When it comes to race, some of us are just clueless

It’s time to come clean. In light of what is happening in Baltimore tonight and what has been happening around the country, it’s time to share my story of racism…or what I like to think of as racial cluelessness… but it’s still just plain racism.

Back when I was in seminary at Andover Newton Theological School, I was the editor of the school newspaper, The Protestant. It was a play on words because we were a Protestant seminary, and the paper was used as forum to protest things we idealistic seminary students living up on a hill (literally) thought were unjust. The Protestant. Get it? We were so clever.

Students (and sometimes faculty) would submit pieces for the paper. One night, my friend Chaz brought me a handwritten piece. When he handed it to me, he said something to the effect of “I hope you’ll publish this, but I’ll understand if you don’t.”

It was a story of Chaz walking home from the Boston College Library. Our seminary had a reciprocal agreement with a number of institutes of higher education in the greater Boston area, so our student ID card got us into places that would have otherwise been off limits. The area between BC and Andover Newton was the affluent neighborhood/village of Newton Center. Chaz told a story of being stopped by the cops and questioned about what he was doing walking the streets so late at night. Even after he showed them his seminary ID card, they continued asking questions. In the article, he reflected on what it felt like to be profiled.

I was confused. Why would Chaz be profiled? I knew that Newton was over 50 percent Jewish, but surely the cops wouldn’t stop and question someone just because they didn’t look Jewish. Would they?

I shared the story with my husband and told him I didn’t understand what was going on in the article.

My husband looked at me really strangely, “Anne,” he said. “Chaz is black.”

“No, he’s not,” I said automatically.

Now my husband was looking at me like I had two heads. “Yes. He is.”

In my defense, at the time Chaz had a shaved head and no facial hair. I’ve recently learned that we white people identify others by their hair and eye color, and Chaz had no hair to identify. Plus, I’d just moved from Atlanta…midtown Atlanta, where over 65% of the population was African-American. The people in my neighborhood were much darker-skinned than Chaz. They also spoke in a very distinctive dialect that my classmate (a Baltimore native) did not share. I had my own idea of what black people in America looked and sounded like, so it never occurred to me to think that someone who didn’t fit into the categories I had created in my brain would be part of that group.

Just because you’re clueless doesn’t mean you’re not racist.

Now my daughter goes to school where, like Atlanta, about 65% of the students are African-American. Every morning when I drop her off at school, there are a group of boys with dark skin playing basketball, and my heart hurts every time, thinking about their mothers and how they have to tell their sons very different stories than I tell my daughter about who the safe people and what the safe places are. I fear that they will all have (or already have) stories of profiling like the one that Chaz wrote about 15 years ago.

In spite of that and of all that is going on around our country, I have hope for the future when I see my daughter and her friends—who come in every skin shade you can think of. Two of her closest friends are fond of saying that they make a panda. One has a Caucasian mother and an African –American father, and the other is the daughter of Korean immigrants. Together, they’re black, white and Asian.

I am sure I will continue to make clueless mistakes when it comes to racial issues. (This post may be one of them!) I hope that I can learn from my mistakes. I know that I won’t ever fully understand what it is like to be someone other than an affluent, over-educated white girl.  But I won’t let that stop me from trying.

–Rev. Anne Russ

P.S. The Reverend Dr. Charles Howard is now a chaplain and adjunct professor at UPenn. I am sinfully proud to have attended seminary with him.

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