When I was working as the Baptist Student Union Outreach Intern at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2003, part of my responsibilities was to help organize Disciple Now weekends. Disciple Now is a weekend retreat for youth that involves staying up till the wee hours of the morning, playing games to quickly connect and studying the Bible. For this particular weekend, we got the phone call to put together a team of 32 leaders. Now this was an associational Disciple Now, meaning a handful of small churches were working together to pull off a great weekend for their combined youth.
On Monday, we gathered the group we were planning to send from Southern and handed out instructions and the material they would need to prepare to make the most impact. What our director didn’t tell me was that on Thursday, one of the pastors called him to ask if we were sending any black leaders. He answered, “One… our intern Sharon.” The church pastors then called an emergency meeting at 7:00 that night (our group was heading their way in less than 24 hours) to find out who would be comfortable hosting the black leader or should they ask the BSU to send someone else. They needed to know what home I could stay in and would the parents be ok with their children being taught by a black person. What they didn't know was I wrote the bible study materials for all the leaders, so they were being taught by me regardless.
When I arrived for the weekend, I walked up to the church and an overly zealous stranger approached me, lifted her hand for a high five and said “What’s up my sista!?” I quickly extended for a handshake instead and said, “Hi! I’m Sharon.” This was the first of many awkward, teachable moments to come, but I remember thinking there were likely not many people in this group that had interacted with black people. Later that night, a few of the other leaders told me odd comments were made here and there, but I brushed it off and the weekend went well.
Now, if you’re anything like me, some part of you might want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it's because I WAS a stranger - but there were 31 other people who were also strangers. The ONLY question the pastor asked our director was, “Are any of the leaders black?” They didn't ask if we did federal background checks or if the leaders were devoted Christians.
What they needed to know most was if any of the leaders were black.
What's worse is the director didn't tell me the local pastors had that meeting until we returned from the weekend. Once we started debriefing my roommate shared that her host said, “Your roommate is brave for coming to Lawrence County.”
Brave? What did he mean BRAVE? Was my life at risk? My name ain’t Rosa Parks! What upset me was that they had to have a special meeting to decide whether to accept me and I was never given the opportunity to decide if I wanted to accept them. And we’re all supposed to be Christ followers.
What was I supposed to take from that? It should be said the church pastor and the family that hosted me were wonderful. After spending 10 minutes with me they were fine. But before that, I was a perceived risk - simply because I am black. This is the best example of institutional racism that I have ever experienced. An emergency meeting called because they were afraid of me, of what people would think of them and if parents would pull their kids out of the weekend. It’s not the blatant KKK racism, but the subtle racism that's a reality in the world today.
When I walk into a room, being black is the furthest thing from my mind. I’m black everyday, but it was the first thing on their minds that weekend. I have the luxury of being so comfortable that I can easily forget that “I’m a sista,” until someone reminds me. I needed to learn that. Institutional racism isn’t something I want to think about every day, but we have to deal with it daily.
Race conversations are happening all over America today, but I’m not convinced that everyone can PROCESS what’s being said. Can you imagine having deep conversations with people you don’t really know or trust? NO! That’s the worst! Why would you do that? I think that is the critical component that we are missing. We are asking people to try to be sympathetic to life in someone else’s skin when most people’s core friend group reflects exactly what they see in the mirror.
Imagining a life experience outside of your own is nearly impossible unless you are sharing your life with people experiencing a different story than your own.
What’s the point of conversation if you don’t actually care about the person on the other side of the debate? I don’t mean a co-worker from a distance, or that one guy you speak to in the hallway… I mean an actual friend. If you don’t love a person of color, why would you believe anything they’re saying? It’s easier to dismiss their claims until you put a face to their story. I think of Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 democratic convention. Before she put a face to the racial injustice of Jim Crow Mississippi, there was a comfortable disconnect across the nation. Race conversations should be awkward if all the people in your life look and think like you. While my friendships literally reflect every shade under the sun, to the stranger I’m still another black girl that someone has taught you to distrust. I carry that into the room with me and immediately try to defuse whatever stereotype might precede my greeting.
When my brother shares stories about being profiled as a black male, my instinct is to be suspicious and believe that THAT can’t be true. But my relationship with him has taught me that just because it hasn't happened to me doesn’t mean its not happening. I don’t assume that every time the police stop a black person it is due to their race. Sometimes they are breaking the law. Sometimes they may actually look suspicious, but sometimes it’s the institutional racism that subconsciously says to fear black people. It's a real thing.
I encourage you to make a friend - then join the conversation.