Thursday, November 17, 2016

I am White, We are Black - Part 1: Our Stories

Keith's Introduction for this Blog Series

When Kevin and I first started planning the I am White, We are Black event back in July, we had no idea what events would transpire between then and now. There have been very few times in the past thirty years that race and racism have been commonplace in everyday conversation. At a time when much of the country is divided on almost every critical issue we face, conversations that help create love and understanding are few and far between. In the hope of starting more conversations among more people, we decided to change our live event into a blog series.

We hope that this blog series will move you to understand yourself and the other better than before. Our prayer is that these blogs will inspire people to love and to act to bring the Kingdom of God to our world today. What does this look like? Well, stay tuned!

I am White - Keith's Story

I grew up in a small, rural town in northern Illinois. In my high school there was one Hispanic family, one Jewish family and everyone else was white. When I was younger, there was one African American student several grades ahead of me. He moved out of town.

Once, when visiting family out of town, I heard a biracial couple tell the story that they were turned away from a rental property in my hometown because the husband was black. I was surprised to hear that and thought it was wrong, but I didn't really know how to process that as a middle-schooler.

I grew up knowing rural, White-American midwestern culture. Since I wasn't really confronted with many other cultures or ethnicities growing up, I didn't have many conversations about them besides theoretical. My understanding of black Americans came primarily from the news and movies, which typically portrayed African Americans as gang members. However, our school system spent a lot of time teaching long units on the Civil War, MLK, and the civil rights movement of the 20th century. I graduated from high school with a very strong belief that racism was wrong, but without any practical experience with the issue.

I went to a small Christian college about an hour south of Chicago. While it was still a predominately white college, there were at least a few more African American students than I had been with growing up. I found myself experiencing feelings of fear or discomfort when I was around these classmates that dressed in (what I had learned from TV to call) "gang clothing" - baggy pants, over-sized basketball jerseys, sideways hats and chains.

It wasn't that I was afraid something was going to happen to me. The problem was I just didn't know what was going to happen in those interactions. I have the same feeling when I find myself in a room of people so different than myself that I don't even feel like I can make small talk. I just felt so far removed from the culture of my black classmates.

Half-way through my freshmen year, I found a campus job. I worked for a Chicago-native African-American student. Sometimes he wore suits and dress clothes (which made me feel very comfortable) and sometimes he wore baggy pants, Chicago Bulls jerseys, and White Sox hats (not at the same time). 

What I soon learned is that this guy was legit. He was a strong Christian who loved people, had a great sense of humor, and had a lot to teach me about living out my faith in leadership. In fact, he eventually became a very close friend and accountability partner. Almost single-handedly, he began tearing down the stereotypes that had been built in my head about black culture. 

When I moved to Kansas City, Kansas in 2008, I was on staff at a white church in the middle of a black neighborhood. In fact, I learned quite quickly that it used to be a white neighborhood until a great "white flight" happened as African Americans moved in.

The first time I tried to use content from one of my white youth groups at an after-school program at a predominately black urban school, I realized that I was in an entirely different world. It didn't take long for me to learn about the cycle of poverty, broken government support systems, a bleeding education system, and no way out. I made long-lasting friendships with both blacks and whites from Wyandotte. When you find that you really love someone, you are moved to understand and seek justice on their behalf.

Years later, moving from Wyandotte County (urban) to Johnson County (suburban), my eyes were opened even wider to the gap between white and black access and opportunities in the US. I was challenged by activist friends and outspoken African American brothers and sisters. I am still trying to figure out what it means to be white in the body of Christ and how I can act to bring the Kingdom of God to a world torn by racial and socio-economic barriers. This blog series is one way I am trying to do that.

I am Black - Kevin's Story

As a kid growing up in inner-city Kansas City, I was very comfortable walking the streets at night from friends and family member’s homes. Although I encountered dangerous situations on occasion, life was pretty good. I had no fear of what could happen to me. As a child, and even today, the appearance of a black man does not make me fearful. He is a reflection of me and I, him. We share a common goal and a common struggle, making something of ourselves with what we have or can create and doing our best not to become a statistic the system has set traps for us to fall in.

After living in the city for 16 years, my mother moved my siblings and me north of the river. It was a whole new world. The homes, landscaping, up-keep of the neighborhoods, shopping centers - it was a new life I was ready to explore. What I did not expect was the blatant racism I soon encountered. 

I had learned about slavery and segregation in school, but never personally experienced this hateful act that was the driving force of the oppression of my ancestors.

The one of the many times I experienced racism that changed my life was when I was out for a run, preparing for cross country season. As I was nearly done with my workout for the evening, only about our blocks from my home, a white man in a truck sped up from behind me. I didn’t think anything of it at first.

As he got closer I realized that something wasn’t right. I turned around and, as I did so, he was close to hitting me. Fearful for my life, I jumped out of the way into some bushes. I was afraid and didn’t know what was going on, but as he passed by he then yelled, “Get out of my neighborhood you nigger!” I also noticed his confederate flag plastered on his back window. 

By this point, I was already struggling not hating white people from my experiences during that time. Even the ones that weren’t racist. It just seemed like an excused behavior that they got away with daily as we (people of color) just had to “get over it”.

With the few other experiences before and after this one, I became fearful to walk the streets of a community that was supposedly a “safe” one. Growing up in the inner-city where anything could go
down at any moment, I still felt safe. No personal harm was ever done to me. However, moving north of the river became a silent war zone even when there was peace. 

I truly believe this situation, in particular, gave me a taste of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I became jumpy to every loud noise, felt unsafe when I was away from home, and with no other weapon choices I kept a box cutter with me (not knowing that it was illegal to do so. YIKES!). I was fearful to walk the streets or even be alone with white people even if they weren’t racist. I didn’t know what behavior they would ignore because it wouldn’t affect them, yet would harm me. It became a real issue for me.

As I have matured and gained more experience with other white individuals, I discovered that they all weren’t hateful. It was a journey I didn’t expect to take, but one that taught me a lot about the hate for people of color that still exists in America and also the importance of forgiveness. 

Where we are Heading

We have some very different life experiences and perspectives on race. In these next several days, we hope to share these perspectives in a way that will help move people closer together. Keep coming back each day from now until Wednesday to get some new food for thought on racism, what cultural differences between whites and blacks make conversations difficult, some biblical images to help us move forward, and some practical steps we can take to make a difference. Soon, you'll learn why we called this series "I am White, We are Black."


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