I had an odd experience yesterday. I stopped off for lunch on my way to Milwaukee at a Taco Bell for a “nourishing” meal, and was waited on by a young African-American woman. While I ate my lunch, the woman floated through the dining area handing out information so that diners could complete an online survey. She asked if I would be interested, and I listened to her, looking her in the eye and smiling. She paused, frowned, then said to me, “Do you know that you’re the first white person who hasn’t been rude to me today. Most people won’t look me in the eye, and they act all annoyed.” I asked her directly if she thought the reaction she got was racial, and she opened her eyes wide and said, “Oh, yeah!”
I confess I am so naive. Every time I encounter racism, or sexism, or classism or any of a whole host of “isms” I am surprised. I lived for fifteen years in Nashville, Tennessee where the racism is still very open and active, even in the office where I worked. We were all educated, middle class people — and there was a good racial/ethnic mix — but the racism was palpable and inescapable. Sexism, too, but to a lesser degree. However the gulf between exempt and non-exempt — the director level and assistant level positions — was tragic in its inequality and lack of respect. I was so relieved to be moving north of the Mason-Dixon line to “escape” such a pervasive atmosphere of prejudice. Yeah, right. I have encountered as much racism in Wisconsin as I did growing up in Indiana, serving in New Jersey, and living in Tennessee. The prejudices and bigotries we hold against those who are different seldom change — and they are always defined by who holds power.
The argument goes that “we have come so far,” and there is deep truth there — a truth that makes the oppressors feel so much better. But for anyone without power the, “…but we still have so far to go,” part of the sentiment is more important. The young woman I spoke with (and I do not know how to spell her name correctly — a sign of my own racism?) is a graduate student at University of Wisconsin. She told me that in her classes she is treated as an equal. She rarely feels “different,” or that it matters that she is black or a woman. But when she puts on her Taco Bell uniform, it is as if she becomes less of a person. People talk to her differently. She says many people don’t even see her at all. She feels that people look down on her. She said it makes her mad because it makes her feel bad about who she is for no good reason. She ended our conversation by thanking me again, and it made me feel a little sick to my stomach. She was thanking me just for treating her like a human being.
Knowing that something is wrong is not the same as believing in what is right. I think this is part of our problem. We live in a culture that has discovered that hate and prejudice is wrong. We understand that race and gender are not good reasons to hurt, exclude, oppress, or do violence to, another human being. We are outraged when we hear about sexual or racial violence, but it hasn’t necessarily touched the deepest value centers of our human psyche. I think it is one of the reasons we are stuck where we are regarding human sexuality. We have named sexism and racism as “isms” but still refer to bias based on sexual preference as a “phobia.” In many respects, the only difference I see between “sexism” (defensible by scripture), “racism” (defensible by scripture), and “homophobia” (prohibited by scripture) is that it is still culturally acceptable to attack homosexuals in a way we no longer acceptable regarding women and minorities. This doesn’t mean we — across our culture — are more enlightened about gender and race than human sexuality, just that we are less honest and more constrained.
In the research I did for the General Board of Discipleship, I had the privilege of meeting and dealing with people of every educational, economic, social, racial, ethnic, and geographic group in our country. Universally, the white middle class is so proud of the strides we have made in areas of race and gender. We hold a strong belief that we are not racist, and definitely not sexist. Yet, it is interesting to meet with pastors of our largest congregations in America. Oh, yes, there are a handful of minorities, and a thimble-full of women (all associate pastors, none lead…) But when you leave the fluffy, white, creamy center and move into the real cookie, things change dramatically. Coast to coast, those of non-Anglo racial and ethnic cultures see things very differently. In one conference, the white-Anglo leadership proudly crowed about their commitment to diversity. When I met with the racial/ethnic leaders of the conference and asked them one thing they would like to change, with one voice they said, “Quit talking so much about diversity. All it does is constantly point out how different we are, and how lucky we should feel to be included.”
The questions I ponder are these: as a denomination we have made the right decisions — we elect women and minorities to key leadership positions, and we are intentional to strive for balance throughout our system. But does this mean we aren’t still sexist and racist? Because our Council of Bishops and our Boards and Agencies embrace diversity, does that mean they have eliminated institutional racism? Are we truly modeling a changed culture, or are we doing what we believe is right without truly altering our core values? Are our practices merely behavior modification or have we been truly transformed (or in the process of being transformed)? Are we kidding ourselves that we have come farther than we actually have? I don’t know. I’m a fifty-one year-old white male with a good education and a good job. I lack a certain objectivity.