Anti-Racism 101: A personal story

Photo above by Priscilla Du Preez, via Unsplash.

Article by Peter Koeppel, member of Trinity Memorial Church in Binghamton and the diocesan Stewardship Resources team. 

We had just moved from Upstate New York to North Carolina, fairly newly married, following a job that had moved. We were not sure we had come down right where we ought to be, but we were willing to give it a try. The people we met were generally nice to us; but then, we are white-skinned, my wife even sporting blond hair. I didn’t, but I’m blue-eyed. Aside from sounding not-from-here, we passed the scratch-and-sniff test. A test, we initially didn’t even know we were subjected to.

I spent most of my time between home and the office, while my wife handled many of the local interactions. It didn’t take all that long, and we noticed that skin color made a difference: one day, while waiting in line behind an African-American gentleman to pay for gasoline – no pay at the pump in those days – the cashier looked straight at us past the African-American gentleman ahead of us in line, and had us pay our bill, never minding our protestation that the African-American gentleman was ahead of us in line.

We were both deeply shook up by this experience. We thought of ourselves as race-blind, yet, here we had been made participants in an act of overt racial discrimination. And therein lies a lesson: it’s not enough to be race-blind to be counted among the people who love thy neighbor as we love ourselves; we actually have to acknowledge that differences in skin color exist, just as much as differences in many other physical attributes of our bodies exist. And we have to acknowledge that these differences will be used again and again to segment, to differentiate, to play us versus “them.” It’s not enough to be aware of such differences and not let them influence our own actions; as followers of Jesus we are called upon to recognize and acknowledge the fundamental humanity of all brothers and sisters in Christ, and to do so means to actively resist discrimination: we must  take a stand for all of them to be recognized and being treated as equals.  It is, in other words, not enough to be race-blind and treat everyone equally and fairly, but we need to be race-ware, and actively ensure equal treatment of all, who find themselves ignored, overlooked, held down, or put down because of their outward appearance.

Having been caught once by surprise, we were better prepared in future encounters with racism. But I’m inclined to think that in those early days of learning to see and actively resist racism when it occurred, we more often failed Anti-racism 101, than we passed it.

Why do we talk about the need to take a stand against discrimination in a stewardship oriented series of articles? If stewardship is simply a code-word for the annual pledge drive to you, then you have a point. Our view of stewardship is more expansive: a steward is one who exercises authority on behalf of another; a good steward does so thoughtfully. If we take our responsibility for the way our systems (taxation, education, healthcare, representation, housing, policing, ….) operate seriously, then we have to  acknowledge that many of them do not deal fairly with African-Americans. All of these systems were designed by humans – our ancestors, our peers, our representatives. Ultimately, they operate, and often are designed, in our name. In that case, we need to exercise our obligation of stewardship, to see that they are just, fair, and loving. To be continued!

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