Risking Reality and Racism

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 10/26/2014


Today, like in our video, [http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en#t-344436  beginning to minute 5:21]

I also want to talk about stories.  I want to talk about how the stories that we grow up with and tell each other and experience affect our opinions of reality.  They become reality, for us, but our story-based reality can be a different truth entirely from the reality of the person next to us.  One of us knows Africa to be a place with devastating poverty and tribal music.  The next of us knows Africa to be a place with plenty of domestic help and Mariah Carey.  Different stories, different realities.  Our storyteller this morning talks about what happens, what is dangerous and misleading, when only one story is available to know or to learn from.


We nearly always have different stories than the people near us.  You might have a different perspective than your spouse or your coworker or your parents, different perspectives on the world that can either make life interesting or communication difficult, depending on the day.  It’s okay to have different ways of telling the truth, as long as you know of the other stories, and you respect their potential for describing reality as much as you respect your own story’s potential for describing reality.


I’m starting by talking about stories today, but today I also want to talk about racially motivated gun violence, where the fundamental difference in the stories of the Americans involved is killing some of us.  The dissimilarities in our stories about race and the difference that race makes in the fabric of American society is causing black men to be shot to death by white people.  And I think part of what is to blame for that is how racism makes white people be only able to see or know about one of our American stories.  Oftentimes, racism makes it so that white folks only know one story, and that, as we heard earlier, is a dangerous situation.


So to begin, I’m going to tell my story. I didn’t know, growing up, that I should say, “This is my white woman story,” but that is the case.


I was raised in a way that is very similar to the way a lot of our Sugarloaf UU children are raised in this part of the world.  My parents, both white, lived through the civil rights era and fell strongly on the side of racial equality.  I was born in a racially diverse city in California, although the vast majority of our family friends were white, and I also lived in Asia and South America for a few years each, where I was the minority, although a culturally favored one. 


Despite a great deal of interaction with people who weren’t white like I am, I was taught about Martin Luther King Jr. in school as almost my only exposure to what racism is, and I was taught that prejudice and discrimination were bad things that happened in the past and Martin Luther King made them go away.


So I grew up figuring that racism was something rare, that American people of color from similar economic backgrounds to mine had very similar life experiences to mine, that our country’s racist legacy ended in 1968.  I never learned that my experiences as a white person were substantially different than those of a person of color, or if I did notice those differences in life experiences I attributed them to economic disparities.  I had a story in my head about race, and I thought that was the only story.  But I was wrong about that.


It was when I was in college that I was first able to glimpse through a curtain into a world that I had never before seen.  I had a good friend who was African American and we were talking about where one side of my family is originally from, in Southern Indiana.  You should come visit! I said, It’s so beautiful there. We could take a road trip!  Ooh, he said, I’m not going to be able to go through there with you.  I don’t know if they’d take so kindly to people with my skin color, he said.


I just looked at him. It really threw me for a loop.  I realized that, sure, lots of my family members would say racially insensitive things, and none of us from out of town liked that, but that was such a small part of what it was like to be there with them.  A small part of what it was like for me to be there with them.  But my friend, quite accurately, I think, knew it would be different for him.  A completely different story about a familiar place, a familiar place I loved.  What was that all about?


I went to graduate school for sociology about 20 years ago, and became fascinated by what I considered to be an “alternate universe” around race and racism, an alternate universe from my perspective as a white person, that is.  In the 90s, this field was termed “whiteness studies,” and it was the first time – in the academic field of sociology, I mean – it was the first time that white sociologists began to talk about how race affected them.  Before that, the study of “race,” even the academic study of race, was a study of people who weren’t white.  Now, duh, white sociology was beginning to see that everyone has a race. 


What does it mean to be white in our country?  We white folks had hardly ever thought about that, because what are actually aspects of our dominant racial experiences are presented to us as just “normal”, so “normal” that they become invisible to us.  We in whiteness studies read Peggy Mcintosh’s essay about what she called the invisible knapsack that white people are given at birth, and that was another time where I began to see another story about my own race.


“As a white person,” Peggy Mcintosh wrote, “I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage… So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”


See if this next part seems or feels familiar, like part of your story about race. 


“My schooling,” Peggy Mcintosh wrote, “gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern…[where] whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us."” 


This sounds just like how I was raised as a white person.


Peggy Mcintosh then went on from this realization to begin to list all the ways that society was secretly colluding to give her advantages.  I’ve mentioned these things here before.  There are dozens of them.  Bandaids are made to match her skin.  She can mostly keep her children away from people who might not like them because of their race.  If she is more comfortable with folks from her own race, it wouldn’t be hard to only spend time with them.  If she wanted to move, she could buy or rent a house pretty much wherever she could afford. 


I’d add in, from my own experiences, if she wants to take a road trip across country, she doesn’t need to worry that she won’t be able to stop in a small town in the Midwest to get a soda, like my black friend does. If she did run into racially motivated trouble there, though, she could be sure that the local police would help her.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the police helping in recent months, especially since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  I remember this very odd – to me – conversation I had in a graduate seminar taught by one of my advisors.  He was a distinguished older African American sociology professor.  He looked and acted like Sidney Poitier. And he was trying to teach some lesson, I can’t remember about what, to a class full of mostly young women, nearly all white. (This was in rural Connecticut and there were a lot of white people there.)


I can’t remember what the lesson was, but my professor gave an example. “It would be just like you were coming out of a restaurant in downtown Hartford late at night, and it’s a sketchy neighborhood, and you can’t find your car keys.  And you look up the street and you see a police officer there.  What would you do?” And all the women looked at each other and they agreed immediately that they would go directly to that police officer and ask for a ride home.  We agreed to that across the seminar table just as my professor said something like, “You’d edge around the corner from that police officer as fast as you could go without running and looking suspicious.” 


We all looked at each other in shock for a while. Neither of us could believe what the other had said. We had two very different stories with regard to the police.  Two different stories between white folks and black that has very much come to light in the past few months.  And I, as a white woman who had chosen to study the field in graduate school, was still unaware of the other stories there were to tell about racism and police.


I learned, in sociology, that I had only one perspective on race, and that people of color often had a wildly different one. I saw that I had also been mysteriously taught, by well meaning white people and my schools and other social systems, to ignore and invalidate signs of racism that were all around me.  I developed the ability to sometimes tell when one story was being used as THE story.


When I moved to the DC area 12 years ago, there was a common conversation among my white friends that suddenly I was able to hear quite differently.  I was looking for housing with good  schools, and I would hear, “Oh, that’s a good area.  People are starting to move there now,” as if it had been a desert island previously instead of a part of town with mostly people of color. I heard about other neighborhoods, “Oh, no-one lives there,” despite a sea of brown faces all over the block. 


It used to be true for me as well that “people” meant white people of my own class.  Then, the statement “people are starting to move there now” made more sense.  But once you let that racist veil we’re under fall down, what a shameful thing to say.  “No-one lives there”?  No white people live there, you mean.  When you say it the right way, you see what it is for real.


There are two stories there, at least, about who you even are able to SEE in your community, and one of the stories is overlaid with a lot of coded language that we white folks have to work to decipher, even when we know it’s there.  I’m still deciphering to this day.  I’m still working against the secret fears that I was taught somehow, but were never explained. There’s a lot of that that’s steeped in racism, and I can’t always tell which is what. 


I have learned to be wary of situations where I won’t be able to tell if my story is taking over for all the stories.  A month ago, I decided I didn’t want to join the neighborhood watch group that the neighbors up the hill behind my house formed after a few break ins.  They, mostly white folks in single family homes among a larger community of brown people in apartment buildings, were talking about “keeping an eye out for people who don’t belong” and “call the police for anything suspicious.” 


Nowadays, I know that those ideas and behaviors among white people sometimes lead to bad things.  We sometimes have a story that makes sense to us, a story of property protection and wariness.  But I worry about what that story means for other people in my neighborhood who might not look like they “belong” – especially since I know that white folks have a hard time seeing people of color as their neighbors who do belong in the first place.


Trayvon Martin was a black teenager who was walking through a neighborhood in Florida wearing a hoodie sweatshirt and eating Skittles.  He was shot by a white guy who thought he was in the wrong neighborhood, up to no good.  After he was killed, there was a picture floating around Facebook, maybe you saw it, of someone who had taken Trayvon’s picture and altered it to make him white.  He had a freckly European face like my nieces and nephews, and reddish hair like my son Max.  He looked just as young as Trayvon did, though.  Still wearing the same clothes. 


And one of my friends, who tends to blurt out stuff about race that a lot of other friends don’t say out loud, he said, “But that makes all the difference!  He looks completely safe now!  Even the Skittles look different!” 


I think my friend said out loud what many of us white folks were thinking about that picture, what many of us white folks were learning through Trayvon’s tragedy about the way we form our stories. Take a kid and change him to a white person, and to white people, his candy goes from something ominous and foreign back to what it is, candy.  No need to shoot that guy.  Wait, why do we think it’s okay to shoot any kid, no matter how ominous?  How did we decide who seems foreign, or dangerous, and what it means when they do?  What will happen if we start to take a look at that? 


It’s hard for many white folks to see clearly when African Americans are involved.  It’s like a sickness.  And through all the years I’ve been thinking about racism, I’ve come to think of racism like a virus that white folks are infected with.  It lives in our social systems, our police and our government, our schooling, our legal system for sure.  It thrives on secrecy. It appears when you don’t expect it. It does infect people who are mean and bad, and those people use it to hurt people of color.  But it also infects people who are good, and don’t know what’s happening.  Racism somehow wants to survive in us, and it keeps popping up.  It pops up in those of us who work pretty hard to see it and avoid it, like me.  Racism is very hard to kill.


But it’s not impossible for white folks to see it at work more than they used to, and one of the ways of seeing it is through hearing stories that are different than ours, really hearing stories that tell of a reality that we haven’t been able to see before.  We don’t need to feel bad that we haven’t seen it until now.  We haven’t seen it because of racism in us, and racism is a persistent thing.  But now that our eyes are opening, we who are good people need to keep doing the work of hearing those new to us stories and letting them change us.


A year ago I finally read the book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, a book about the great migration of African Americans away from southern states to northern and western cities like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles.  Isabel Wilkerson tells stories that I had heard, but never understood before.  I had never really understood that in the 1930s, if your African American family wanted to move north, it made sense to just clear out in the night and catch the train in the next town where not as many people knew you and knew what you were doing.  That was because any white person in your town who saw you trying to leave might keep you from getting on the train, and often did, just because they could.


I had heard about separate bathrooms and restaurants for black folks across the south, of course.  But I didn’t understand what it really meant to have no bathroom, dining or lodging available to people of color across the southwest.  That meant that if you were driving from Mississippi to Los Angeles, you couldn’t eat, sleep, or pee anywhere on the way.  At all.  This was in the 1940s, the decade my parents were born in, which is to say, not long ago.


And although I had learned about housing and job discrimination in northern cities in the 20th century, I didn’t put together what that would mean for the people who suffered through that discrimination.  I never really thought about what it would be like if you used your last dime to move your family somewhere and no one there would rent you a place to stay, and no-one would give you a job.  I never thought about how disaffected and disadvantaged the kids of those people might turn out to be like, or how hard it would be to fix the effects of that injustice of not-so-long-ago. Whenever you think about a “bad part of town” in a northern or western city, I advise you to look into whether or not it was the part of town that newly arrived African Americans were forced to live in when they moved to that city.  I ask you to find out what happened to them when they arrived.  You will not believe how badly they were treated.  And for many of you, you will not believe how it is possible that you didn’t know about it. 


Let’s talk about the present time for a minute.  Those of us who are well-meaning white people who are learning how to notice race after somehow being trained to ignore it and not speak of it, we might be tempted to think that the racial situation right now is getting worse and worse.  President Obama’s election didn’t usher us into a post-racial society, did it – instead, it opened up the door to all sorts of racist speech and action directed at the President of the United States. 


Now it seems that around every corner we’re seeing a black kid getting shot for no real particular reason, because a white person was scared or felt threatened or disrespected and they had a gun to use.  These are disturbing things to see, and we who are well meaning white people might be tempted to think that racial fault lines are opening all over and there’s no way to stop them. 


But that is the racism talking, because it was racism that made it so we never heard these stories before. The fact is, things aren’t getting worse at all.  What’s happening is, you’re seeing it for the first time.  The mainstream media is reporting it for the first time, not just buried in the back sections, but up front and day after day.  Did you know it used to be that any white person could harass, beat, starve or kill any person of color in the south, and no lawman would stop it?  Of course, you know that, you learned it in school and you read the paper.  But do you really understand what it’s like to be black in America?  Can you hear those stories?  Can you take that risk?


Today, racism feeds on silence.  It feeds on coded language.  It feeds on stories that don’t make the papers.  When you begin to hear the stories that you’ve been shielded from for centuries, it will feel risky to you.  That’s because people of color in this country have been at risk all this time, and white folks often didn’t know, didn’t see, didn’t say.


Things are starting to be different now.  There’s a crack in racism’s grip now that helps us to hear these stories, these stories that usually aren’t our own.  Now, we who have been safely living one sort of reality need to not turn away again because it suddenly feels unsafe to us.  Now that we are beginning to see, we need to take the risk of hearing the stories, all the stories.  That’s the way to fight towards a future where we’re free of this insidious virus of racism forever.


What to do?  What to do to hear and to live with these stories that may be new to us?  One idea, coming up in just two weeks, is happening at the UU Congregation of Sterling, VA.  Using poetry, worship, arts, storytelling with an infusion of joy, they’re holding a conference on justice making, inclusion, and hearing our stories. We’re handing out cards, and there is the full brochure at the back of the room.  If you’re interested in attending, please talk to me about it, or just go, and bring your friends, and see what happens.


It is my hope that we all become better able to hear the stories around us, the American stories we all live with, even when they surprise and challenge us.  Amen.


Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies" (1988), by Peggy McIntosh; available for $10.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA 02181 The working paper contains a longer list of privileges.

This excerpted essay is reprinted from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.