31 Oct 2019

You Sound Like a Racist, An Autobiographical Moment

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: American Empire, Black History, Bobby's World, Church, Contemporary Ethics, Discipleship, Journey, Love, Martin Luther King, Ministry, Race Relations, Slavery, Unity

I have not arrived. That is my beginning and ending point of this blog. I want to receive grace and mercy and I want to extend grace and mercy.

The year is 1994. I moved to Louisiana to preach for Barton Avenue, a congregation in a New Orleans metro suburb. They were good to me and my family (both my daughters were born there). It was a good place for me to begin full time preaching ministry. I did a lot of growing with those brothers and sisters. I preached on (in New Orleans!) the evils of beer (and was gently told I needed to study more and I did). We learned a lot about the Holy Spirit, prayer, and I introduced them to the Hebrew Bible. And I even spoke on prejudice occasionally.

My Naivete Exposed

I had prided myself as not “having a bigoted bone in my body.” I even said that out loud. And I condemned racism. Bluntly sometimes.

I addressed issues from a Christian point of view, or so I thought.

See, I grew up in an Italian family in North Alabama. Black people were in our house on a regular basis. We had dated across the “color line” Mom and dad were sort of “progressive” on that level. I was convinced I was not a racist. From a young age we always had people of color in our home. In fact when I was young we lived in Pampano Beach, Florida and my family lived in the same small house as a Mexican family (to this day they are as close as any family). In Alabama we frequently had African Americans in our home (especially college students at the local Christian college). I dated a Mexican and my sister dated an African American guy.

But I was thoroughly socialized into the southern way of thinking. I had a Confederate battle flag bandana hanging from my truck’s mirror, I had Robert E. Lee, two swords and the Confederate battle flag emblazoned on my high school class ring. All of which just made me a “good ole boy never meanin’ no harm” in my view (at the time).

I went to college, got married, and moved to New Orleans. My world was about to start getting challenged. One day a friend at church, not much older than me, named Alisha Pierre came to me. I liked Alisha, her father Claude and the whole family. They were kind, encouraging, loving and took care of my family. Alisha was articulate. She was very smart. And I in fact respected her a great deal. And one day she stunned me. She came to me and shared some concerns with me. She was diplomatic but I was still offended to high heaven. (Alisha is black if you did not get that yet). In fact I was angry. She said to me,

“Bobby you talk about racism and you tell us racism is a sin. And you are right. But Bobby sometimes you sound like a racist.

Did you see what she said to me? “You sound like a racist!” She might as well had dropped napalm on me. I was incensed! I was extremely defensive! There was no way that “I” could sound like a racist! I love black people! How could I sound like a racist!?

She said a few other things like, “how much do you know about Black people themselves?”

I was miffed! I called my wife (of the time). She was shocked. I was shocked. I was offended! I was not a racist!!

I recall the topic that brought her to me. I had addressed a “Christian view of affirmative action” in my class. Alisha was in my class.

I thought I had told the truth. It did not take long to find out that I was ignorant as the day is long.

About the same time, maybe 1995/6, I began to teach a men’s class in the city at the Louisa St church. I had a series of conversations with Robert Birt the preacher there. He told me almost the same thing Alisha did. He put a book in my hands a book by Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower, that would forever change my life. In reality I knew practically nothing of the long history of America that shaped both my life and Alisha and Robert’s in profoundly different ways. I was the product of a racist history without knowing I was.

What I Learned? Negative Discoveries!

When Alisha had first talked to me I was not able to hear what she said. I had to defend myself rather than listen to what she actually shared with me. At first I thought she was attacking me but I knew that she was my friend. I had to overcome myself to give any credence to what she said. With love and patience from her and Robert, I made lots of “negative discoveries” (negative discovery is a phrase coined by Daniel Boorstin that refers to entire realms of knowledge that we have no idea exists).

First, I learned on every page of Before the Mayflower that I was extremely naive and one of the most uninformed persons on the planet. Alisha was correct, I knew nothing.

Second, claiming I do not have a bigoted bone in my body, did not mean I didn’t have a bigoted bone buried inside me. The most insidious racism is not the KKK. It has a smile and comes in the form of supposed gentleness. Racism is not merely personal prejudice though they are related. Racism is not just mean nasty people like Bull Conner or David Dukes.

I can confess freely that I hate racism. I do. But I’ve come to understand that racism is a principality and power in this world and that I have benefited from and participated, even while denying and blind to it, in the structure of racism.

Third, I learned that we white people – at least I was – extraordinarily sensitive and defensive. The cross burners were racists, not me. I had “black friends.” And thankfully I actually did (and do) have black friends and family that are not afraid to say, “Bobby, let me share with you …”

Robin Diangelo, in her surprisingly wise, gentle and even compassionate book (while at the same time helps any seeker of truth to examine themselves. I do not agree with every jot and tittle but it can help us if we will, think) White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, makes this observation in a chapter called “The Good/Bad Binary.”

While making racism bad seems like a positive change, we have to look at how this functions in practice. Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow–a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go–to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior. In this way, the good/bad binary makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us, and the inevitable ways that we are conditioned to participate in it. If we cannot discuss these dynamics or see ourselves within them, we cannot stop participating in racism” (p. 72).

This was me then. Sometimes this is still me!

Fourth. I learned that being anti-prejudice is not the same thing as being pro-justice. I think this is a key issue in biblical faith. Justice is the foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89.14). It is the weightier matter of life with God (Deuteronomy 10.11-22; Micah 6.8; Matthew 23.23). But for many years I, in fact, had virtually no understanding of what “justice” meant. But the Bible calls me to love justice (Deuteronomy 16.20; Isaiah 61.8). Justice is very hard.

Fifth, I learned I was wrong. And I hate being wrong. I had been deceived. I learned that some of the hardest working and most qualified people ever had “benefited” from “affirmative action” (I also learned there had been generations of affirmative action for whites but we did not call it that). I learned I knew very little of genuine American history. I learned that other people’s experience of America has been radically different than mine. I am still growing. I learn more about myself and racism every day. I wonder if my love for justice grows equally.

I now look back on that fateful day when Alisha came to my office as one of the defining moments in my walk with God. I had many conversations with her and Robert about Before the Mayflower. I’ve read dozens of books since, hundreds of articles, and feel I’ve learned a lot. I still wake up in the morning and pray,

Lord help me have ears to hear today because I failed miserably yesterday. Lord help me to love justice today, I was too concerned with mammon yesterday. Lord help me to remember Alisha’s words and help me grow beyond my experience and my blindness. Thank you for those who love me enough to help me be like you. Amen

I probably still sound like a racist at times. I do not want to. Forgive me. Perhaps my own journey can be helpful to others who look and think just like me.

You May Be Interested In These Articles

Learning & Thinking about Race as a Southern White Disciple of the Jewish Messiah

Social Concerns in Churches of Christ, Trends Since the King Years, 1955-2000

One Response to “You Sound Like a Racist, An Autobiographical Moment”

  1. john acuff Says:

    you story is so too true and it will help so keep telling it

Leave a Reply