liked and admired Jeremy, whether for his charismatic, likeable personality or his seventies-era afro that crowned his head like a giant Styrofoam puffball.
Once, after a history class lesson on the Reconstruction-era South that left me feeling a little disturbed, I asked Jeremy on our walk home if he had ever experienced racism. “Not really,” he replied, shrugging his thin shoulders nonchalantly. “One time someone shouted something out of a car window at me, but I’m not sure what they said.” I had nodded, appreciating the awkwardness of that kind of thing, but relieved, somehow, that the only black guy I knew led a fulfilling, equally-worthy life with his white classmates.
These memories come back to me sharply, and I am reeling now at the contrast. Surely, I think, that neighbor can’t really agree with the words of those pastors on the radio, can he? He, who just smiled and waved at me as I watched him with his dogs, cannot think me one of the White Infidels who will burn in Hell for my belief in a racist God, can he? I try to consider the alternative: that this man, my neighbor, is in fact a believer in these lies; does, in fact, hate me for nothing more specific or dynamic than simply the color of my skin. I think, idly, what would happen if I were to do as he: select a white supremacist broadcast and blare it out of my open patio door. I would be kicked out of my apartment within a day, sent off without a word or a refund of the month’s rent I just paid, at the very least reprimanded harshly against such measures being taken next time. But this man is not advocating white supremacy with his broadcasting selection. He is advertising his own hatred for any person of European descent within earshot. And this is allowed.
Moved from shock to anger now, I slam the glass sliding door shut, blocking out the hateful voices accusing me of a crime I have never committed based only on a profile of pigmentation. Going further, I turn on my computer, intent on playing something—anything—that drowns out those muted tones I can still hear through the glass. My computer clicks on, the screen loads. I select the wrong icon in my haste, and have to close it. Turning on my media player, I select the first album I come to, a Third Day one. The man’s soothing southern voice comes through the speakers like a shaft of light in the smoldering darkness of my emotional pain.
You can all call me crazy
For the things that I might say
You can laugh all you want to
I know there will come a day
When we all will come together
And learn to set aside our hate
If we could learn to love our neighbors
Just like we would love ourselves
We've got to come together
'Cause in the end we can make it - alright
We've got to brave the weather
Through all of the storms
We've got to come together
'Cause in the end we can make it - alright
We've got to learn to love

Again, I am stunned, and the burning edges of anger peel away from my heart for a moment. Come together… set aside our hate… learn to love our neighbors…learn to love. We’ve got to learn to love. I have got to learn to love. I breath in, listening. The chorus repeats, exhorting me to heed its urgent message of forgiveness, reconciliation. Learn to love your neighbor,” it urges. “Learn to love him,” despite what he has done, what he still does. Learn to love the man who would condemn me to Hell for simply being white, learn to love a person who is instinctively inclined to hate me before he has even spoken to me. Can such a thing be done?
Yes, I am a firm believer
In the things that we can do
If we would all just come together
And let the Lord lead our way

It can be done, my heart whispers. You can do it. You can love him, even if he will never love you despite what you do or who you really are. You can love him, pray for him to walk out of this darkness of hatred toward his fellow men and women. You can do it because, while he may believe in a God that smites people based on their lineage, you do not. You believe in a God who loves every person, who cringes at the way we hurt each other and longs for unity among His creation. It is this God, this King of Kings who fills your heart with purpose and love, and enables you to do the impossible, to do what you alone do not have strength to do.
And now, as I feel that strength of holy conviction flowing through me with the words of the song, I drop my head, and the words flow like cleansing water or tears. “Lord… bless that man. Bring him out of the darkness of his hatred. Teach him the truth of your words, and cut away the lies ensnaring his heart. Put your healing balm upon his eyes like you did the blind man’s, and wipe it away to reveal glory and truth and love to him that can cleanse him of his hatred.” The music fades away like the sigh of amen.
Today I have experienced the burn of racism, and it cuts like a foreman’s whip across my heart. But I refuse to succumb. I will not carry on the legacy that has allowed this color-based hatred to span whole generations and switch color lines to corrupt those peoples who were once the innocent victims. Today I have experienced racism, as a white woman in a black man’s land. And I have fought it with the only tool available to those overwhelmed by hatred: love, the love of a Savior who prayed for those who jeered at Him even as he hung on that cross. May you be equally empowered by such transforming love.
(The song, "Come Together" is by Third Day, on their 2001 album "Come Together.")

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I have to believe that your neighbor didn't know or condone what was coming through his radio. And that you should be able to view him as I do Barack Obama-you can sit and listen to someone without sharing their complete doctrine. I have heard sermons (albeit many yrs ago) condemning inter-racial marriages, which I could have sworn were directed right at me, the preacher knowing full well that my boyfriend was black. I am blessed by being a part of a color blind church. We are all God's children.