Black History Month - Day 28
Will You Join Me on the Road to Antiracism?
This is my final post for Black History month. I really hope these posts have been helpful to you as you work through your own perspectives and views about racism and black history. By no means have I exhausted the topics that could be included.
Today I want to offer some personal thoughts about why I have chosen to spend such a great deal of time and energy on this project. After all, what does a 60-something white guy know or care about Black history? Having lived in Iowa, which has only 4.1% black population, it is not often that I even come into contact with a black community. And, further, living in Washington, Iowa, with a black population of 1.7%, contacts with black people are infrequent. So, why do I care?
Antiracism As Spiritual Practice
For me, being engaged in antiracism, which means taking action to undo systems of injustice, is an outgrowth of spirituality. This has some very specific meaning for me, but at the outset, I’ll say it has nothing to do with any religious affiliation. In fact, in the course of my lifetime, 40 years of which were spent as an evangelical, I found organized religion to be a detriment to being actively engaged in antiracism. Maybe not everyone will find it so, but I did.
I realize the importance of faith and organized religion especially in the lives of the black community over the centuries. It has been a space for hope, community and support. And there have been many white churches that have been active in social justice such as the Mennonites, Quakers, and others. So, please understand, I’m not dismissing the role of religion in the work of antiracism. It is important.
But the modern-white evangelical church, of which I had been a part, has been the source and propagator of much of the racism in this country from the days of enslavement to Jim Crow and down to today.
Evangelical churches are in many cases opposed to racial justice. The roots of this racism in the church is well documented in many books, one of which is White Evangelical Racism, by Athena Butler. I won’t reargue her points here, but it is worth reading for yourself. If you are a white Christian, this is essential reading.
For me, when I say that antiracism work is an outgrowth of spirituality, it is based on a view of spirituality that I could only develop and understand after leaving the Evangelical church. I give a full discussion of this process and journey in my own book called Confessions of a Recovering Evangelical. I’ll just summarize a few of the main points here.
When I was in the evangelical church, faith was defined as a belief that you adhered to. It was based on correct theology and right beliefs. When “faith” is based on correct belief, it will by nature become the source of division, because individuals and groups of individuals will have differing beliefs. I saw church fight and church splits everywhere I went, because people didn’t believe the same thing. But in most every case they believed God was on their side of belief.
This phenomenon had a national and international consequences too. History is littered with religious wars from the Crusades, to the European wars of Religion, and even today, many international conflicts are based on differences in religious beliefs. In the arena of religious belief, someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong, and the winner can acquire commensurate political and economic power. The stakes are high.
In relation to the concept of “race,” good religious people even defined their religious beliefs to include white supremacy, black inferiority, and justified enslavement and the brutality of enslavement. It was one of the worst distortions of religious belief that helped to create the sad state of affairs we have today: oppression and racism.
This always bothered me, and as I began to rethink my own views, I studied the lives and teachings of many spiritual teachers and masters over the ages. The one conclusion I reached from that study was that faith isn’t about belief, it is about being. It is about who I am, and the connection I have in my own inner core to myself, or God or what every you want to define.
And once I learned that faith is about “being” it was easy to see that connections were the source of that being. The one thing that spiritual teachers seem to all have in common is the need to find connections…to your true self, other people, to whatever you perceived God to be, and the universe. These connections are real and they unify rather than divide.
Applying this concept of connection to the issue of race was revolutionary for me. Ironically, I had to leave the church to see it.
Once I learned that the concept of race is a social construction based on beliefs, it was easy to reject it. And then, I could begin to see the connections I had with all people, including black people and all people of color.
It led to a very biblical idea that most evangelicals ignore...empathy. “Weep with those that weep and rejoice with those that rejoice.” I was connected to the black experience because I could weep with their oppression and mistreatment. I discovered that my freedom was also connected to the degree to which black people experience freedom. If they are oppressed, then I am oppressed. If they are free, then I am free.
I also found out that I could rejoice with black people when they rejoice, which led me to help establish a Juneteenth Celebration in our little white town. It is about empathy and connection.
Taking action to undo racist systems then is an exercise in spiritual practice. I found out that my connection to black people leads to a sense of empathy (not guilt), and that becomes the fuel for the actions that I can take. That is the power and the source of antiracism.
This black history series for me, has been an exercise in finding connections, weeping with those that experience sorrow and oppression, and rejoicing in the victories that have occurred over time. This becomes one of the prime motivations for the study of black history…connecting to it. As a white person, I can connect to that experience through the study of black history. And I hope you do too.
This spiritual practice is the foundation for other reasons why learning about black history is important.
Rewriting My Own Script
One of the early discoveries I made in my spiritual journey is that I had been raised in an environment of white supremacy. It was a script written by others, imprinted upon me without my permission, and has influenced my attitudes and perspectives for most of my life.
By “white supremacy” I don’t mean those guys running around with white sheets over their heads. Although I did discover that my paternal great-grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Iowa in the 1910’s and 1920’s. My maternal grandfather was also a racist and in the 1960’s his solution to the racial strife of that era was to move all the “blacks” into one state, somewhere out west, and let them have that area. It was a “reservation” type solution for which we see the devastating results today on the native populations.
But beyond this family heritage, the culture in which I was raised is saturated by white supremacy.
Here is the thing….if you grew up in the United States you were raised in the same white supremacist stew as I did.
It surrounds you like water surrounds a fish to the point where you don’t realize it is there. It is what you are breathing and it sustains you.
You can’t avoid it because our culture is a white-centered culture. White people have designed the culture to center the white experience from education to entertainment to political power to economic power. White people created it, benefit from it and breathe it. It is part of the invisible atmosphere in which we live.
And by the way, that is why so many white people today are reacting so virulently to any attempt to undo the white centeredness. They attack the “1619 Project” because it dares to put black history at the center of the American story. White people are panicked that the white population is dwindling as the majority because that means the needs of non-white people might become more important and they will have to share power. So many white people are swimming around in the waters of white supremacy and don’t even realize it.
This is where taking a step back and looking at this atmosphere from the outside for a minute, or better from the perspective of a black person, allows you to see it for what it is, and how it has influenced you. It makes up your unconscious bias which automatically favors whiteness. It accounts for attitudes of anti-blackness which any black person will tell you about.
I didn’t ask for this programming. I didn’t ask for this script. It was imposed on me without my consent. But that realization also means…I can change it. I can write a new script and I can become aware of the unconscious biases I have and work to replace them. But this is hard work. It is spiritual work, and it is constant work. You don’t undo 60 years of scripting and mental mapping in a short period of time.
Most white people won’t even accept they’ve been raised in a privileged white supremacist culture, so they won’t take the time to reflect, rewrite their own scripts, and do the hard work. It is just easier to compartmentalize racism as “that black problem.” If you aren’t convinced of its existence, you won’t take the time and effort to change it.
And that is why this project is so important. I’m trying very hard to rewrite my own programming, but in the process, because I’ve been a teacher, I need to think about how I’ve perpetuated this script. And this leads me to the third reason why I care about black history so much.
Setting the Historical Record Straight
I taught students history for 30 years at the middle school, high school, and community college level. I loved teaching. And, from the feedback I got from students, many of them appreciated my efforts and my methods. But, what I discovered way too late was that I was continuing the white-centered history that I was raised with and was taught to me.
By that, I don’t mean I deliberately taught kids to be white supremacists, or to be racist. No, in fact I would teach counter to those ideas, when they arose. But because I didn’t understand the black experience, and had little empathy for that experience, I didn’t de-center the white experience.
By not re-centering the black experience in the middle of the American story, I was an advocate for a white-centered history which promoted white supremacy as the script.
I never allowed my students to view our culture and history in any other way. I never challenged them to confront the scripts they’d been given.
I didn’t try to create connections for my students to understand and reflect on their connections to other people through experiential learning and inquiry. We talked about “slavery” but we didn’t talk about what it was like to be enslaved. We talked about racism, but I never helped my students to understand what it might be like to be oppressed and discriminated against.
Maybe most egregiously, I never made the black history experience part of the larger United States history narrative. “Black history” was always a side story, or an elective. It was never made part in parcel of the American story. This taught students to compartmentalize racism and the black experience into a box they could look at and maybe even feel bad about, but never come to terms with. It wasn’t integrated into the curriculum in any meaningful way (no pun intended).
That brings me back to now. I’ve retired from teaching, but I am just as committed to undoing the false premise of 30 years of teaching from a white-centered perspective. I’m enrolled in a Public History graduate program to learn how to translate and share history in public settings. I can write about it and I can and will do presentations. There is a lot to undo.
Some of the practical goals I have are to help other white people like myself learn about Black history by experiencing it. My goals include:
I want to sponsor travel trips to some of the historic sites that I’ve mentioned in this series like Whitney Plantation, The Legacy Museum, the Jim Crow Museum and others.
I can do oral history projects and interview local black residents and others who have had experiences that can help white people to understand their perspectives.
I can also create lesson plans and curriculum for parents to use with their children to help them recenter the black experience in their consciousness. I’m afraid laws being passed right now, especially in states like Florida and Iowa are going to keep teachers from being able to do this.
This Black History month series is another attempt to set the historical record straight. Twenty-Eight days is not enough. There is so much more I could include and write about. I will continue to do so in the coming months. But most of all I hope these articles and posts have prompted an interest on your part to continue your own study and journey.
There is much to do. I will happily accept any fellow travelers on this journey to antiracism. Let me know your thoughts and goals.
I have already made some wonderful friends and guides along the way. Here are some of the people who have opened their hearts to me and have become both friends and family in the process: