Working Toward Whiteness
“I’m sorry for being white!” His comment glowed from the computer screen with such weight that for a moment it was as if it was etched there permanently. What, you may wonder, was the context of this comment? It was written on the Facebook wall of one of my congregants. It was written by her father in response to her trying to explain why Ferguson has been so painful for so many in the African-American community. I was truly in disbelief. He was once a Southern Baptist pastor.
What I wanted to write back, but didn’t is “Are you?” Are you sorry for being white? Or are you sick of having the privilege of your whiteness surfaced and challenged by the plight of my (our) collective “blackness?” Are you tired of “us” pointing out the obvious inequalities of our society? Should I, as a Creole, mixed-race, African American, Evangelical leader sit quietly by, not saying a word about what has transpired in Ferguson and many other cities so that your white daughter would not feel compelled to speak out and the comfort of your reality would remain.
This comment is filled with the type of sarcastic, defensive vitriol that has populated the Twitter timelines, Instagram feeds, and Facebook posts of so many white evangelicals. And it seems to capture the mindset of the majority. Note, I said majority, not all. I make that point to ensure that I (with my white wife, tri-racial children, and transcultural church) won’t be labeled here, as I have been in other places, a “racist,” “race-baiter,” or “divisive.”
This comment captures the very reason why many African Americans feel so alone in this, and why men like my friend and mentor Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile have had to call out our camp for being saved on silent. This comment, and others that seem to quickly jump to the defense of officer Wilson with disregard for the fact that a human life has been taken, creates a struggle in me that I must diligently work against: the belief that my white brothers and sisters simply don’t care about the African-American narrative in this country or they don’t believe it has enough value to be acknowledged.
The African-American Narrative: A Series of “Justified” and “Routine” Stops
I am 6’5”. I weigh 270 pounds. I’ve been called imposing. The police have stopped me, both walking and driving, nearly once a year since I was 15 years old. Though I have been asked to leave my vehicle, thrown to the ground and against my vehicle, interrogated, frisked, and cuffed on these occasions, I’ve not been cited. Not once.
Until you feel the humiliation of this moment, particularly as a “decent, civilized, educated black,”—Yes, that’s an actual quote of how someone referred to me once, behind my back of course—then you cannot say that it is an anomaly. You cannot say that someone was “just doing his or her job.”
A Personal Story
The most troubling of these incidents took place just a few years ago in Texas. My wife and I were driving to my childhood home of Louisiana. We were pulled over, but weren’t speeding. I wasn’t driving erratically. I wasn’t intoxicated. And it was broad daylight.
The two officers approached our vehicle, and when the lead saw me, one immediately placed his hand on his firearm. My wife was visibly nervous. We’d just been joking sarcastically about hoping we didn’t get pulled over in Texas for being an interracial couple. Then, in a flash, the joke became reality.
The officer asked me to step out of my vehicle. I refused. By this time I’d earned an M.S. in Criminal Justice, my focus in this degree was case law and judiciary process, which of course included an extensive study of policing histories and practices. So yes, I refused to get out of the car. But my wife pleaded, and the officer demanded. So, I complied.
The officer immediately grabbed me and began asking me where I was coming from, where I was going, and if I had anything in my vehicle of “concern.” Meanwhile, the other officer interrogated my wife, and asked her if she was being held against her will. Really? Riding in the front seat, with a tri-racial child in the back. The lead officer, hand still on his firearm, began to try and frisk me. Again, I refused. The law says I should comply (Pennsylvania v. Mimms) and step out of the vehicle. The law does not allow for illegal search of my person or property. I stated this to him. He became enraged, breathing threats, and calling me “boy.” It took the other officer to calm him down. Finally, with a lack of any justifiable reason to hold us, they let us go. I’ve never been so angry. My wife never so humiliated.
These experiences are not mere anecdote; this is systemic.