In 1986, I was a recent seminary graduate and working with Oakland’s interfaith community. I was earnest, liberal and definitely not “woke.” One evening, I met with Black church leaders to organize a citywide event. Where would publicity go? We listed a few: the Oakland Tribune and church bulletins. Someone piped up “the Black Chamber of Commerce.” I knew it was somehow wrong to say, “the white Chamber of Commerce” so I blurted out, “And the normal Chamber of Commerce.”
The room erupted in laughter. People joked, “We wondered when we’d catch you!” I was terribly embarrassed. But I was lucky with this reaction. So full of grace. I was given the gift of space to make a mistake and learn from it.
It’s not as if I was a complete novice in addressing racism. In seminary, I had taken a class called “Unlearning Racism” with Ricky Sherover-Marcuse, a brilliant sociologist (and wife of the famed Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse). I even received an “A”. I remember keeping a daily journal to chronicle moments when we observed racism in us and around us. It was sometimes a very uncomfortable exercise.
Ricky understood, however, that if we were to unlearn racism, we needed safe places. She wrote, “People will change their minds and let go of ingrained attitudes under the following conditions: 1) the new position is presented in a way that makes sense to them; 2) they trust the person who is presenting the new position; 3) they are not blamed for having had misinformation.”
Accidentally letting the hem of our racism show is what white people fear most. We deem racists to be bad people, not misinformed people. American individualism is etched so deeply that it’s hard to see the pillars of racism, bound up in our history and institutions.
I lived outside Washington, D.C., during the March on Washington. It was August 1963, when some 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. I was 9 years old and my most vivid memory was that Dianne White couldn’t sleep over because her mom thought “Negroes would start rioting.”
That’s my only memory. Nobody told me why people were marching. Nobody told me who Martin Luther King, Jr. was. Years later, my mom told me some stories. In 1948, the Central College choir toured in the South. Because there was one Black student, they were constrained in finding bathroom stops and hotel accommodations. In 1960, our family moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., and one day she and dad saw “Negroes in their Sunday clothes at the beaches.” They were puzzled. What does it take to see and understand racism? White people live inside great silences and much fog.
My parents were loving and faithful Presbyterians. In the ’60s, my father managed a mobile home park in the Alexandria suburbs. He fought his boss in order to welcome African-Americans.
My family is not alone in this “peek-a-boo” racism. Sometimes we see it. Sometimes we don’t. It is cloaked in silence for decades, and then, one day it emerges from the mist. This is structural racism and white privilege. New words for many. White people are so “normal” that it takes repeated storytelling to understand that race is our problem.
My daughters and nephews do not live in the fog. Their eyes are sharper. Their minds are alert. When a friend’s grandma met a new girlfriend and said (out loud), “She’s beautiful but she’s Black,” everyone was horrified. It prompted me to do a Google search for “racist grandmas.” There were humorous and offensive pictures of grandmas with the caption “Get in the cage, granny.” There was a smiling grandma holding a cake decorated with symbols of the confederacy.
The bitter truth is that the more we uncover racism, the easier we see it in beloved people. We must remind the young that grandma’s sin is an ancient one, and not hers alone. We need grandmas, grandpas, and grandchildren to have safe places to tell their stories. We need book clubs, churches and schools with wise leaders that know how to guide these difficult conversations and help people identify ingrained racism.
The Black Lives Matter movement has taken me by surprise. Even though I’ve worked as a diversity trainer, even though I’ve served multi-racial churches and even though I’ve read Waking Up White, The Warmth of Other Suns and White Fragility, I know new gaffes are still ready and waiting to be blurted out. I hope these teaching moments won’t all take place out loud. But if I should say the wrong thing, I hope I’m with people who laugh as they teach me yet another lesson.
The Rev. Rebecca Kuiken is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has pastored numerous churches around the country. She lives in Raleigh.