Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why I am in a Group called "Young, Gifted and Black"

I am the Director of Campus Ministry at Regent University. As any member of the academic community can attest, each year brings various celebrations of diversity to our campus. One is tempted to take the professional approach to each of these "days" or "months;" which is to try to give each one the same attention and honor, like distributing M&M's to a large family of kids!

I have to believe, however, that there should be more to this. I have found myself this year placed on the Hispanic Heritage Celebration team, and now the Black Heritage Month Committee. Those are impressive sounding names--great resume stuffers for the cynical post-modern academic. But I got involved in those groups out of genuine interest. so I ask myself, why am I interested? Why are these events more than an academic exercise for me?

Because the twin truths that I see in my heart are, that I AM interested. And I am white. Painfully, stereotypically caucasian. There I've said it. Just like the person who posted on my Facebook page said when the "News item" stated that I had joined the Campus Black Heritage Celebration group, "Young, Gifted and Black." "Psst, Richard, you're not black." In fact, in those categories, I am "0 for 3" So what gives?

It all goes back to MY heritage. I grew up in the American South, and as such was the product of racial stereotypes and attitudes of which I am not proud. But the truth was, I didn't even KNOW that I had these attitudes, until I made friends--mostly in college--who happened to be different races. Only when I began to talk about my experiences did the "water" around this fish suddenly become clear. I had grown up assuming that I could not trust others of another race, that I shouldn't live near them, that I could know certain things about "them" (as in, "hey did you see that one of THEM moved in our neighborhood") without even bothering to have personal experience with actual individuals. That was the most painful thing for me as my prejudices became more obvious...I had an opinion about people I had never met.

So one of my favorite Facebook stories just happened recently. I got back in touch with a childhood friend of mine, named Barrett, who is of a different race than I. I have never forgotten Barrett though we weren't especially close, because in 5th grade we ran the three-legged race on Field Day. We practiced and practiced over the weeks, learning to match speeds, shift our weight together, take every step in the race not as individuals but as one person. I have never forgotten that day, but assumed a REAL athlete like Barrett wouldn't even have a glimmer of my slim moment of athletic triumph. (We won) But to my surprise, Barrett posted on my page "Bet you don't remember the Three-legged race." He had been telling the same story for years.

I think this story is meaningful to me, not just because I am slow and white and rarely have won athletic events, but also because in my young world it was the first time I was close up with a person of another race...learning his mannerisms, understanding his strengths, coping for his weaknesses (although that was mostly me!) As I entered college, I took this image and tried to "bind" myself in friendship to others of different backgrounds, because I came to see my own shortcomings so much more clearly as we ran together.

So the reason I am in a group called "Young Gifted and Black" even though I am painfully white, old, and not so gifted, is that I need to bind myself to others in my community and run with them. Match speeds with them. See life from their vantage point. Because what I learned with Barrett is that we are in the SAME race after all.
I had the amazing fortune of speaking personally some years ago with James Meredith--the trail blazing Civil Rights pioneer who first integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes and asked me, "Would you like to know the secret of race relations in America?" Well, I'm not about to turn that down, so I say, "Sure." And he pulls two pictures out of a tattered manilla folder. One was of a white woman, the other of a black man. "I'm related to both of these people," he said with a sardonic grin. And then said nothing. I pushed a little..." so what are you saying?" Finally, he gave the poor clueless white kid a break. "We're all really the same race here in America. The same race. But we won't quit fighting each other long enough to realize it."
So that's why I am young, gifted and black...we're all in the same race.