Rising Leader Series: Week 38 - Community: Race
TOWARDS A CLIFFTOP FLAG
Next step, free solo, towards a clifftop flag,
though footholds crumble– rainfall spurs the slip–
she climbs against a downward-pulling drag
that wants to hold her color in its grip.
Up sediment layers of bigotry’s cost,
scraped she climbs. Faith defeating gravity,
courage summoned to leap the cross,
raw she climbs. Defiant strong; past history.
You who stand at top: what flies from hand?
Is that a stone you cast, or is it rope? Are you the rock this climber must withstand?
Or are you one rappelling line of hope?
No matter which, she’ll make it on her own.
But blessed is the rope, and cursed the stone
At 12:03 AM on July 21, 2022, my first grandchild was born. Maddie Mohr. She is perfect, and I am a goner. She’s such a little thing– light as a whisper– with a shock of hair and the tiniest features on her angelic face. She has quickened my heart, giving me fresh impetus to write you these letters. I can’t help but imagine her future. It is my most fervent prayer that my generation and yours will find some way to pass on to her generation a healing world.
To heal this world, we must heal our communities. To heal our communities, God calls us to see with new eyes. We who ‘have’ are called to see the hardships– and the trauma– of the many who ‘have not’.
I was born in 1955. At ten years old, in 1965, I was sent to Camp Dudley in Westport, NY for the first of eight summer seasons. Camp Dudley is the oldest boys’ camp in North America (it now also has a separate girls’ camp), and attracts a privileged kids crowd. At the time it also featured a scholarship program that gave a free ride to kids from disadvantaged communities. The program still exists today.
At Dudley, campers were organized into cabins. Each cabin held about eight kids. We spent a lot of time with our cabin mates– including at mealtime. It was on the first full day at camp, while at lunch with my freshly-introduced ten- and eleven-year-old cabin mates, that I experienced my first consciousness of race difference. We were together at our table for lunch. Just one orange was left, and three boys wanted it. So I began a rhyme, pointing from one to the next: “Eeny meeny miny moe…” At that moment, Larry Williams shouted out: “No!” I had thought to finish the rhyme with “catch a ‘tiger’ by the toe”, but realized at that moment that a racist word had once lived inside that rhyme.
Larry was from Harlem. He knew racism; it was part of his daily experience. Sitting at lunch that day, having just met his cabin mates, he had the courage to call it out. I remember feeling mortified. I turned beet red and shrank into my shell as the other boys shifted awkwardly in their seats. But how did Larry feel? I know I didn’t apologize to him. Larry, if you’re reading this letter now, I’m sorry for what I said.
Larry and I returned to Dudley each summer. We fished together, we competed in sports. About five years after that event, I happened upon Larry sitting with a camp counselor. He had approached him to learn about a military career. This counselor had been in the Navy; as I stood there he said to Larry something like, “Well there is prejudice everywhere, but I do think the Navy is better than the other services in keeping the door open for Blacks to rise in rank.” It hit me then, and it does now over fifty years later, that every day of Larry’s life he dealt with the hidden acid drip of racism. It permeated everything.
Not so for me. The simple fact of my lighter skin pigmentation has saved me from a lifetime of snide comments, humiliating jokes, suspicious glances, wide-berth avoidance detours, doubts about my capabilities, and in-store clerk distrust. I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt at every turn– most recently when I was pulled over for an illegal traffic move, and was let go with just a warning. Privilege. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Racism. It’s a curse that keeps on cursing.
Many of those who hail from European descent are sick and tired of the race conversation. Mentions of the history and legacy of slavery are met with “here we go again: the same old victim narrative”. “I don’t have an ounce of prejudice in me,” some say. “Some of my best friends are Black (or Asian, or Native American, or Hispanic).” Yet the fight to protect the perquisites of prejudice rages. School boards have been overtaken by those intent on banning books and race conversations from schools. On television, talking heads promote “White Replacement Theory” while attacking “Critical Race Theory”. Many can’t say the phrase “Black Lives Matter” without adding “All Lives Matter”, or “Blue Lives Matter.”
We can’t just cover our eyes and yell “yayayayaya” to avoid the truth. There is a hidden caste system that exists in our country. It reveals itself in that flash of anger when hidden rules are broken: an unspoken “look at her– she doesn’t know her place”. We see it in new encounters when our minds subconsciously conduct a “first sorting”, a hierarchical judgment. We see it in the clerk who follows the Black shopper around; the joke about the Asian driver; the edging aside of the Hispanic woman from the outside-the-library girl gaggle during frosh orientation week at college.
As pervasive as caste is, it’s like a broken calculator. It can’t ascertain anything accurately– whether that be talent, character or threat. Yes, we are of many colors. We all fall somewhere on the pigmentation scale, ranging from dark to light, and in hue from yellow to red. Racial purity is meaningless: we all originated from Africa; we are all mongrels of varying shades– composed of a diverse array of racial mixtures, arising out of our fluid ancestries and genealogical histories.
More importantly, we are all equal in the eyes of God– interconnected and interdependent. What does God see when He looks upon humanity? He sees His children: each unique, each equally beloved. So it should be with us, when we look upon each other. We are brothers and sisters– with hopes and dreams that in the end are more similar than different.
Privilege is an interesting word. Some privileges of wealth and status have been earned by hard work (mixed with God-given talent). Though let us never underestimate the degree to which accidents of birth have lent some of us advantage. I know that I stand on the shoulders of those who gave me an advantaged start. But then there are those privileges that are utterly unearned. Handed down wealth is unearned. Any advantage gained from skin tone is unearned. Just as those who suffer from unearned disadvantage have every right to fight for equity, so those who have privilege have every duty to do the same. Good leader, those of us who are privileged must learn to give privilege away.
First, we admit it exists. We self-reflect upon our own unconscious biases, and work to banish them. And then we work to do the same in the world. We do not let racist comments go unchallenged. We recognize that the path to reconciliation begins with truth, and so we resist attempts to whitewash racism’s history.
When we walk into a room, we don’t just gravitate to those who look like us, those who command privileged attention. We seek out those who do not look like us, or who might hover at the edges. We see, we welcome, we inquire, we validate. In a situation requiring community leadership, we don’t presume we must always be the one to lead. We stand aside; we support the other leader; we find reward in followership. We enjoy the shared power of team diversity.
More important than anything else, we connect. We seek out encounters with those who look different from us. In new encounters, we skip lightly past our first visual instincts (with all their faulty calculations and baggage). We seek to learn about the real person in front of us– her hopes and dreams; his challenges and opportunities; his family; her friends.
Our communities are becoming ever more diverse. We can either see that fact as a threat, retreat to our tribal camps and mobilize the forces of evil to deepen the divide and buttress the rotting structure of caste; or we can see our neighbors with new eyes– embracing our equality of worth– celebrating our differences– rejoicing in our interconnectedness– and sensing the love of God interwoven in our midst. Which path is of God? Which will give joy? Which will you choose?
Next week, my letter to you will take up the topic of charity.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”-- Galatians 3:28
Yours in equity and inclusive encounters,
Previous Weeks' Letters: