The Day I Realized I Was Racist

During the month of February, loosely in honor of Black History month, I will be exploring the topic of race. After the reading about the events of Ferguson and attending an inspiring workshop on MLK Day, I decided maybe the best thing I could do as a white woman in America is to open up an honest conversation about race. Primarily the black/white race tensions that we have struggled with in America for so long.

I do this both with excitement and fear. I want to talk about important things here and to be a healing agent in my community and beyond. However, racism is a tender topic. So please know that as I write these words, I do so with the best of intentions. To allow for light to be shed in closed off places, not to offend, to heal old wounds, not to stir up.

I venture into these waters because I believe it will be sharing our stories openly and getting to know each other’s perspective that will allow the race wounds that damage us all to begin to heal.

Many of my stories will come from a trip to Ghana I took in the late 90’s that opened my eyes to race issues in a whole new way. I will also be sharing guest posts this month from African American friends and mentors who I care for and respect deeply. (Honestly, I will probably test out my posts with them first just to make sure I have not unintentionally said anything stupid or offensive).

So, for my first post, I share with you with the day I discovered I was actually a racist.

*****

Most of my life I have considered myself a friend of African-Americans. An ally, not an enemy. Racist would be one of the last words I used to describe myself.

I grew up in heavily integrated schools where I made friends with people of all skin colors and backgrounds. I constantly corrected friends and family members who made racist comments or jokes. I tried to stand up for the oppressed when I could.

And then this happened.

I took a three week trip to Ghana, Africa during my time in seminary. During that trip I stayed with various Presbyterian pastors and learned how Presbyterianism played out in their culture (hint, less frozen chosen, more dancing in the aisles).

This was not an easy thing to do. In my first placement I was the only white person in a town of thousands. Although I felt out of place with my host family, I felt safe. There was a mom to look after me. There was a teenage daughter fluent in English who showed me around town and a teenage son who translated for me the Ghanaian sit-coms their family would watch at night on their small TV.  The Pastor/Dad was friendly and warm. But he was also very sick that week with malaria. After he mustered up all his energy to get through Sunday services (some things are the same no matter what continent you are on), he begged off showing me around to the rest of his district. Instead he entrusted me to his lay leader, a man whose name I sadly do not recall but remember as Mr Echo (like the character on Lost) due to his size, strength, and silent nature.

Mr Echo from Lost. And how I probably viewed my guide through my horribly racist eyes

To say that I was a little put off guard and sacred when my host first handed me off to Mr Echo for a day trip is an understatement. Here I was MILES from home, alone, and in a car with a large, very black man traveling to who knows where.

Now at this point in the story, you may be tempted to justify my fear. I was in a foreign country and at the mercy of a stranger. I was travelling through some lonely roads which I was totally unfamiliar with alongside someone I had just met.

But let me be clear. If I had been travelling with a white woman, the only thing I would have worried about was getting lost. If I had been in the car with a white man, I would have been a little nervous until I got to know his character and intentions, but then I would have been fine. Had I been travelling with a Ghanaian women I would have been totally at ease. But put me in the car with a large, dark skinned male and I was tensed-up-on-the-edge-of-my-seat scared.

Every memory of someone locking the car door when we encountered a black man walking down the road flashed through my mind. Suddenly, I felt very small, very white, very fearfully vulnerable. 

 

It was a quiet trip to the first village we visited. The only question I asked was how far away our destination was and he probably only offered a few tips on what it would be like when we got there. After we arrived, Mr Echo accompanied me my whole visit. He sat by me during meeting and escorted me through the town. As the village was peppered with dirt paths, walking was not always smooth. Whenever I encountered a rock or a puddle, Mr Echo would take my hand or my elbow and help me over. At one point we came to a washed out place and he sort put one hand on my arm and one hand on my lower back and lifted me over to the other side. I was not impressed with his chivalry. I was not comforted. I was only aware he could pick me up like a rag doll anytime he chose.

The next day was only marginally better. Since I had survived our first outing unscathed, I began to be a little less fearful. My guide drove me to a lovely seashore village where I would have dinner and conversation with a female pastor and her daughter. For some reason this trip, my guide just walked me to my host’s house and then left me to have some quality girl time. Did he sense my tension? Did he want some quiet time by the sea? Who knows. We still were not chatting partners.

On the way home that night, I loosened up enough to ask my driver about the stars in Ghana. Did they have different names for their constellations? Turns out Mr Echo was not a fan of astronomy. He did ask me about my visit and I showed him the seashells I had collected. Baby steps were made.

The day I learned I was a racist

It amazes me how small and unscary my host looks in this picture as I gaze at it today after so may years.

 

The final trip my escort and I made was to a village further out into the bush. It was an all day trip and depending on travel conditions could have required a stay overnight. This trip he brought along his teenage son. I am not sure if this was so we would have a chaperon of sorts or if he wanted his city dweller son to experience life in a rural village.

Regardless of the reason, this trip I saw a whole new side to Mr Echo. He chatted freely and joked along with his inquisitive son. I could tell he was a great dad. We all had an amazing day at Daboase and processed it freely on the long ride home.

It was at this point I began to see the man I had been so afraid of with clear eyes. (and what a racist jerk I really was) Mr Echo had never been a threat to me. His sole purpose was to look after me and make sure that I was taken care of in my travels. If anything he was more like a body guard. But even this dynamic left me as a racist, doesn’t it?

For what he should have been all along was my friend.

 

**If you are wondering, this is one of those moments in life I sincerely wish I had a do-over for. I would go back and remember this strong, kind man’s name. I would get an address so I could send him something to properly thank him for his kindness. I would give anything to undo any hurt or harm I may have caused. Hopefully he forgives me anyway.

 

5 thoughts on “The Day I Realized I Was Racist

  1. One of the things I have had to talk myself through is when I am walking in the park and I pass a large black man. This is when I realize I am a racist. This man is friendly and chatty now, but it took a while. It took having someone who knew him introduce us. That took away the fear. Don’t you think this is how we learn? God places someone in our path that we judge. Then slaps us in the face with, “Can’t you see? He’s a child of mine, too!” It’s not always about race. Sometimes it is about our own misunderstanding. Our weakness.

  2. I would like our next book club book to be written by a black author. I am listening to a recorded book called “Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society” circa 1962. In this book, one young black woman joins the book club and suggests books by black authors they can only get on loan from a black college because they weren’t kept in “white public libraries”. It opened their eyes to seeing life through a black woman’s eyes. I think I could use that. The book they read was “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston and its the next one I am getting on kindle for $1.99. I so appreciate you sharing your vulnerability, actually by showing it because we are all this way. As much as I can hope and pray and educate myself…I don’t know if the R word can be totally erased from my life but I can keep trying.

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