Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Presuming Whiteness, Part Two

Before moving to rural New Mexico to serve, my last church was in a suburb of Boston (although the town was founded only 9 years after Boston, so not a suburb as the way most people think of it). The congregation, which was primarily white, had a sister-church relationship with a congregation in Boston that consisted primarily of people of Caribbean descent.

What always struck me every time I went into their sanctuary was that the pictures on the walls consisted entirely of white faces, including Jesus. The church was built when the neighborhood was primarily white, mainly Irish and Eastern European, and the church still reflected that even though the congregation no longer did.

I took our confirmation class there one time, and after it was over I asked them what they thought of the pictures of white people on the walls, especially Jesus. One of them said, "I didn't really think anything of it, everyone thinks of Jesus as white, don't they?" And then she had to think about it for a while. I always wondered, although I never asked, what the people in the church thought about the white Jesus. Even Jesus is presumed to be white.

One of the things that Trayvon Martin case brought up was about black parents having "the talk" with their children, and especially with their sons. Now normally when we talk about parents having "the talk" with children it's about sex. But this talk was about how to interact with police and other's in positions of authority, of what to do and what not to do. Some people sort of smirked as this was brought up, as if this wasn't necessary because these things don't happen. But this "talk" became all too evident to me after having preached at this church one time.

It was shortly after President Obama's inauguration and I was talking about the fact that while Obama's election was a move in the right direction that it did not indicate that we now lived in a "post-racial" country as so many people wanted to say. As an example I talked about the then recent shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police in Oakland.

After my sermon, the lay leader for the event took the time to remind the congregation what to do if they were stopped by the police. To be respectful, to follow their directions exactly, and not to do anything to upset them or to escalate the situation. As a white male this was a startling moment in my life because I would never have had to have said that to my congregation.

I would never have had to tell them what to do when police pulled them over. I would in fact never have even considered saying something like that during worship because it simply was not a reality either for me or for my congregation. None of them had ever been pulled over for being white, and so didn't need to be reminded. But for a congregation of primarily minorities this was most definitely a part of their reality and therefore something with which the church had to deal.

What was also presumed by members of my congregation was that Dorchester, where the other church was located, was in a dangerous part of town and therefore wasn't safe to go to. While there was definitely more crime, including violent crime, in that neighborhood, what I had to remind them was that the high school that served that church had not had any students killed there, whereas our high school had had a murder, and thus violence can and will strike anywhere. That being white, and being a white community, did not make us immune to violence.

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