I remember hearing an African American lecturer state that racial prejudice will be eliminated over the breakfast table. The idea was that we needed to get to know each other, see each other’s humanity and embrace it. Years later I saw this man at another conference. I hurried over to him as he was entering the dinning area, and while he held the door for me, I said, “I remember what you expressed at a conference a while back about racial prejudice being eliminated over the breakfast table, and I just want you to know that since then Phyllis and I have talked to hundreds of folks over the breakfast table – and the lunch table and the dinner table – about the oneness of humanity and the need to eliminate racial prejudice. We’ve found it to be a major part of the work we have to do.”
At that time in my development I expected a supportive pat on the back, an endorsement from someone I respected that indicated that I was doing some good anti-racism work.
“It’s not rocket science, Gene,” he said, as he nudged me into the dinning area.
He wasn’t about to give me a gold star for doing something he considered as simple as tying one’s shoes. The fact is that for many of us who are white talking about race is difficult. We can have a variety of what have been termed “distancing” reactions when the subject of race comes up, like stating, “Racism exists throughout the world. Why make such a big deal about it here?” But what I’ve seen most often is a sudden tight-lipped muteness and a blank facial expression suggesting that something’s getting stirred up at a level of the psyche that one would prefer to leave undisturbed. What is that thing lurking down there in the dark corners of our subconscious? It seems to have the power to prevent us from expressing thoughts and feelings about race. In a very real sense it has us handcuffed. Why do we give it the power to limit our freedom?
My belief is that when we white Americans talk about race we become conscious that we will have to confront what white folks have done to black folks and other people of color. It’s challenging because we know that people who looked like us have inflicted other humans with unspeakable cruelty. And some of us may even ponder how we might have behaved had we lived in the days of slavery or Jim Crow. Would we have stood by and watched lynchings just as casually as we take the family to an evening concert in the park today? No, of course we did not perpetrate the atrocities of the past; but why do some of us feel pangs of guilt or shame? And how are we responding to current incidents of racial injustice?
A couple of years ago Phyllis and I were participants at the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta, GA. We were new authors and hoped to sell lots of books. While wandering around the display area and checking out the other author’s books, I struck up a conversation with one of the security people, an African American man in his early 30’s. He asked me about our book and we talked at length about the work we need to do to bring about racial healing. At one point he said, “White people look at my size, my dark skin and these (pointing to his long dreadlocks) and I can see them judging me. They don’t know I’m a family man and have a responsible job working for the city.”
I told him that Phyllis and I had traveled all over the country and conversed with many white folks about race and that my conclusion was that most white people see the value in diversity and want to explore the potential of cross-racial collaboration. We talked about a tipping point and the inevitability of building the Kingdom of God on earth, and were speaking loudly and excitedly, feeling hopeful and confident that things will change, when he suddenly said,
“We can skyrocket this thing!” and threw up his hand as if launching a space ship.
Maybe it is rocket science, after all.