Given the current unrest and uncertainty over race, as a Christian and a person working a twelve step program of recovery, I have felt challenged and called to write on my experience with racism. This is my personal story, but I call on all white southerners, like myself, to examine their own story with racism. For me, this is a first step in making a living amends.
I am a 58 year old white male born into the Jim Crow south in the capital of the Confederacy. At home I was told that God loved everyone and that I was to treat everyone the same, as I would want to be treated. However, as a young child, I had to be taught that there were white and colored rest rooms and that I was only to use the white facilities. In the process, it was also communicated that the white facilities were better. A young child might be forgiven for concluding that white people were better than colored people and as a white child so was I; especially, since that idea was reinforced in so many other ways.
Black people were not a part of my early life except as servants of one sort or another; janitors, cafeteria workers, and nurses for example. They were the people who took care of me. They weren’t my friends or my parent’s friends. In downtown Richmond, according to my mother, white folks had free range of downtown everyday except Saturday. Saturday was reserved for black folks to do their shopping at the white owned stores like Miller & Rhodes or Thalhimers. Also black folks lived and worked on the north side of Broad Street and white folks lived and worked on the south side of Broad Street. I can’t remember going to the north side of the street except to drive through or visit the Miller & Rhodes warehouse with my father until I was an adult working where black neighborhoods had been systematically removed to make way for the Coliseum, Convention Center, and various office buildings, including one in which I worked.
I was an adult, working, before I had any real interaction with anybody who was black. By then, the damage had been done. I was polite and professional in my interaction with black colleagues in order to do my job, but I can’t say I was comfortable with them or that they became real friends. On the street, I would be anxious when approaching black men, particularly young black men, usually precipitating some form of distancing, or rolling up my windows if driving. Somewhere it had been communicated to me and internalized that black men were a threat.
When frustrated or challenged by a black man, I would find myself getting unduly angry, angrier than if I had been similarly challenged by a white man. I had internalized the idea that black men were supposed to be subservient to me, and was enraged when they dare step out of the role I expected them to inhabit. I suspect that I am not the only white male with this attitude, and hence the prevalence of the brutalization of black men by the police.
This is why, for me, black lives must matter. Of course, all lives matter, but black lives matter more in this case because I owe them a living amends for my past attitudes and behaviors even though the expression of my racism may have been subtle. I suspect, however, that it did not go unnoticed by the black folks I encountered. I suspect that they were all too used to dealing with white men like me. At least my racism is now out in the open. I apologize for it and all the harm I may have done over the years to my black and brown brothers and sisters. May God keep my racism before my eyes and help me to remove it from my character. Until he does, black lives matter and I choose to make amends.