I spent a year searching for my racism and white privilege. Here's what I found
I have engaged in an extended period of soul searching since I first read Robin DiAngelo’s best-seller, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race. DiAngelo uses the term “white fragility” to describe what she sees as the difficulty that white people have in admitting their conscious (or unconscious) racism, and their complicity in the systems that uphold their power and privilege. Reading White Fragility compelled me to explore the genre even further—I read other best-selling books on racism such as How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. I recognized that the worldview at the heart of these books was beginning to show up in an increasing number of our American institutions, and I wanted to learn more about it.
Reading them led me to heed the advice in several of these texts: that I, as a white male, needed to conduct a thorough self-examination, to identify the racism within myself, confess to it, and seek forgiveness.
Here is what my soul-searching turned up.
I was born in rural Fayette County, Kentucky, in 1943, and grew up in a farming community named Athens (pronounced with a long “A,” as opposed to the famous city in Greece). The residents of this tiny, unincorporated community where I lived from birth through high school were poor to lower-middle class. Farm labor was what nearly everyone did to earn a paltry income, and during the summers as a teenager I worked either in the tobacco fields or hauling hay for $6 a day—the same as every other summer laborer, black or white.
My family lived in a parsonage next door to and owned by Boone’s Creek Baptist Church, where my dad served as pastor for thirty-three years. He was a self-educated minister who, in spite of his lack of higher education (though he did graduate from high school) was articulate and exceptionally wise. My mother was the more formally educated of my parents, having graduated in home economics from the University of Kentucky. Our weathered, wood-framed, termite-infested house did not have indoor plumbing until I was in elementary school. No running water, no water heater, no indoor toilet. Instead, we used an outhouse and got our water by hand pumping it from a well located across the church property. My father placed a rug and a piece of furniture over a hole in our living room floor to keep us from stepping through it. With no air conditioning, we kept our windows open during the summer months.
The blacks in the community, though few in number, had their own church known as the Second Independent Missionary Baptist Church. My father on occasion was invited to preach at the black church, and sometimes the two churches held joint services. Frankly, I never really questioned why my black friends didn’t go to the same school or attend the same church that I did. After all, we played together as children, and as teenagers we worked together in the fields during the summer. In my innocence, I assumed that any separation between blacks and whites was by choice: people often want to live and socialize with others who are like them. I had not developed either the intellectual or moral curiosity to think otherwise.
On our occasional trips to Lexington, the nearest city, I remember that water fountains were clearly marked “whites only” and “coloreds only.” Yet, in Athens, we drank from the same water coolers provided for us in the tobacco and hay fields. The juxtaposition of separate water fountains in the city and the common water cooler in the fields never occurred to me as odd, being just a kid. But I had learned by the time I was eleven years old, when the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which decreed racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. I saw the school that my black friends attended, and it was obvious to me that their facilities were not “equal” to the Athens Elementary School that I attended—and Athens Elementary School was certainly not fancy.
The next school year, the dilapidated black school was abandoned and Athens’ school became fully integrated. Our school was largely free from the problems of integration that I heard about in other places, mainly in the deep south and in large urban schools in the north. After all, we had played and worked together for our whole lives. Indeed, we had always been poor together. To us, attending the same school seemed like a sensible change. Of course, there was still racism, but the use of slurs to refer to blacks and disparaging terms to describe poor white students became less tolerated by teachers and generally disabused by fellow students.
A coming of age moment occurred on a family trip when we stopped to have lunch at a diner. Without knowing at the time what to call it, I witnessed Jim Crow segregation. Blacks were not permitted to take a seat in the diner. They had to place their order, stand in the corner while their order was prepared, and then come back to the counter to pay. This humiliating practice infuriated me, and I suddenly realized the true extent of segregation and the racist views that perpetuated it. I saw that my experience in Athens had been unique, and that for much of our country, black Americans were treated as second class citizens—or worse.
My most disturbing memory occurred when I was a student in the early 1960s at Georgetown College, and a couple of black students at the College were refused membership in the local Baptist church. This was ironic to me, as the church financially sponsored missionary trips to Nigeria—and the black students that sought membership were Nigerian students who had been led to faith in Christ by the very missionaries that the church had supported. It seemed indefensible that the church would refuse membership to persons whom they had evangelized through their mission efforts, solely on the basis of skin color.
Though the church denomination with which I was affiliated from childhood had been complicit in fostering racial discrimination, both during the period of slavery and the Jim Crow era (many southern churches even supported the murderous Ku Klux Klan), more and more white pastors and laypersons were beginning to see the error of their complicity. Many realized that silence gives consent, and they began to speak out against racist practices. Things were changing for the better.
When I was twenty-four years old, I accepted my first pastorate in a small community in Estill County, Kentucky. As with most counties in Appalachia, the people of Estill County were impoverished and mostly white—98% to be exact. To provide a sufficient income for my family, I secured a second job as a school teacher. Having received both undergraduate and graduate degrees and moved a step upwards in class status, I knew first-hand the way these largely undereducated, poor, white Appalachians were viewed by society in general. They were derided as ignorant, and were commonly referred to as hillbillies (among far more scurrilous terms). Yet, I came to love them deeply, and saw in them the same image of God that I had been taught from childhood that all people possess.
At this point, I could feel something was happening in me. The latent uneasiness that I had internalized even as a kid growing up in Athens could no longer be assuaged by simply telling myself “that’s just how the world is.” Now, as a pastor, I knew I could not remain neutral on race or class prejudice, and I stood up to these evils whenever I encountered them. A few years later, when I became pastor of Far Hills Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, I served on a Racial Reconciliation Committee of clergy and community leaders that helped to bridge the gap between Dayton’s black and white communities. In the 1990s, I nominated Reverend Gary Frost as one of the vice-presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention. Frost won, becoming the first black pastor to serve in this leadership role.
Reflecting over the nearly eight decades that I have lived, it is clear to me that racism in America today is far from the racism of my grandfather’s generation. Those who depict modern America as being just as racist as the America of the past have to ignore the seismic societal shift it required for our country to come as far as it has, from the evils of slavery and Jim Crow to the election—twice—of a black man to the Office of President of the United States. Our country is far from perfect, but the immense progress we have made must count for something.
The gurus of contemporary anti-racism admonish white men to confess their racism and seek forgiveness. Yet, in my self-reflection, I have come to realize that prejudicial or discriminatory behavior towards others have never been a part of who I am. Though I never expressed it then, I now recall that even as a child I knew deep-down that racial and class discrimination was not right. These convictions blossomed in my adult years as a husband, a father, and a pastor. My experience living in poverty, working, and worshiping alongside my black brothers and sisters indicate a far deeper bond than those superficial traits that supposedly divide us.
A little over a year ago, I entered a mental confessional to lay bare any bias—conscious or unconscious—or any racist proclivity that I may harbor. However, I have exited the confessional convinced that I simply have no guilt to confess. What I found instead was a human being: imperfect, but doing his very best to leave the world a little bit better than how he found it.
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