The essential is to know how to see . . .
But this . . .
This calls for deep study,
Learning how to unlearn . . .
I try to get rid of what I learned,
I try to forget the way I was taught to remember,
And to scrape off the paint they used to cover my senses.
I am, like every other human being, a creature of many parts—body, mind, spirit, ethics, priorities, wisdom, knowledge, and more. How they fit together to make me a functioning person is often a working of personal and social forces in my history and my present.
St. Joseph Mercy Hospital Ann Arbor today
I was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on October 10, 1946. Given the identities of my parents, I was a white baby. I still am.
I don’t mean to be funny. Instead, what I am reflecting is that some things about us do not change.
But context carries enormous power to shape those facts and thus our identities. My earliest context was a small, rural community, Milford, 40 miles northwest of Detroit. Everyone was white.
Well, almost everyone. There were two Black families living about three miles outside of town. I did not know this until I was seven years old, when my parents moved us from town to the country less than a mile from these families. I only knew one of them for a while, because my mother hired her to clean our home once each week. My father had known the family for many years, beginning with his time of serving as Superintendent of Schools.
A few years later, I became more acquainted with the other family, whose two daughters were a couple of years ahead of me in school. We belonged to the same 4-H Club, and they and I, along with another white male, formed a square dancing demonstration team.
I really enjoyed doing this. We had a good time, at least I know I did. There was one discordant note however. On occasion I was asked, as was my fellow white team member, how it felt to dance with “colored” girls (some said “Negro”). I was so unaware the first time it happened, I said, “Why do you ask that?”
The answer referred to how “those people” smell different from “us.” I could only respond that I did not notice any difference—I said something like this: “We all sweat as we dance and we just laugh about it.”
Looking back sixty or so years, I now see that none of the adults in charge of my development—my parents, school, and church– had prepared me in any way to know, let alone understand, racial dynamics. I had not been raised in a home with overt racial prejudice—in fact my father spoke up a couple of times to contest anti-Black remarks by others in our community and among family friends. There is one exception to this: my father bore strong prejudice against Native Americans (he had lived in Montana for ten years and claimed to know all about them). But I did not know this until years later.
I speak of these things, as also I recently wrote about racialized experiences within my MCC faith tradition (see previous post “Unlock the Trap—Part 1”), to begin a process for unlearning what I was taught, to begin to “scrape off the paint . . . used to cover my senses.“ I write in response to James Baldwin’s powerful insight that “White people are trapped in a history they do not understand.”
If we are to understand our history, first we must know it. We have to scrape the paint off it, examine myths, remove our blinders and whatever else has hidden it from us. We must take it out and examine it, turn it over, look at the underside, dig deep into our personhood to find the landmarks, the formative experiences and feelings. We need to examine our own personal history, and we also need to know the history of our faith community, society and world.
So what is our history in Metropolitan Community Churches?
I address that question to anyone interested in creating a new church, a self-reforming church, a new movement grounded in resistance to institutional racism in our own community and in the world. I address that question to all people in our movement, whatever their own personal and institutional racialized history.
Some people already know their personal and institutional history in this regard very well. Racial prejudice and institutional racism are part of their everyday lives, in church and out. They don’t have to dig very hard to have plenty to share.
But what about the rest of us, the people like me formed in a white dominant environment, trained not to see the pain and anger of people of color, conditioned from the beginning to walk through our days “to not see color,” empowered to ignore anything that challenged our racial worldview. Indeed, for many of us, probably most, nearly all, we never even knew we had a racial worldview. It was the other people who had race. We did not. That is the most effective enforcement mechanism of white supremacy and white privilege.
That justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
–Langston Hughes, “Justice” in The Panther & the Lash
What I am proposing is that we, whoever we are as people who want to facilitate change in ourselves as well as our church, society, and world, begin sharing some stories—personal as I have done above (and I have many more, and I bet you have a goodly number, too, if you let yourself dig deeply), church (as I did earlier), society and world.
Sharing these stories is a form of confession, without which repentance and reparations are impossible. I hope some readers will write here on the blog where comments are solicited. Whatever you share in this spirit I will approve for publication so others can see the comments too. If that is too much for you at this moment, feel free to write me personally at RevDrRobin@comcast.net
Either way, I hope we can begin. And I hope at some point this could grow into a larger dialogue through either or both online and in person oral sharing.
I admit this is a small start, but I do not know where else to begin other than with my own history and my own commitment to creating change in this moment and beyond.
I close with how I opened the previous post, reminding us of the hope and determination of James Baldwin—that we too might contribute to ending the racial nightmare in which we participate.
“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time