It was at one of those giant, Deep South, after church luncheons where my education truly began. Training in the ways of casseroles, deviled eggs, buttermilk-battered chicken, and enough peach cobbler to fill a pachyderm? No. The menu and culture were all too familiar, as I’ve never lived anywhere north of Georgia. It was the dessert conversation that opened my eyes.
At the time I had two sons, both adopted, no older than preschool. One was white and the other was an African-American child who entered my home the first week of his life. With at least a dozen other children my boys scampered all around the house while the adult conversation turned to the topic of “dating” – the relationships we envisioned for our future teenagers.
One of the father’s made a declarative statement: “So long as my girl doesn’t bring home a black boy or a Mexican, I’ll be alright.” Before I could reel in my slack jaw another parent at the table echoed the same. Then there was a third.
When I was finally able to choke out, “You know I’m sitting here at the table?” silence fell over the room like a pall spread over a coffin, a silence broken only when the children returned to the dining room, my son playing alongside those little girls who would never be permitted to have him as a prom date.
My naïveté was shattered. At that crystalizing moment I began to see that as a white, male, Christian, I had been born with an automatic entitlement – because it was people like me who first fashioned our systematic racism, and it’s people like me who have most benefited from its continuation. I was also a young, bright, Protestant pastor in a small southern town, and as such was granted a kind of inherent dignity by the greater community. But that dignity did not extend to my son of a different race.
Was this my first encounter with racism? Hardly. Members of my extended family routinely used the N-word and I witnessed a Klan rally at my hometown’s courthouse while in high school. Bigotry was fed to us right with those casseroles and cobblers, but this was the first time that racism deeply affected me – it was the first time it affected someone I loved.
It would not be the last. I could fill page after page of the ethnic slurs, injustices, and indignities my son has had to endure over his two decades of life, yet this is an endurance that has been required of people of color on this continent for five centuries.
Raising this stouthearted child (who now serves in the US Army) has been a privilege and an education, one that every white person in this country needs. For until we repent of racism – the original sin of this American experiment – and choose racial reconciliation over the unjust status quo, we will be plagued by our horrific past and robbed of our collective future.