I do believe that all social transformation has to begin with the conversion of our own hearts. Sometimes it’s called metanoia, turning away from one way of living–turning away from what is killing our souls–and turning toward what is lifegiving. And racism is killing us. It hurts all of us, though I want to be very clear that it doesn’ t hurt all in the same way or to the same degree.
A week or so ago I was on a Zoom gathering with a group of white people who were sharing recollections of their earliest awareness of race. Some were taught that race is something polite people don’t mention. Others were brought up in blatantly racist environments. I remember my own grandmother as an outspoken racist, but my parents taught me that the words she used and the attitudes she expressed were wrong.
My parents said the usual right things about racism, but what they didn’t see and didn’t talk about was significant.
We lived in Atlanta for two years around 1960. My father was a correspondent for Time Magazine, and he covered some of the early civil rights movement. At the age of 8 and 9, I understood that he admired the leaders of the movement and thought they were doing the right thing. When I asked about the white and colored water fountains in Atlanta, baffling to me at the time, my parents told me they were stupid and wrong.
But I’ve been reflecting on the quote I shared earlier this week, and thinking more about the evil they didn’t recognize and didn’t teach me about. “Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else.” (Teju Cole, quoted in Michael Eric Dyson’s “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.”)
There were no Black children in my parochial school in Atlanta. I understood that was not by coincidence, but we lived with it; I don’t recall anyone ever telling me it was wrong, especially wrong for a faith-based school. We had a maid who came once a week when we lived in Atlanta, the only time we ever had any kind of domestic help. I understood it was because it didn’t cost so much to have a Black woman come in and provide that kind of service in Atlanta, but I don’t recall anyone ever pointing out the injustice.
But most of all, I remembered Mammy’s Shanty, a restaurant my parents liked a lot at a time when we didn’t do much dining out. I remember the black-eyed peas and the hush puppies, but I remember even more vividly the Black women in costume, with aprons and head scarves. If you had a crying baby at your table, one of those women would come over and walk with the child for a while, so you could enjoy your meal in peace. My parents had some crying babies in those days, and they appreciated that relief very much. But I don’t recall them ever mentioning how absolutely horrible it was to ask Black women to put on the costume of enslavement and walk through a restaurant caring for white people (because only white people were served there). It took me 50 years to be able to look back on that and see very clearly just how terrible it really was.
What I’m trying to say is that it isn’t enough to have the right attitudes about the obvious stuff. The just transformation of our society has to begin with seeing ourselves, and that means going deeper and doing the work of peeling off the layers of our own failures of perception and understanding to see the truth about how racism continues to work in our world.
It’s well past time to recognize that evil and call it out.