Reflections Of A Recovering Racist

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

Do you remember these words from the musical, “South Pacific?”

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

I learned along the way but I don’t remember this teaching. It wasn’t done overtly. Growing up in a white community may have been part of the teaching. No people of any color lived in Portage Lakes, a community just one mile south of the city limits of Akron, Ohio. My Aunt Bess and Uncle Dud lived on Turkeyfoot Island, which was surrounded by Turkeyfoot Lake, the largest of the many lakes in the community. Families were approved to live there and were all Anglo-Saxon protestants. We did have Catholics living in the community and their children went to St. Frances de Salle elementary school.

I had an opportunity to play with a couple of black children. They came with their father, who worked for my dad by taking away trash from our Sunoco gas station. While Wilson was working, his children played with my sister and I. They were just kids to me, although certainly I noticed the difference in our skin color. Somehow I knew that people with that dark pigment in their skin usually lived together in neighborhoods outside of our neighborhood. I never questioned why they didn’t live in ours. I remember my father talking with Wilson about politics and other. Now I’m sure Wilson had a first name, but my father didn’t use it. He didn’t call him Mr. Wilson either. But it seemed they liked each other. My sister told me that our mother told her that she shook hands with Wilson at one time and it didn’t even bother her. So I guess the teaching wasn’t necessarily something I picked up at home!

I remember my father talking with Joe about politics and other things. It seemed that they liked each other.

I had learned something in Sunday School that may have had a effect on my early views of race relations. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world. All children – even those whose skin was different from mine, were loved, were equally loved. This love does not discriminate. I bought into this concept. I accepted this love and now it seems to me another way of talking about the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

On my good days I feel that all people are loved. Even those who are in pain and struggling with life are loved. It is difficult to translate this into language that everyone can understand. What would it mean to a physicist to consider that all humans are loved? What would it mean to a nuclear physicist to consider the proposition that all humans are loved? What would it mean to a fundamental Christian who truly believes that those who do not believe in the right way are destined to burn for eternity? What would it mean to a politician who wants to be reelected and needs the contributions of major funding from corporations, even corporations who continue to abuse human rights by farming out projects to countries who allow employers to enforce the most inhuman working conditions?

Our human interactions, political and cultural decisions and economic strategies do not seem to recognize that all people are loved, that all people have inherent worth and dignity. On the contrary, considerations of this type seem to have the lowest priority. Perhaps the message is don’t expect to find love or even respect from us. Is this part of the cause for ongoing racism and why it is still not possible to even imagine in your wildest dreams a society where there was promotion of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Back to Portage Lakes and my early education in racism. Our high school was all white. As a member of the marching band, I attended all our football games. We played against other white schools, except for Kenmore, which was a South Akron high school. The other schools were in such places as Tallmadge, Wadsworth, Norton, Springfield, Ellet, other white towns. I attended lots of basketball games where all the players were white. I suppose there are still places today where this might happen.

We had an annual minstrel show at our high school. Six or eight senior boys would be dressed in blackface and do ethnic jokes with a negro accent. The choir sang seated on risers in the back of the stage. A pit band led by our talented musical director, Ralph Herron, accompanied the music. Various special performers came on throughout the program, tap dancers, singers, comedy acts, with the interlocuter, one of the blackfaced seniors, introducing each act.

This minstrel show was a highlight of the community’s cultural life. The minstrel show always played to standing room only audiences. I was in one of the last of these shows, for they finally came under fire and when the format changed to a talent show without blackface, the audience dwindled.

During my first foray at college life at Akron University, a talented Akron native, black student, Len Chandler wrote and produced a musical and cast me in one of the minor roles. We went out to eat after rehearsal one night to the Garden Grill in downtown Akron when there used to be a downtown. About 7 white students and Len. We were refused service. The feeling of powerlessness was overwhelming. It was followed by outrage and deep anger and embarrassment for Len. This was the beginning of my conscious awareness of racism. From that point on my life was changed as I tried to understand it. Two of my four sons are adopted. They are of African-American and Euro-American descent. In our culture they are called black. I call them Brian and Joel.

Even though I was not exposed to overt racism in my family home and was protected from it by living in a white community, I am a racist anyway. I carry with me fear of the other – those not like me. I must work to understand that deep cultural differences exist between me and people who grew up in overtly racist families. I must work to understand that deep cultural differences exist between me and blacks, hispanics, native americans, Asians. We do not approach life from the same starting place. We have experienced life differently and we must learn as much as we can about each other to overcome our fears and judgments.

You may say this is ignorance, maybe prejudice, but I wouldn’t call it racism. Racism is something much worse than that. Carolyn, you’re not a racist.

Defining racism might help us in this discussion. Many do define racism as racial prejudice plus power. I prefer the following definition published by The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: “Any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise, on equal footing, of human rights and freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life.” I like this definition because it helps me continue to take a serious look at why I respond to people and situations in ways that sometimes take me by surprise.

Racism takes many forms. I think we all recognize a number of cultural aspects of racism. As individuals we carry the legacy of what we were taught, regardless of how we have developed our sense and value regarding issues of justice and civil rights. You are free to disagree with me on this point, but I urge you to take a deep look within before being too quick to deny your own deep seated learnings. early movies portrayed Native Americans as savages with few language skills. African Americans were servants, beloved caretakers of white children, but rarely portrayed in a position of power or influence except among themselves.

Then there is our language. We work hard today at being “politically correct.” But let’s consider how we got to be politically incorrect in the first place. Those of us of a certain age grew up reciting “Eeny-meeny miney mo, catch a nigger by his toe.” Many will remember the former name of Brazil nuts.

These terms and many like them were normative. We thought nothing about using them because we were so inculcated with the disrespect for all people of color. We also used the term “Jew” someone down referring to bargaining with a person over a money transaction. This language continued to be used because the majority had the power to continue using it. Only after the time when oppressed peoples interrupted our actions and started gaining a sense of power themselves, did we begin to think of the consequences of our language.

We are familiar with institutional racism and we’re aware of the legislative attempts that have challenged this insidious problem. Institutional racism continues to be in force and I fear will be the most difficult to end. The Unitarian Universalist Association has intentionally been working on ending racism for decades. Our Journey towards Wholeness continues and we continuously address these issues. We elected the first African American president of our association last June at our General Assembly in Cleveland. The Rev. William Sinkford. As individual congregations, we work to diversify our membership but the going is hard. We are unable to attract families of color into our churches in proportion to the demographics of the areas where our churches are located. The failure of years of active recruiting by our Oakland, California church is evidence of this. Deeper than this obvious failure is the recurring awareness that our attitudes reflect those of the culture at large and often we have difficulty recognizing what we do to keep the status quo.

There have been complaints recently of environmental racism. There is increasing evidence of low income African American neighborhoods being subject to exposure of polluting activities. Then we must consider reports of inferior access to health care.

The earning gap between the rich and the poor has some elements of all other types of racism thrown in with classism and all the other isms. Government reports continue to demonstrate that white males earn more than others for the same work at all levels of employment

My racism is the distinction which I make consciously or subconsciously to judge or otherwise distinguish people on the basis of the color of their skin. Many say that hundreds of years of slavery have left their legacy on the hearts and minds of all of us in America. They also say that if we do have racist attitudes in here somewhere, it isn’t our fault. And that is all well and good. But what is my responsibility.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is a covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. The second is to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations and the third is to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. Accepting one another is not limited to the people who become part of our congregation. It goes along with affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity and justice, equity and compassion. As a Unitarian Universalist minister I have made a covenant to do everything in my power to meet these principles head on and make them a part of my conscious life. My work in this area is not done.

In the past few years there has been a small adjustment in the filter through which we look. The young golfer, Tiger Woods, publicly protested against racial labels being applied to him. The United Nations gathered a group of biologists, geneticists, and other appropriate scientists together and asked them to find a scientific basis for race. After several years of study, they reported their findings. They could find no biological or genetic basis for any racial differentiation in human beings. None. I share as much genetic information with Tiger Woods and my adopted sons as I do with my two biological sons.

Some writers have suggested that we eliminate race as a human attribute. The result of this new thinking, if we could pull it off, might lead us to the conclusion that “race” is only a code word for oppression. During earlier times of emigration, we have spoken of the Irish “race,” the Italian “race.” And we are still doing it. Think about the census forms. They ask about race. And they include within the racial categories not only various ways of being “of color” but also Hispanic. Can we say now that race is not about biology or genetics. It’s not about skin color. Can we say that race is about culture and cultural oppression and nothing else?

Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered for his “I have a dream” speech. This morning I also have a dream. I dream of a time when the concept of race is eliminated as a human attribute. A time when all people live together in harmony without regard to the pigmentation of their skin. I would be able to stop thinking of myself as white and think of myself only as human.

I dream of living in a world where all people are first and foremost human beings with various colors of hair, which today are seldom mentioned in news articles, and various colors of skin which would in this new world also seldom be mentioned in news articles. In my dream, I talk to you about my family, friends and the people who influence me without feeling compelled to mention to you the color of their skin? Perhaps the next step in my recovery from racism is to work to give up my whiteness. I can’t give up the privilege I have enjoyed throughout my life as a result of an accident of birth. But perhaps by no longer thinking of myself as different, I can begin thinking of myself as one with all of humanity. Perhaps I can share in the pain and hope of all people. And perhaps in time I will be able to practice that love which I sang about as a child. That love which was demonstrated by Jesus and is reflected in our first principle. perhaps I will finally be able to fully promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people.