When I was in sixth grade, my church made the decision to relocate our congregation to a new building in another part of town. Our current building had aged and the thought was that by moving, we could have both a modern facility and the ability to reach a new demographic in cities experiencing exponential growth. To my recollection, the promise of a new building was an exciting prospect, perhaps because my nonexistent sixth grade tithes wouldn’t be paying for it. Regardless, our church’s attention collectively shifted to newness and fresh starts.
A predominantly black Baptist church bought our old property while we were still in it, so for the length of time it took our new building to be constructed, we shared the space. Our congregation had services in the morning; theirs had services immediately following. From my perspective, we cohabitated nicely and as a way of celebrating our positive and productive building-sharing, a joint service of both churches was held on a Sunday morning.
During the weeks leading up to it, the service was hyped up like Easter Sunday. Our choirs would sing together, both pastors would tag-team a unified message and the entire morning was to be a celebration of unity. However, when the morning actually arrived, the service ended up being a very loud exercise in tokenism.
We Pentecostals clapped and cheered and used our most affected black-praise-slang to root on the pastor of the Baptist church. Our pastor shouted louder than he ever had in our services and the members of the Baptist church rooted on the charismatic white man. It was a morning of racial emotionalism and I was as guilty as anyone in my pew of white teenagers for playing a part in it. We white kids thought it was big fun, acting like the black congregants for a Sunday morning. We were disingenuous and oblivious to our naivety – though we shouldn’t have been.
The year prior at Hallelujah Night, our Super-Christian Halloween alternative carnival, my closest church friend showed up in a neatly trimmed black afro with his face painted dark brown. He wore a red plaid shirt and had a stick with a satchel tied to the end of it. He was a blackface-wearing hobo caricature a la Song of the South, utterly unrecognizable to the point I didn’t know it was him until he walked onto the stage and was announced as a contestant in the costume contest. The crowd laughed and cheered in jovial church-sanctioned racism. He won the contest. The scope of how egregious this was remained lost on me until years later.
At home, the family who lived across the street from us was black and we spent time with their kids, Justin and Camille, every night after dinner. Together, we ran around the cul-de-sac, played soccer in our front yard and rode our bicycles to the duck pond, enjoying the unencumbered freedom of the early 90s. Stranger danger felt far away and we listened to McGruff the Crime Dog when he told us to say no to drugs. To me, they were just my friends Justin and Camille, their skin color never factored into any aspect of our friendship. I just knew we were friends and their Sunday service lasted almost all day whereas ours was only in the morning. Our mannerisms didn’t fuse into one another and I didn’t pick up any of their slang. Why was it then that during the joint-service at church, I fell into the same rhythm as all of the other white kids on the third row, whooping and hollering and double-clapping with the choir while donning the persona of our black Baptist counterparts?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with hollering and music that warrants a double-clap. After moving into our new building, my teenage years were spent almost exclusively singing black gospel music. As that’s what our director liked, it became what I liked. To this day, I hear God speak more clearly through that form of music than I do through a sermon, a lecture, or a guy-with-a-guitar-led worship song. The pulse of the music, the scale of the chords, and the depth of the voices penetrate my spirit in a way other mediums just don’t. That resonance was cultivated in me over my formative years and singing those songs became second nature to me. During our joint-service, the problem was not with the way the music was sung or the outward way people reacted to God, the problem was that we were affected copycats, parodists ultimately, playing along with the novelty of black culture before running back into our ivory tower.
When I transferred schools in the summer before eighth grade, my first friend at my new school was a girl named Patrice. She had light brown skin, coarse black hair which she pulled back into an oversized ponytail, and she wore amazing lime green rimmed glasses. Before my first class, a science class of some sort, she saw me sitting alone and walked over to introduce herself. She invited me to sit with her both in that class and at lunch later that day. Patrice is the reason my first day at a new school wasn’t a complete disaster. I was never clued in that I should look at her or anyone else differently because of their skin tone. That wasn’t something my parents emphasized, thankfully, and I just saw people as people.
A decade of learning about the world later, I lived in New York for a summer, interning at a church in Times Square and spending all of my money on Broadway shows. In the office, I became friends with Ruth, who still counts as one of my closest chosen-family members. Mid-day, I walked to her office to see if she was game for getting lunch. She was basically the only person I was comfortable with at that point and we’d been spending our lunch hour together eating in the kitchen most days. In her office, she cracked a joke that made me guffaw and a passerby asked what the commotion was about. I responded, “She’s just a funny, funny African American girl.”
Why did I say that? Why did I phrase it that way? Because I was 22-years-old and had been raised in Texas. At that point in my life, I’d heard plenty of racial pejoratives spoken in an antagonistic way and I wanted to stay as far away from that as I could. I knew about our country’s dark history of slavery and about the present-tense darkness of institutionalized racism. All of it grieved my spirit and since I didn’t share those racist sentiments, I was weary of saying something that might be perceived as insensitive. My being raised in Texas was also a red flag to some of my new Yankee acquaintances and I didn’t want their impression of we who hail from The Republic to be that we’re all small-minded bigots.
Ruth spun around and looked me in the eyes.
“I am not an African American. I am a Haitian American. Do not forget that.”
I was stunned into silence, terrified of my own circumstantial ignorance. She wasn’t angry, she was emphatic. She wasn’t being dismissive of African Americans either, she was simply proud of her Haitian heritage and culture. Her mother moved to the States from Haiti and that culture was very much a part of her daily life. Years later, I would spend Thanksgivings with her and her family, lapping up as much of the Haitian culture as I could in the form of plates and plates of food. Her heritage was valuable (and delicious).
Something inside of me shifted on the day she corrected me. The outside constructs of black, white, yellow and tan meant something more than melanin. They meant heritage, culture, upbringing and style. They meant family trees, global history and holiday traditions. The well was so deep, something my predominantly white pre-internet upbringing didn’t teach me, and now my eyes were open.
Today, I’m watching what’s happening on the streets of the country I love so much and the way racial disparity has never been more pronounced in my lifetime. I’m 33-years-old and I can’t remember a time when minorities were being as openly disparaged as they are today. I also can’t help but notice the silence coming from the church on the subject.
It seems like it’s okay to celebrate black women when they sing a gospel song on The Voice and it’s okay to cry when a black choir sings on the Grammys, but when it comes to standing beside them when their brothers and sisters are being gunned down in the streets, the church at large stays seated. For decades, people laughed along with The Jeffersons and The Cosbys, danced to the music of The Supremes and Destiny’s Child and applauded as Halle and Denzel won their Oscars, but rarely did they stand up to fight the systematic racism that affects millions every day. Some take it one step further and refer only to the disruption protesters cause in the streets, not the plight of a people group who’s been targeted, minimized and blamed for societal ills for as long as they’ve been in America. So many who sit quietly or grumble openly about the imposition of Black Lives Matter are people who consider themselves true patriots, lovers of America and all the flag stands for. Yet they seem to pick and choose what parts of the flag they’ll adulate. They forget that the American flag stands for freedom for all Americans, and that includes those who aren’t white, who don’t go to their church or who vote differently than they do.
I felt nervous writing about this because as a white male, I’m aware of the innate privilege I inherited. This wasn’t something I was born aware of, but it was something I was definitely born into. I was raised saying things like “I don’t see skin color,” but as I’ve become a man I’ve had to confront the fact that I absolutely do.
I look at my friend group, a dynamic collection of people from all cultures, identities and skin tones, and my heart aches every time I hear one of them being disparaged by small-minded strangers on the internet or Fox News. For me, it’s our differences that make us interesting. Differences are enlightening, they’re challenging in the best way and yes, sometimes they can be volatile but they’re also intrinsically tied to the American ideal. So when I look at my friends, I see an amazing array of cultures and outlooks and my life is better because of them. I celebrate that, but there are many who still choose to fear it.
It’s fear of what’s different; fear of losing a power you believe is yours to claim. Fear is a sturdy, fortified, root. People lash out in fear like a trapped animal and whether it’s the talk of building a wall to keep out one people group or banning travel to keep out another, eradicating a subculture by violence or enacting legislation to keep another suppressed and impoverished, many do and say things that are entirely counterintuitive to the virtues of loving their neighbor.
The joint service at my church wasn’t much more than a minstrel show. Our churches didn’t form a sense of unity, we didn’t make any new friends and our cultures were not integrated. The following Sunday, we were back to our segregated services, two churches sharing one roof. We moved out and moved on. Oddly, I feel like the past few years have made America appear the same way. But just as during the days of Civil Rights marches, minorities are shelving their fears of retribution in favor of standing up for the rights they’re promised as Americans. How can we not stand beside them? How can we not march with them and hold them up like Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms so the Israelites could cross the parted Sea? Equality isn’t like a pizza. Just because someone else gets their fair share doesn’t mean yours is diminished. Unlike my old church, America doesn’t have the option of moving out and moving on.