From The Eyes Of An Older White Guy
As cities, communities and churches confront the issue of racism, I have struggled with how to best express my own thoughts. Listening before speaking proved to be the wisest advice out there. The last thing I want to do is shift the attention on me or how I feel. Nor do I want to minimize the struggles of those who carry burdens heavier than my own. With that stated, I think I’m ready to speak. Let me begin by saying, I hate what happened to George Floyd. Watching the video of his brutal killing, and hearing him cry “mama” in his last dying breath, had me gut-wrenched.
I prefer to believe we live in a world where these types of things don’t happen. I want to believe racism no longer exists. I realize that’s more dream than reality, but I’d like to believe Martin Luther King made a difference, and things have improved for black America. It seems that’s the struggle for many whites. We truly want to believe that and have a hard time being told otherwise. Perhaps this is one of the biggest hurdles in the discussion of racism – helping whites who don’t feel they’re racist see the racism that others may see. It was easier to spot in the 60’s and 70’s because racists were more open about it - at least from what I observed back then.
I grew up in a single-parent home in Van Nuys, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. We bounced around to various neighborhoods, all of them middleclass white. There was a total of three African Americans in my elementary school, two brothers and a sister. The sister, Roxanne, eventually became my girlfriend when we grew to be teenagers. We remained together for several years. My mother was not keen on our relationship and my brother gave me a hard time about it. Besides that, we didn’t suffer much abuse, except for one time at a party. A lowrider, much bigger than me, assaulted Roxanne with racial remarks. When I stood to her defense, he sucker-punched me. Others quickly grabbed him and tossed his racist butt out the door.
In 10th grade I took a job at a steakhouse where I continued to work after completing high school. It was a blended work environment and everyone got along well. We all loved our boss, Riley Brown, who was African American. I especially looked up him. Only one time in my years of working for him did he ever snap at me. He quickly apologized afterwards and put his arm around me. My affection for him only grew deeper after that. Riley was always good to me. He was good to everyone. And in that happy bubble, I convinced myself that what I experienced at the steakhouse was America. But I was wrong.
After graduating broadcasting school, Roxanne and I moved to a small town in Northern California where I took a job as a disc jockey. Little did we know it was an all-white community where we would see racism on full display. I was not allowed to play black music at the radio station I worked at. I learned this quickly after putting Stevie Wonder on the turntable. The general manager tore into me like a bat out of hell, his rant filled with one racial slur after another. When it was discovered I was living with an African American, I was given a hard time for that as well. Roxanne wasn’t allowed at the station. The boss said he’d know if she visited by her “smell”.
After only a couple of months, we were evicted from the trailer we rented. A three-day notice was tacked to our door. The property manager apologized saying it was the owner’s decision. We tried appealing to him for more time. He said, “Yer kind ain’t welcome here.” He was right. When I got fired from the radio station, the same reason was given.
As indicated earlier, racists back in those days were anything but bashful. For the most part, that seems to have changed, which makes white people feel the world is a better place. Deep down I want to believe that. Most of the time I do. I pastor a church where people of diverse backgrounds enjoy sweet fellowship together. My wife and I live in a blended neighborhood free of racial tension. In the house to our right lives a young African American woman. To our left is a Hispanic lady. I didn’t have that in the 70’s. Yes, things have changed! At least in my neighborhood. But I can’t speak for every neighborhood. And there lies the problem for many: we base our truth on personal experiences. We assume racism isn’t a real issue based on the notion “it’s not in my neighborhood.”
This is where a conversation would help. Sadly, politicians and various media outlets haven’t made it easy for us. Racism is often exploited to further a political agenda. This only breeds suspicion among whites, especially white conservatives.
I don’t claim to have all the answers nor would I want to misspeak on such an important issue. I can only say I’m grieved by what’s going on in our world today. I want to use my influence in a way that is helpful. I’d love for hearts to change and healing to happen. But, like so many others, I grapple with what is helpful and what isn’t. For now, I only know to mourn with those who mourn and be as understanding as possible. Perhaps that’s a good place for many of us to start. Rather than listen to news spin, let’s listen to those struggling to be heard. Not every neighborhood is the same. Not everyone’s experience is the same. But together we can reach for the same dream – a better world where we recognize one another as fellow image-bearers of the living God.