My son is white. Which makes sense, since his parents are white. But see, my son is really white. His skin is virtually translucent, to the point where you can see the web of green, pink and purple veins between skin and skull.
Now my son was the sole white kid in our church’s Black History Month play when he was 4. He got the only role that worked for a white kid, just like my husband got the role of the Devil in last year’s Christmas play. (I’m not making this up. But it is a joke.)
So it’s dress rehearsal, and the narrator is standing in the pulpit, doing his best preacher’s voice as he recites Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. When he gets to the bit about “one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” that’s my boy’s cue. He starts walking up the aisle holding hands with a black girl who’s the same age. Awww.
When he gets to the front, though, he stops and kind of screws up his face. He has this indignant look where he arches one eyebrow, jerks his chin ever so slightly and pops open his mouth. He looks at our co-pastor, who is directing the play.
“I’m not white,” he says. “I’m pink.”
He hadn’t a clue why everyone busted out laughing. And, I have to say, we didn’t bother to enlighten him. Didn’t want to burden him with the biggest stain on the American church, the fact that, when given the choice, we almost always worship with people who look, talk and act just like us.
Back then, at 4, my son hadn’t identified himself with a category of people called “white.” Since birth, he’d attended a largely black church. You’d think he would have noticed at some point that almost all of his relatives were white. And maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. We never talked about it in the Lyons household.
Which isn’t to say we’re not aware of racial issues. We are, very much so. But we’d made a conscious decision not to classify people by color in our son’s presence, and the result was interesting. He viewed the world in a different hue altogether. People were just people, identified by their roles -- like "Big Pastor" -- or the color of their clothing.
At the age of 5, though, when my son was in kindergarten, I heard him say something resembling the "N word" on the way to school one day. It wasn't quite the "N word," and I don’t think he had a clue what it meant, but he’d heard it somewhere, and he somehow knew that the word held power. I pulled over the car. We had a fierce little talk, so much so that he nearly cried. He never said it again.
But the innocence was gone.
So funny, how our kids absorb the moral failures of our culture, how, without ever trying, they learn its errant ways. Such guilelessness never lasts, not in America. We deceive ourselves if we think otherwise.
This week, writer Cherrie Mackey weighs in on how we see color, specifically in the church.
See My Color
By Cherrie Mackey
There is a group of people who frustrate me to no end. No, not stinky cab drivers. I’m talking about those well-meaning folk who proudly proclaim (in their best we-shall-overcome-one-day voices), I don’t see color.
Heavy sigh. I’m sorry, but that statement just rubs me the wrong way. Lest you be confused, their statement is not an admission to being colorblind. What they are attesting to is their “inability” ever to notice anyone’s racial heritage as they navigate their way through this big multicolored Crayola box called life -- and I just don’t buy it.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. I’ve put it out there.
So since I’ve put it out there, why don’t we just go the distance with the whole thing, shall we? While this phenomenon obviously happens quite a bit between blacks and whites, it also happens quite a bit between Christians. If I had a dollar for every time some well-meaning ministry leader or fellow parishioner has repeated this phrase to me, I could buy myself that sky-blue CLK series Mercedes I’ve always wanted. Or, at least the small midnight black BMW.
In my mind, saying you don’t see my color is actually just as bad as making a big deal about my color. Saying you don’t see my color is a clear indication that you do see my color—and for whatever reason, you’re not completely comfortable. With it or with yourself or with the state of the world. I don’t know. But it’s a tell-tale sign that something ain’t right. I mean, do Latinos go around saying to each other, “Hey, I really don’t see your color”? Do African-Americans go around saying to each other, “I want you to know that I don’t see your color.” Do Caucasians go around saying to each other, “Listen, I don’t see your color.” Of course not. So why do some people feel it necessary to say it to someone of a race opposite theirs?
I was visiting several churches last year, praying about someplace new to call home. I’d visited this particular church two or three times, and one Sunday after service, the (Caucasian) pastor was greeting people as they exited the building. When he got to me, he shook my hand while loudly exclaiming, “Glad to have you, girlfriend!” I kept smiling and pumping his hand, but the inside of me pretty much turned into a semi-frozen Slushee and I began to doubt that was really the place for me.
I mean, I understood he was just trying help me feel welcome, and I appreciated his intent. At the same time, I resented his attempt to use urban vernacular to assure me that he was “down.” It wasn’t necessary. In my mind, it was his way of saying, See, I can talk just like you; I’m cool, so I couldn’t possibly be prejudiced. The problem is, I don’t talk like that. He assumed I would immediately relate to him because of his use of the word “girlfriend,” but I don’t speak that way. Well, he couldn’t have known that, you say. But why did he have to say it at all?
Though racism is definitely still around, thank God more and more diversity is swallowing up the whole, especially in evangelical churches. There are successfully diverse congregations all over the country. I was a member of a racially diverse congregation for many years. But you don’t have to pretend that I’m not what I am for us to coexist in the same space, workplace or pew. Remember my sky blue Mercedes and midnight black BMW? Color is important.
Well, what are people supposed to do, then? It sounds like we’re danged if we do and hanged if we don’t.
You’ve missed the whole point. The point is, it’s OK to acknowledge someone’s racial heritage. Abraham Lincoln won’t rise from the dead and whip you with a wet noodle and Martin (Luther or Luther King, take your pick) won’t take away your racial sensitivity points. Oh, and let me add, making that statement does not grant you immediate entrance to the “You Can Trust Me” club, either. Trust is a process, not a conversation.
Again, I understand and appreciate the eagerness and earnestness of trying to put someone of a different race at ease. Of trying to assure them that you consider them equals and no different from anyone else. But how about allowing all of that to unpack itself over the course of time? Or, if there is no time -- if it’s just in a passing greeting -- just know that when you really aren’t prejudiced, it shows. Just like it does when you really are. The old adage, “I can show you better than I can tell you” comes to mind.
I know you probably think I’m being overly sensitive. Or making a mountain out of a molehill. Perhaps. But you’d probably have to be on the receiving end of such phrases to “feel me” (hey, I can use urbanisms too).
In my opinion, not “seeing their color” is actually pretty insulting to anyone. It’s like you’re ignoring a huge piece of what contributes to who they are. I am white. You are black. She is plaid. He is paisley. They are chartreuse. Whatever. We are a great, big complicated human race color chart and it’s OK.
One’s “color” or racial heritage is certainly not the sum of all one’s parts. But let’s stop pretending we don’t see the obvious overabundance or lack of melanin in the room and learn to appreciate every dark roast, teabag-toned, pale pink, light latte or olive-hued shade of each other.
See my color. It is part of who I am.
Feel free to notice the difference in our skin tones. It just may give you some extra insight to life. Acknowledge my heritage: I am proud of it, whatever it is.
By all means, see my color.
Heck, you can even verbalize it. Just don’t hold it against me.
There is much I could say about Ms. Mackey’s post, but I’d really like to hear what you -- Bible Girl readers -- have to offer on the subject. I’ll return to this topic in the coming weeks.
I’ll leave you with just a few thoughts. My 17 years as one of the only white members in a black Pentecostal church have not left me with any grand and glorious solutions for the state of race relations in American Christendom. Oh, I thought I had it figured out at one point, but that was 16½ years ago, to be exact.
I do know that prejudice is part of the American condition. You might think you’re free of it, but if so, I’ll hazard a guess you’ve never truly been challenged.
I have. And I found that there are no panaceas for a problem with innumerable layers of complexity. You repent and peel one back, and then you find another.
But every baby step of progress finds its conclusion at the same place. The cross of Jesus Christ. --Julie Lyons