By Greg Bowman
“When did you begin to grapple with being White?”
The answer to this question is fairly straightforward: about 2001.
The back story is more revealing.
I was 49, living in eastern Pennsylvania in an all-white community, attending an all-white rural Mennonite congregation in Bally.
It was at a Saturday morning session of a weekend-long anti-racism training in or around Philadelphia. I was there due to a part-time role with Franconia Mennonite Conference (which is now part of Mosaic Mennonite Conference). I came with a mixture of hopeful anticipation and apprehension. Sure — I wanted to be a less-racist person, but word on the street was that White folks often found these experiences upsetting and disorienting. The title “Damascus Road” should have been a tip-off.
At the 2001 training, we did the Black history timeline Friday evening, highlighting how little most White people know about significant events in the development of global Black culture, experience, and struggle. Discussion also showed how Blacks and most Whites in the room regarded the historical events very differently, from the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the impact of the Reconstruction period/Jim Crow era of U.S. history (1865-1964).
In my memory, personal stories by attendees of color and statistics on racial disparities in the U.S. opened up the Saturday input. We then met in small groups to talk about what we were hearing, and how it felt to us. At some point, we were given what seemed to me like a preposterous proposition to respond to. (I don’t recall the particular question, only the unforgettable internal drama that followed.) I could see White people in groups around us — led by Black trainers — were struggling and uncomfortable, even disturbed. I felt our group’s White trainer — Phil Morice Brubaker — would be able to sense my good intention and keep things more on an even keel.
I soon realized the response Phil wanted us to give was way beyond my White imagination. What began to work on me was his calmness and unhurried pace as I kept hoping he would move on. He seemed immune to the growing panic in my heart as the words and images of the previous hours ricocheted through my brain — and illuminated past memories of my history with Black people. For several moments I thought this White man was forcing me into an impossible situation.
To my horror, I finally grasped that he already knew exactly how I felt, because it’s how most White men felt at that point in the trajectory of the weekend. This meant that I was not so special after all, and that I hadn’t really begun to face the blindness and limitations of my White privilege (the term of that era, which I still find meaningful).
I don’t even remember how the session ended. I do remember, however, the transformation of that moment. I realized I would be on a life-long journey to becoming anti-racist, to unlearn nearly half a century of being unselfconsciously White. I’ve learned since then that I still use my White privilege to opt out of the work I need to do, which includes a number of things: listening long and hard to a range of Black voices past and present, developing continuing accountable relationships with people of color, and showing up at pivotal moments, public and private, when racial justice demands a witness from anti-racists in the making.
From what I’ve seen and experienced since that time, I affirm these thoughts of these two leaders:
1) Black Christian public historian and author Jemar Tisby developed a thought tool he calls the “ARC of Racial Justice” in his book How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice. ARC is an acronym for the three aspects of personal spiritual development he believes are needed to dismantle the sin of racism. Awareness is the head knowledge of racist tactics, “to deceive, denigrate, and dehumanize” others, historically and in the present, in our culture and in our lives.” Relationships with persons who live with the consequences of racism can transform a majority person’s heart. “It is through knowing others that those we previously viewed as ‘problems’ become people,” Tisby writes. With understanding of how racism works and interaction with those impacted by it, a person is able to make commitments to action to “dismantle racist structures, laws, and policies. It is this work of our hands that gives witness to our Lord, leads to greater awareness, and new relationships, as well as further acts of faithfulness.”
2) The working out of commitments to racial equity within organizations has various levels of change, which involve White self-awareness, emotional resilience, and changing dynamics. Latina pastor Sandra Maria Van Opstal sketches a continuum of actions that majority people often experience in their growing understanding racial reconciliation that honors people of color in a Godly way.
~ “Representation” comes through inviting participation and leadership of numbers of Black people in at least the percentage they are present in an organization, group or congregation. They are physically present even as traditional norms comfortable to White people still prevail.
~ “Collaboration” means Black people are increasingly shaping major and minor parts of group life. Whites used to feeling comfortable are believing in the process, but admit they are not as comfortable as they used to be.
~ “Mutuality” is the stage where White people experience joy and a new freedom when their Black colleagues are fully engaged in shaping and leading. It’s when White people involved can honestly say, “I need you, we need you, being you,” to their Black sisters and brothers.
At the point of discomfort in the collaboration phase, whether White people cling to comfort or lean into Spirit-breathed racial justice is a key step.
My prayer: Lord, shape me into a soul doing what it takes to be engaged in mutual engagement with people of color, to the glory of God and the hope of a relevant church.
Greg Bowman is a member of Grace & Groundings, the Ohio Conference anti-racism resource team. Greg currently lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and is formerly of the Midway Mennonite Church in Columbiana, Ohio.
The Grace & Groundings team would like to invite readers to submit their response or own answers to the question, “When did you begin to grapple with being White?”
Please send your response to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sidebar: One step along the road
I had hosted an anti-racism Sunday School class some years prior to my Damascus Road training. The main takeaway for me was that I didn’t know much about Black people and the lives they lived — despite having had several Black students on my floor in college and living next to an Afro-Cuban family in a majority-minority community of New Orleans for two years.
The class making that point most strikingly was led by Conrad Moore, a local Black man with a tremendous heart for the church’s potential to embrace racial justice as a core tenet of being Jesus people. In his session, he talked about “living while Black” in eastern Pennsylvania. He gradually removed elements of his semi-formal church attire to end up with a decidedly “urban” look, from his do-rag to Nike sneakers. The stunned class members could only nod confessionally when he asked something like this: “If you would meet me on the street looking like this for the first time, you’d feel differently than you did a few minutes ago, wouldn’t you?”