I’m going to tell you a story this morning that I am kind of nervous about sharing with you, that maybe I am embarrassed to share with you. I’m nervous or embarrassed or both because it’s a story about racism and about my participation in racism. And there are few subjects that white folks find more unwelcome than the subject of how racism might have anything to do with us. As consequence, there are few subjects that white folks are keener to avoid.
I’ve come to believe over the years, however, that the conversation that I am most nervous about having, that I most want to dodge, is often also the conversation that I am supposed to have, that I am called to have. With alarming frequency, it turns out that these conversations are where Jesus is hanging out.
So, here’s the story. It goes like this.
Several weeks ago, Grace hosted an event by the City of Portland, a forum in which communities of faith were invited to learn about leveraging their properties to create affordable housing, to respond to Jesus’ call to serve him by serving the poor, by being part of the solution to our city’s housing crisis. The event was high-energy and inspiring. In attendance were stakeholders from across the city, including reps from Carleton Hart, the architecture firm with whom Grace is working to create what are called conceptual plans for our campus.
After the formal presentation concluded, I headed over to the Carleton Hart table to have a little visit. I knew two of the people there, Brian Carleton himself and his colleague Ariel Chavarria, both of whom we have been working with over these last number of months. As I was talking with them, an African American man came up to me, he stuck out his hand, and he said:
Hi, I’m Bill Hart!
Now friends, here comes the part that I am embarrassed to share with you.
That’s because when Bill Hart said his name, I had an instant of confusion, of internal dissonance. My startle reflex very nearly kicked in when a person of colour introduced himself to me as a partner in an architectural firm.
Prior to that instant, if you’d said to me, “Tell me about the Hart of Carleton Hart,” I would’ve said, “I’ve never given any thought to that person.”
And yet. I somehow knew that Hart would be male (it turns out I was right about that part), that Hart would be tall, and that Hart would be white. Because, well, in our society tall and white and male is what partners in architectural firms look like.
All of this happened in a micro-second. I hope that none of it registered on my face or in my body language. If it did, I am profoundly sorry. I am so sorry to think that I contributed to the everyday indignity of being black in America.
The micro-second over, I shook Bill Hart’s hand and we had a good chat.
It is a cliché to speak of an experience haunting you, but that is kind of what this experience did for me. The memory of it walked up and down my like Jacob Marley dragging his chains. Here I am, a progressive guy living in a progressive city serving a progressive church – I’m woke, aren’t I? – and yet the expectations of racism have bent my very imagination so that, in it, black person and architect are categories that are pushed apart from one another, that cannot merge.
I decided that this was a story that I was supposed to tell, that I had a responsibility to tell, after attending a workshop by a man by the name of David Campt. Campt’s workshop, his labour of love, is called The White Ally Toolkit. And the catalyst for the workshop is simple and kind of appalling in equal measure. When surveyed, 55% of white Americans say that either racism is no longer a problem today or, alternatively, that racism against white people is just as bad as racism against people of colour. Campt’s goal is, by the year 2025, to reduce that number to 45%. He would like a simple majority of white Americans to agree that (a) racism exists and that (b) people of colour are its target.
The method of The White Ally Toolkit is to equip those of us who aspire to be allies (and let’s be clear, “ally” is not a category or title that those of us with status, power, or privilege get to assign to ourselves – it is people of colour who get to tell straight people that we are allies, it trans folk who get to tell cis people that we are allies, it is women who get to tell men that we are allies, the list goes on) for conversations with our uncles, cousins, friends, whoever when we sit down with those folks at the Thanksgiving Table and argue that racism isn’t such a big deal.
Campt’s method – and this is the super-condensed version of his workshop – is to start with empathy and agreement, to say, “I can understand why you would feel that way, things really have improved a lot in the past fifty years” and then to tell a story, ideally drawn from your own experience, that introduces some challenge. The method, in other word, recognises that, generally speaking, our hearts are opened not by arguments and statistics but, rather, by stories told by folks with whom we are in relationship.
The folks who attended The While Ally Toolkit were overwhelmingly white (I guess that’s what you would expect) and overwhelmingly lefties. Campt took an anonymous political survey of us early on, and it turned out that I was one of the most conservative people in the room, a thing that does not happen often. This was a room full of people, in other words, who were so far left that there was no left left. But that didn’t stop every one of us from having a story that was remarkably similar to the one that I shared with you at the start of our conversation this morning.
Campt broke us into small groups and invited us to risk telling these stories to one another. And so we heard about the woman who met a young black man on the street near her home and who became frightened and fought the urge to cross the street; about the guy who went to a concert and became seriously alarmed when he realised that the audience was more than 90% people of colour; about the woman who was generous in inviting friends of friends to stay in her home until one of those friends of friends turned out to be young and black and physically large and dreadlocked.
What I experienced at Campt’s workshop is good news. It is good news because it means that racism is not an individual character flaw, something hopelessly broken about a particular person. We live in a hyper-individualistic culture and we primarily talk about racism through the lens of me. And I suspect that is the reason that so many white folks are so defensive around the subject of race. We have this need – and we saw this in the news earlier this week – to frantically explain how we are not personally racist. Look at me, I have a black friend! Look at me, I have a black employee! I am exonerated!
That is absurd. Rather is a system. It is a system from which white folks benefit and by which white folks are diminished.
The other way in which this Campt’s work is good news is that it actually gives us tools to respond to racism. I don’t know about you, but every anti-racism training that I had done before Campt’s had sent me away feeling terrible about myself and with no new tools whatsoever. So I came out of these workshops saying, I guess this is my role as a white person in a racist society: I’m supposed to feel terrible about myself and change nothing about my behaviour.
Campt is totally uninterested in shame and blame and totally interested in equipping his students. And he argues that, because those of us who aspire to be allies are reluctant to tell these stories, because we let the nervousness and embarrassment that I talked about a few minutes ago scare us into silence, we inadvertently function as allies to those who want to deny that racism exists or not it is a problem. We inadvertently support and empower our friends or relatives or neighbours in being able say, I don’t know anyone who has racist thoughts, feelings, or actions. Through our silence, we facilitate the argument that racism doesn’t exist.
Moses goes up the mountain and when he comes back down, his face is shining from his encounter with God. And so his friends are afraid to look at him, he has to put on a veil before they can interact. Sometimes when something shines with the holiness of God, we cannot look because it is too beautiful. And sometimes we cannot look because that holy light shines on things that we would prefer to leave hidden.
Most white folks would prefer for the light of God to stay well away from the perverse and rigged system that we call racism. It hurts to look at it, and so our habit is not to look at all. But there is freedom in shining the light, freedom in looking, much as there is freedom in receiving a diagnosis or getting the news of a breakup of a layoff or a death. Naming the truth – well, as Jesus says, it will set us free. Shining God’s light onto the truth allows us to plan, to admit that we have an illness that needs treatment, to join Jesus in doing the work of justice and healing.
Because if I know anything about Jesus, it is that he is always to be found on the margins, always with those who are wronged, always with those who suffer. All of the stories that I shared with you this morning, all of them were about Jesus. Jesus is the young African American man on the street of whom we are afraid. Jesus is there in the audience at the concert with his brown friends waiting for the concert to start. Jesus is the houseguest knocking on the door with the brown skin and the dreadlocks. Jesus is the man sticking out his hand who, for a moment, I cannot believe could be an architect.
Let’s shine the light of God onto these stories, onto the shared sin that we call racism. Or no, that’s wrong, because God does not need our help or our permission to shine God’s light anywhere. Let’s notice that the light of God is shining into the margins, into the places where we would rather not look. And hard though it may be, let us trust that we will find our hope and our joy in joining Jesus there.