I didn’t want to be racist, but I was

“epiphany: a moment of sudden revelation or insight;” “misogynist: a person who…is strongly prejudiced against women.”

overcomesubconsciousblocksThree epiphanies in my adult life have brought me face-to-face with some unfortunate facts about myself: I am a racist and a misogynist. I never wanted to be a racist, and for much of my life I had never even heard the word misogynist. I thought of racism as ridiculous, unchristian, and mean. As a 17-year-old college sophomore, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Baptist Standard, protesting rude treatment of my college’s African-American basketball players at a game with a segregated Baptist college. My letter was published and answered cordially by the editor, but it incited a backlash of frightening hate mail from a creepy preacher in Florida who called me a Pinko Commie and declared that, “Segregation is according to God’s law,” set to the tune of “Standing on the Promises of God.” He warned me of the dangers of “pure little white girls” sitting on the same toilet seats that females of color had used.

In 1961, I was vehemently and vociferously opposed when, in speedy reaction to a dark-skinned visitor from Sheppard Air Force Base darkening our church door (pun noted, but not intended), our congregation called an emergency closed-door business meeting and voted NO on the question of whether we would accept him for membership should he respond to the Lord’s invitation to be saved and baptized there. No one bothered to ask the Lord’s opinion.

“How can we send missionaries to Africa but reject someone of the same race in our own church?” I screamed through indignant tears.

I befriended some African-Americans at Midwestern University. A girl named Pat even came to my wedding in 1964, accompanied by our beloved Baptist Student Union director, Lena Faye Alford, but Pat had second thoughts about breaking bread–well, cake–with all the white people in attendance, even though we had sung Let us break bread together on our knees when we worked side-by-side at Vacation Bible School in the projects. Pat left before the reception.

My first epiphany was brief, just a flash of insight. I had left Texas in 1965 to teach in Guadalajara, Mexico, where there were more than a thousand US students in medical school. I saw two of them on a street corner–one black, one white. I mentally processed them as “gringo medical students,” not immediately making the black-white distinction. I had seen that black student as a regular human being. It may have been the first time in my life that I had viewed a person of color that way.

“Of course,” I thought. “I didn’t hate black people. In fact, I loved black people. But in our town, in our communities, we didn’t see black people.” Oh, we crossed paths with them, we sometimes went to watch Booker T. Washington High play football. Their outstanding choir sang at white churches. I had even interacted with them in the rarefied human laboratory that was my hometown college.  But they went home at night, safely tucked away from white view, to “Nigger Town” (Let’s face it: no white person I knew, including my own liberal, compassionate self, experienced the slightest discomfort when using that place name.)

When I returned to Texas in 1986, integration was in full force, and I was assigned to a middle school with a black assistant principal, whom I will call Mr. O. I’ll call him that because that’s what we called him. Mr. O was a few years younger than I; he was from Wichita Falls, a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School and a Golden Gloves champion. He grew up in the infamous projects where my friends and I had once helped out in Vacation Bible School. He was easy to talk to, and I found myself in his office often–usually to deal with some aberrant kid behavior–extending conversation beyond the purely necessary. On one occasion, I shared with him my epiphany about not seeing black people. He nodded.

When I finished high school, Wichita Falls had two high schools–Wichita Falls High School and Booker T. Washington, but if you ask the average white person from my generation how many high schools there were, even today they will say, “One.”  By the time Mr. O graduated, Ryder and Hirschi had been added. Wichita Falls High was referred to as “Old High.” On a particular day, he and I were talking about an upcoming football game between our school and one of the newer Wichita Falls schools.

“You know,” I remarked offhandedly, “when I was in school, Old High was the only high school in Wichita Falls.” Mr. O cocked his head, gave a crooked little smile, and looked at me over his glasses.

“Really?” he said. Busted! We both laughed, but my liberal compassionate ego was more than a little bruised. That was my second epiphany.

I think I made progress in confronting and fighting my own racism, but many years later, the third epiphany hit hard, and I knew the exorcism was incomplete. Some of those demons are lying so low they may never be identified and exposed to the healing light of day. My daughter-in-law had been delivered of my fifth grandchild, by C-section.  We were admiring the beautiful little girl when the obstetrician/surgeon came by to check on the patients. I gasped silently but kept my thoughts deeply hidden. Not only was Dr. S black; she was a WOMAN. The demons of Racism and Sexism, showed their ugly leering faces. Until that moment, I had thought of myself as a color-blind feminist, but when it came to cutting on live human bodies, I didn’t believe that blacks or women were smart enough to do that. Some error-driven beliefs are so deeply ingrained I don’t think of them as beliefs. They are “facts.” Although my conscious mind denies these “facts,” they were embedded long ago deep in the darkest parts of my subconscious: Blacks  are  not  as  smart  as  whitesWomen are not as smart as men. 

And the unfortunate truth about my compassionate anti-racism is that there is an element of pity–the well-meaning but oh-so-wrong empathy of that hateful phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Bear with me. I am racist and sexist. My only defense is that I am still a work in progress.

 

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