I don't remember the content of his talk that day (I don't really need to, I bought a book and a video to which I can refer), but one thing he said took root for me. He talked about growing up in the south, and the inner work involved in the transformation to overcome racist teachings and beliefs that pervaded his community and the environment in which he lived, worked, and learned. He was white, male, and educationally and economically privileged, and the layers of institutional racism that was the lifeblood of the south took time to peel and discard. It spite of coming to see and advocate against institutional racism, and to spend years seeking justice for persons and communities who suffered as a result of it, Spong confessed that he still had to fight the deeply ingrained teachings from his youth that continued to live subconsciously within him.
In my first, "real" job as an adult, I was fortunate to work as a program director for a local YWCA. I say fortunate because the national staff and Board of the YW worked hard to train and educate affiliate staff regarding its One Imperative: the elimination of racism wherever it is exists, and by any means necessary (the latter phrase always raised eyebrows, so in case yours just went up, it needs to be understood that "by any means necessary" was grounded in the context of the Mission of the YWCA*). Boiled down, the YW defined racism as the result of power + privilege--in my mind I can still see those words written on a pad of newsprint, propped on an easel.
The training provided by the YW served to strengthen and solidify the belief system of openness and inclusivity with which I was raised, and that was supported further by the educational environment of a Quaker college. It gave me a specific foundation for understanding the nature, impact, and consequences of racism. My personality type doesn't lend itself easily to activism, but my time working for the YW served to fortify my desire, at least, to live in whatever way I could as the prophet Micah called his people to do: seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. In spite of the blessing that was my upbringing, the benefit of the education and training received from the YW, and my commitment to recognizing and valuing the dignity of every human being, this week I came to understand afresh the confession shared so long ago by John Shelby Spong: the work to overcome the existence of racism within is an ongoing battle.
The mundane nature of the incident that sparked my thoughts underscores how ever-present the menace of racism is, and how easily it can grow if left unchecked by other means. At the end of my dead-end street is a park, frequented by many who live in my neighborhood, which is predominantly Hispanic and African-American. The park has large trash barrels placed near benches that line a circular walkway that winds around a play area. By and large these barrels are used, but nearly every time I walk through the park I find myself picking up trash and depositing it in the nearest barrel. From the perspective of privilege I wonder why my neighbors don't care about disposing of their trash, but another part of me understands why, and knows better than to wonder, or judge.
Earlier this week, I saw a young Latino man make his way to one of the barrels and throw away his trash. The thought entered my mind to affirm the behavior and thank him for doing so, and then it hit me that this response was nothing but racism at work. How do I know? Because it would never have occurred to me to thank someone who is White for disposing of their trash. What was revealed to me was that I held an expectation of behavior based on ethnicity (and contextually, fed by the demographic of the neighborhood). Shame on me.
I can't say that a year ago I would have had a similar response to witnessing the disposal of trash in a city park. I can't say, because a year ago my senses hadn't been saturated with the rhetoric which has come to characterize the expressions of fear from citizens across a variety of spectrums of life in this country. Whether from the lips of a political candidate to the cheers of his supporters, or the fists that make contact as a response to the engorging anger that has been let loose, fear undergirds it all. It's not that I believe those words or condone the actions in any conscious way, but the power of institutionalized racism, or any -ism, is such that it subliminally affects how one may think or act. I'm not afraid of people who look, think, or believe differently than I do. I am afraid of not taking seriously enough the damage being wrought in a climate where hate is acceptable, and disregard for others has become the normative public face of who the citizens of this country are. We cannot, at any level, turn away from what is ugly if for no other reason than to keep the fight alive within, so that it may be effective without.
It is a small thing to worry about trash making its way to a barrel. To ignore my response, however, has implications that I don't want to imagine.
*For many years, this was the historic mission of the YWCA: Young Women’s Christian Association of the United States of America, a movement rooted in the Christian faith as known in Jesus and nourished by the resources of that faith, seeks to respond to the barrier-breaking love of God in this day. The Association draws together into responsible membership women and girls of diverse experiences and faiths, that their lives may be open to new understanding and deeper relationships, and that together they may join in the struggle for peace and justice, freedom and dignity for all people.