This is the quote from President Barack Obama's remarks about the George Zimmerman verdict that keeps repeating in my mind:
[A]m I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.
My parents were both raised in Mississippi by single mothers. Ma' Dear sharecropped a piece of land, and worked as a nurse's aide to raise her three children in Ruleville. Before Mama Gert inherited 40 acres of treed land from her second husband, she ironed white folks' clothes to make ends meet. My parents grew up in Jim Crow, in American apartheid. They grew up separate from the right to vote and separate from the "white" school. That is why they left Mississippi for the Air Force and for places north.
Determined that we would have a better life, my parents taught me and my siblings that we could be anything, do anything, because we were theirs. Our Air Force life put us in relationship with all kinds of people; we were neither in awe of nor afraid of white folks. Our parents raised us to love everyone, to respect everyone. Yet when I married a white man eight years ago, my father did not come to our wedding.
That my father disapproved of my marriage to John, a white Methodist minister, 14 years my senior, is an understatement. John reminded Dad of a particular man in Mississippi, a man who had left a hole in Dad's soul. John reminded Dad of the racism that enabled the soul-wounding.
Racism in America has left millions of us with pock-marked souls. Korean shop owners fearing the blacks from whom they make a living. Hispanics and blacks squaring off over immigration reform. And the souls of black folks are wounded, and scarred with centuries of injury. Objectification. Profiling. Our children lynched, or shot on highways or walking home. Women treated like creatures and put on display. Our souls are wounded.
How does a nation wring out centuries of wounding rooted in race-based bias?
Even though sometimes painful, I think we need closer encounters. John and I sought one with my father. We visited him in Chicago right after the wedding.
In the backyard on that Memorial Day weekend, Dad and John began to tell their stories to each other. John and I work together on racial reconciliation; he owns his privilege, and has important skills for difficult conversations. More importantly, he is a humble and gracious listener. Dad tells John things about Mississippi and about his life that I do not know.
My husband and my father now love each other.
The last time I went to Chicago, as we hugged goodbye at the airport, my father said, "Tell John we said hello. And tell him we love him. You know what? John has cured me of my prejudice, I am not lying."
As my eyes filled with tears, Dad continued, "If more people were like John, there would be no racism in this world."
If more people, like my Dad and John would have courageous conversations, we might begin to wring out fear and hatred. Together, Dad and John wring out decades of pain and disappointment. As they tell stories, they discover that they had the same kind of fathers and have been hurt by the same kinds of soul-injuries. They both have sons they love, like Tracy Martin loves his. John and Dad have deep, intimate, courageous conversations about race, culture, history, hopes, and dreams all of the time.
At Middle Church, in a multiracial context, we celebrate the unique gifts and perspectives that our racial ethnic heritage brings. Blacks and whites, Asians and Hispanics, are talking together about race and culture, hopes and dreams. I invite you to come and talk with us, work for justice with us. But, right where you are, in your community, you can have courageous conversations that begin to heal the injuries. You might begin with:
- When did you first know there was a thing called "race," and how did you learn it?
- When was the first time you were "othered" for any reason?
- When was the first time you "othered" someone else for any reason?
There is so much work to do to make our union more perfect, and to heal our land of racism: the repealing of unjust laws; mentoring black and brown boys; addressing the school-to-prison pipeline; and much more. Along with that work, close encounters with the "other," in courageous conversations build empathy and understanding. They begin to heal our souls, so we can heal the world.