By now you’ve probably heard about the Kentucky church that decided to ban interracial marriages and even membership privileges for interracial couples. In the wake of embarrassing news reports that quickly went viral, the church is now reconsidering its 9-to-6 vote to forbid interracial relationships. But the episode’s stark reminder that our nation — and thechurch — is still mired in the sin of bigotry and racism has not gone unnoticed.
When I see disturbing stories like this one, my heart aches — but not before I’m forced to examine it for my own hidden pockets of racism.
I cannot remember the last time I had an open discussion about race relations. Some might consider that a good thing—that maybe I have resolved my personal prejudices and do not feel the need to have conversations about issues that I have settled in my mind. And, after all, we have laws to guarantee civil rights and to protect against discrimination—why stir up controversy? But I am not so naïve as to believe that our laws have done away with racial tension in our country, and I also recognize my own need to repent for past ignorance’s. I know that my silence is not helpful or healthy.
Over the last few years I have begun to acknowledge that, as a white American man, I am sensitive about, and mostly avoidant of, the subject of race relations. It seems that my common reaction is to become defensive when someone brings up racism—as though by acknowledging the problem I am somehow degrading myself or my ethnicity. And considering my profession as a mental health counselor, and that I frequently encourage clients to be open about even the most painful subjects, I find my reactions more perplexing and I wonder about the underlying cause of my avoidance of race issues.
Recently I was watching a documentary on the Civil War and was gripped by the narrator’s descriptions of the hardships endured by families living in slavery. I was particularly stunned to learn that many slave couples would change their wedding vows to read, “Till death or distance do us part,” as there was always the possibility that the couple might be forcibly separated by their owner, with no regard for their marriage. As I watched that documentary, I was disturbed by how much I do not know about black history. But I was more disturbed by how little I consider the thoughts and feelings of my African American friends and acquaintances as they relate to that history.
I remember studying about slavery, segregation, and discrimination in school, but even back then my common thinking was, “That’s all in the past,” or “It’s great that we don’t have to worry about that anymore.” I memorized the facts for the tests, or outlined the events of black history in my term papers, but I rarely allowed myself to be touched by the tragedy of our past and the consequences in the present.
Earlier this year, I attended a meeting at work and as we were gathering in the large conference room an African American woman whom I had never met came and sat near me. She looked to be in her mid to late sixties, and as we made small talk I began to think about how her life experiences could have influenced her view of me. In her lifetime, she possibly attended segregated schools, was probably not allowed to eat at certain restaurants, and had surely endured derogatory, racist comments from men who might have looked much like me. She greeted me with warmth and kindness, but was that greeting difficult for her — did I remind her of someone who may have been unkind to her in the past?
At times I have been guilty of rolling my eyes when I would hear the subject of racism on news shows or other media — as if to say, “Here we go again; why can’t everyone just get over it.” But I cannot imagine counseling a client who has endured some sort of trauma and telling them to “get over it.” I am proud of the progress our country has made in the area of civil rights, and I am not suggesting that anyone dwell on the negative, but I do believe that ignoring wounds from the past can be as hurtful or damaging as the initial trauma.
So again the question dogs me: How and why have I managed to dodge the issues and discussions that should be so crucial to racial reconciliation and healing in our country and world? Part of my avoidance (and I do not believe I am alone in this) is born out of shame for the sins of the past, and a feeling of helplessness that comes from not being able to undo those offenses. There is also a fear of disagreement and of being misunderstood — discussing race issues seems to be taboo in some circles, along with other topics to be avoided such as religion and politics. And when racism is viewed on a global scale, it is only natural to have feelings of despair and to question whether an individual can make any real difference.
But I believe I have misunderstood what is needed and what may be most helpful in relating to my neighbors and friends of other races. No one has asked me to find a universal solution to racism in our world, but in my lifetime I have missed many opportunities to simply empathize with others — to try to understand what it is like to be discriminated against because of my color, or to have parents or grandparents who have endured the pains of Jim Crow and the civil rights struggle, and who may still bear scars from those battles.
I no longer want to be ruled by fear when there is an opportunity for me to listen to someone and relate to them as they share their life experience. Though I may not be able to offer easy answers, and may not be able to give immediate relief to their pain, I can offer my presence and attention. And in those moments where I and my neighbor take the risk of being vulnerable, we may both find healing — not in solutions to problems, but in our service to each other. And in doing this, perhaps we’ll be able to carry out what Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
UPDATE ON DEC. 4, 2011: The Kentucky church that voted to ban interracial couples held another vote today to reverse the ban and welcome people of all races.
Personally, I’ve decided I won’t be reading Dr. Banks’ book. I’ve also been trying to avoid reading articles related to it. Why am I treating his book like Kryptonite? After all, I am a 38-year-old single, professional black woman — presumably smack dab in the heart of his target audience. Why wouldn’t I want to read a book about how miserable my life is?
What?Do I sound bitter? Well, I’m really not. I will admit, however, that I am annoyed. But I was annoyed way before Dr. Banks became the latest purveyor of solutions for the single black female.
In December 2009, ABC’s Nightline came to Atlanta, where I live, to interview several single professional black women and ask them why, in spite of their beauty, great personalities, and accomplishments, they just couldn’t find a good man. Cue Beyoncé’s infectious “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” in the background. Comedian Steve Harvey was to the go-to expert for the segment and demonstrated with his streetwise insight why single black women made his first book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, a New York Times bestseller. The segment “went viral,” facilitating the need for Nightline to follow up in April 2010 with a full-fledged and star-powered forum called “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?” It also was held here in Atlanta. A few months later, dating expert, Deborrah Cooper, through her Surviving Dating website, blamed the black church for keeping black women single and lonely. And in May of this year, VH1 debuted its first scripted show, Single Ladies, which is about an interracial group of single women based in … yep, none other than Atlanta. So excuse me while I get from under society’s microscope …
All that being said, what do I actually think of Dr. Banks’ book? First of all, for those who may not have yet to hear about the book, Banks ponders why “nearly 70 percent of black women are unmarried” no matter their socioeconomic status and offers solutions based on about 100 interviews with African Americans. In a Wall Street Journal article adapted from his book, Banks wrote, “I came away convinced of two facts: Black women confront the worst relationship market of any group because of economic and cultural forces that are not of their own making; and they have needlessly worsened their situation by limiting themselves to black men. I also arrived at a startling conclusion: Black women can best promote black marriage by opening themselves to relationships with men of other races.”
In his article, Banks cited the high incarceration of black men as one source of the problem. “More than two million men are now imprisoned in the U.S., and roughly 40 percent of them are African American. At any given time, more than 10 percent of black men in their 20s or 30s — prime marrying ages — are in jail or prison.” Banks also pointed to the inequity of education between some black women and black men as another root of the problem. “There are roughly 1.4 million black women now in college, compared to just 900,000 black men.”
As a result, according to Banks, many black women have opted to “marry down” (i.e. marrying “blue collar” black men) instead of “out” (i.e. professional white men). This, he asserts, may contribute to the alarmingly high divorce rate, as these “white collar” black wives are often incompatible with their “blue collar” black husbands. “Even as divorce rates have declined for most groups during the past few decades, more than half of black marriages dissolve.”
His solution, according to the article: “By opening themselves to relationships with men of other races, black women would … lessen the power disparity that depresses the African American marriage rate. As more black women expanded their options, black women as a group would have more leverage with black men. Even black women who remained unwilling to love across the color line would benefit from other black women’s willingness to do so.”
CONVERSATION STARTER: Author Ralph Richard Banks wants black women to expand their territory.
But back to what I actually think of Banks’ book. First, in all fairness to Dr. Banks, anyone who wants the full picture of what he’s arguing should read the book for herself. I’m sticking with my decision not to read it. I’m simply weary of sifting through this type of information and being assailed by the grim reminder that my chances of finding an eligible black man who meets my standards are severely limited.
Based on my experiences and the experiences of my friends, I think black women should expand their options. But that doesn’t mean they have to give up on being with a black man — educated or otherwise. I have friends who have married black men with a college degree, black men without a college degree, and white men. And I am happy to report all the friends that I’m speaking of are still married. So I believe marriage is for all people, not just white people. But I suspect Dr. Banks knows that already and is simply trying to grab our attention with his provocative title. (Note to Dr. Banks: From one writer to another, you hit it out the park with that title, sir. Cha-ching!)
As for me, my approach to dealing with this “where are all the good men?” dilemma, as well as other quandaries I find myself in, is to trust God and allow Him to speak through the challenges He allows in my life. I thoroughly believe what one of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston, said in her book Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
What orphans need are families who love them. Period. To be adopted into a family and kept at arm’s length or seen as a charity project in what should be your own home sounds disastrous to me. And tragic. Once in a while, I learn of people who have an almost missionary zeal about adoption but truly don’t seem enthusiastic about loving and parenting a child. It seems they have forgotten that the adoption process is just the prologue. When you become a parent by birth or adoption, you begin a very long journey.
UrbanFaith news & religion editor Christine Scheller, herself the white parent of a biracial child, recently spoke to Grant about the challenges of cross-cultural adoption, and why it should never be viewed as a “ministry” project. Listen to excerpts below.
Why adoption isn’t a missionary venture.
The bad economics of international adoption.
The “stares” and becoming aware of racism.
In addition to her book, Jennifer recommends the following resources for those interested in adoption or alternative ways to help needy children and invest in struggling communities around the world.
ADOPTION SERVICES Adoption-Link “provides quality services for all in the adoption triad: birth parents, children and adoptive families. We specialize in domestic and international adoption and humanitarian services for African, African-American, multiracial, HIV+ and other special needs children.”
Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption “exists to be an agent of change in the lives of children in North America waiting to be adopted out of foster care and in the attitudes of adults who, either unknowingly or helplessly, allow children to linger in government systems without the birthright of every child—a safe, loving and permanent family.”
Evan B. Donaldson Foundation provides “leadership that improves adoption laws, policies and practices – through sound research, education and advocacy – in order to better the lives of everyone touched by adoption.”
Show Hope Foundation is “a non-profit organization that mobilizes individuals and communities to meet the most pressing needs of orphans in distress by providing homes for waiting children through adoption aid grants and life-saving medical care for orphans with special needs.”
HUMANITARIAN RELIEF AND DEVELOPMENT Action Internationalis “a global mission agency committed to sending multi-national missionaries who treasure Jesus Christ and minister His Gospel in word and deed, primarily to the poor. Missionaries serve street children in Latin American countries by rescuing abandoned children, working to reunite children with relatives. They also work to develop a foster care network rooted in local churches and to support needy families.”
Chikumbuso “serves hundreds of people impacted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic by providing refuge for abused children, job training for widows and single mothers, and education for hundreds of orphaned children.”
Saddleback Church Orphan Care Connection provides “meaningful ways for every person to engage in caring for orphans through local churches at home and around the world. If you’re exploring adoption or foster care internationally or domestically, we’re ready to serve you.”
World Vision is “a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.”
Raising one half-African son and one of mixed European descent posed both ordinary and unique parenting challenges for my husband and me. What was best for one child was not necessarily best for the other. Often, competing concerns led to less than ideal decisions. This is true for all parents, but it is uniquely so for white parents raising children of a different race.
Education presented a particular challenge.
Our boys, Gabriel and Michael, began elementary school in my affluent hometown, which had a school system described by our regional newspaper as the closest thing to private school available in local public education. If they had grown up there, they would have benefited from a great program of academics, but little ethnic diversity. Gabriel would have had to face puberty and touchy dating issues without the benefit of African American role models to help him navigate the landmines. In kindergarten, he was already facing juvenile bigotry from a peer or two. If we raised him in one of the few racially diverse communities in our area, he might fit in better, but would attend schools with less impressive educational outcomes. And, besides, there really was no guarantee that he and Mike would be accepted by their peers. Their cultural DNA was solidly middle-class, white and suburban. Michael’s sensitive temperament also made it unlikely that he would prosper in a high-stress environment.
My husband and I sought the Lord and weighed the issues carefully. After much prayer, investigation and discussion, we moved our family to a community that is diverse on multiple planes: economic, ethnic, racial, and religious. When we lived there it was equal parts white, black, and brown; Christian and Jewish; wealthy, middle class, working class, and impoverished. The schools could provide a decent education we navigated them well.
There was a stellar band program, for example, that began in elementary school and sometimes ended with performances at New York Yankees playoff games. There were also magnet schools that ensured integration and nurtured children’s unique potential. Conversely there were more discipline problems and less support for average students than for those who excelled or lagged behind. Michael was an average student.
In New Jersey, education funding is dependent on property taxes. High property values lead to superior resources. In our new hometown, resources were scarce. Creative financing sometimes closed the gap. For example, when students were classified with educational challenges, the school system received extra funding. Thus, many more students were “classified” than might be elsewhere. Creative funding came at a price, though. Such students were labeled early and taught separately in the same classroom as other students and teachers facing multiple sources of distraction.
I’ve often thought that if my husband had been black, we would have raised our sons in my hometown. It was small and idyllic. Both boys would have received a stellar academic foundation and Gabe would have had a role model at home to help him deal with identity issues. As it was, my husband and I were clueless about basics like what to do about his “ashy skin” or where to get him a decent hair cut. Living in a diverse community solved a lot of everyday problems and allowed us to develop socially and biblically responsible attitudes about race that we might not have otherwise developed. Still, there were costs.
Michael was in third grade when his teacher seated him between the three most disruptive students in her class. She told me she was using him as a buffer because she knew he wouldn’t be drawn into their behavior. I was finishing college at the time, and as I pondered the fact that I was pursuing higher education while my child was struggling for an elementary one, I decided that I could not continue allowing him to flounder in a sub-standard situation. The only private schools nearby were either too expensive or sectarian, so my husband and I made the monumental decision to home-school him –something we had never before envisioned. Gabriel was excelling in the “Gifted and Talented” magnet program at the time. Within two weeks of beginning to home-school Michael, Gabe asked to be home-schooled as well. We agreed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the “Gifted” education was brimming with creativity but lean on basics.
I home-schooled Gabe and Mike through eighth grade and then they returned to public school. Culture shock from being out of sync with current fads may have been more of a challenge than any race discomfort either of them had previously faced. It was short lived though. The summer before Gabriel’s senior year and Michael’s sophomore year, we decided to go on a grand adventure and moved to Southern California. The boys bounced through a couple schools until we finally settled on a public school that was similar in ethnic and economic make-up to their diverse hometown.
One would have thought from our earlier experiences that we would have had the good sense to intentionally seek out racially diverse secondary and higher education. But, instead we slipped back into a white suburban lifestyle without really trying or noticing. Perhaps we assumed the job of diversity training and identity building was done. Perhaps it was done to such a degree that our children no longer meshed with their suburban peers. With the move, I was eager to make up for lost academic ground. When it came to college, my husband and I shared the concerns of many Christian parents that our sons’ education stretch and reinforce their faith rather than chip away at it.
Gabriel, who was a member of the National Honor Society, chose a competitive Christian college in the Midwest. Without giving much thought to the fact that Christian colleges tend to have low minority enrollment, we sent him halfway across the country. For the first time since kindergarten, he faced overt racism both among the student body and in the surrounding community. What bothered him more than fried chicken jokes and his inability to find an off-campus job was the apathy of his Christian peers when it came to systemic racial injustice. Because of his history of educational upheaval, he chose to slug it out there for four years. And I do mean slug it out. He struggled academically and socially, but was also a provocative campus voice regarding race issues.
I wish we had understood Gabriel’s continued need for an educational environment that was as supportive of his unique humanity as it was of his academic potential and Christian faith. By the time he graduated in 2007, we did understand and were making plans to move from Orange County, California, to Long Beach, a more diverse community. Gabe died tragically before we could make that move. I wrote about his death and my family’s ongoing journey through grief in a recent issue of Christianity Today.
It’s a cliché to say that hindsight is 20/20, so instead of outlining what I would do differently if I had it to do over again, I offer this advice to parents whose children are a different race from them:
1. Do not underestimate your child’s need to connect with and affirm their identity, especially as he or she begins to approach adulthood.
2. Recognize that part of your child’s inner struggle very well may be your lack of awareness. They may lash out at you and/or romanticize their absent heritage. They love those who’ve loved and nurtured them, but need room to grow into their unique selves. Their perspective on life will be fundamentally different from yours — as it is for all children, but especially for them. This is something to encourage and celebrate.
3. I do not suggest that every family raising a child of a different race pick up roots and move to an integrated community or join an integrated church (obviously, this will not be possible for everyone). Despite the negatives, for us, having done so was one of the best parenting decisions we ever made.
4. What I do suggest, however, is that you take your child’s racial identity (and difference) seriously and that you become a lifelong learner yourself.
Throughout his life, Gabriel was educating us simply by his experience in and of the world. That we did not see our own convictions about diversity through to the end of our parenting responsibility is something I regret. It was only after my Gabriel died and I was reflecting back on his funeral that I realized the only racially integrated element it included was the presence of his eulogists and friends. In the midst of our shock and grief, we didn’t think of Gabe as an African American man, but as a son. He was both.