A few days ago, I was sitting with my African American husband and multi-racial daughter on a bench on the Upper West Side. An older white woman walked by and started talking to us. I cannot tell you how it happened, but small talk about the unseasonably cool weather suddenly turned to comments on the situation in Ferguson. "Racism is definitely not over," she pronounced to us. We nodded in agreement. "Although..." she began. Uh oh, I thought. Then the woman began complaining to us about the black men who strut around the city throwing their giant sodas at buses. "Really? We have never seen that happen before." She ended by declaring that she immigrated to the U.S. in 1945 and so she knows what it is to be a minority. "And minorities have to act better than everyone else. African Americans need to remember that," she said with a smile. As she walked away, my husband and I looked at each other in disbelief and took the next 20 minutes processing the drive-by racism we had just witnessed.
My husband and I couldn't help but laugh at how blatant the woman's racist stereotypes were. How unenlightened she was. How ignorant and small-minded in her prejudice. But thinking these thoughts completely denies the twenty minutes of conversation that occurred on that bench just before the "racist" woman crossed our path.
Just moments before we met our new friend, we were discussing our latest obsession -- Who would be the first babysitter we would allow to care for our precious baby daughter? For any new parent, leaving a child with someone for the first time is scary. For the last couple of weeks, we have been collecting names and conducting interviews of a number of people vying for the job of taking care of our precious child. And I must confess that the whole process has been full of assumptions and stereotypes for me. Most of these people are folks we have never met, so our first impressions of them are based on very limited information -- a name, a picture, a bio. In narrowing down our list of potential sitters, the words, "I know this is just a stereotype, but..." have slipped out of my mouth far too many times. Without much else to go on, I have made countless assumptions about these caregivers based on age, class, language, ethnicity, and level of education.
It's funny because I love to think of myself as anti-racist. I know all the right things to say about race and privilege, stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudice. I talk a good talk. But when it comes down to the stuff in my life that really matters -- my daughter's care and safety -- I revert right back to those generalizations taught to me by a racist and prejudiced society. It is in these most important decisions and actions of our lives that we realize what we really believe. Not what we're taught to believe, not what we wish we believed, but what we really believe deep down in that part of our soul that hasn't yet been touched by "enlightened" self-righteousness.
So, unfortunately, I get racial profiling. I get police who shoot unarmed Black men. Because, no matter what you may say about racial equality and color-blindness, when you are worried about your own well-being and that of your family, the world may find out what you really believe deep down, and often, those real beliefs include stereotypes and prejudice.
I don't say this to excuse racist actions. I don't say this to brag about my prejudices or to garner sympathy for law enforcement who kill Black boys. I say this because I heard a pastor from the Ferguson area say on the radio that, no matter who we are, no matter where we live, we all have the opportunity to respond to what has been happening in Ferguson. And the best thing we can do to respond is to confront prejudice in our own communities.
And, for many if not most of us, the prejudice in our communities that is closest to home can be found in our own hearts. We all have a little bit of Officer Darren Wilson inside of us. We all own a piece of that scared cop every time we act on our assumptions and generalizations about the people we encounter in our lives. We all are in need of a cleaner heart.
If you have been touched by the events in Ferguson, take the advice of that Missouri pastor: Confront prejudice in your own community, starting within yourself.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Psalm 51:1-6, 9-10