Dropping the Soap for Charleston

soapI have long suspected that I may be a passive or cultural racist.

There, I said it. I understand that this particular confession may smell like some gratuitous, well timed, over baked click bait, but it happens to be true. Not only do I think this about myself, I suspect – to some varying degree – that feelings akin to this reside in most people in my particular demographic. Furthermore, I believe that the painful wound that continues to divide our society into the polarized camps of “us” and “them” will remain open until we allow ourselves to shamelessly flesh out and dissect the truthful essence of these feelings. If we hope to heal, we must share without reservation our personal truths. So, in the aching aftermath of South Carolina’s recent terror attack, here is my truth.

First, because at my spirit’s core is the soul of a playwright, I will begin by sharing an apt quote from one of my chosen church’s many sacred tomes.

Avenue Q, Act I: Song 6.

“Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes.

(It) doesn’t mean we go 
around committing hate crimes.

Look around and you will find

no one’s really color blind.

Maybe it’s a fact we all should face.

Everyone makes judgments
 based on race.”

Ah me, out of the mouths of puppets.

I remember as a young man, I shared a very similar sentiment with a friend of mine – albeit sans the witty rhyme and meter. I hypothesized with my friend that our growing up years must have instilled in us – if not bigotry – in the very least a skewed perception of African-Americans; a type of passive or cultural racism perhaps. We were after all reared in a starkly blanched suburb of Los Angeles; in the lily-white, Proctor and Gamble, era of commercialism. In the bicentennial decade, the mostly segregated television lineup included: Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Sanford and Son, and Good Times. There were of course a few additional shows with more diverse casts: All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons. Even these seemingly more progressive programs, however, still portrayed a Black America that was struggling for acceptance and equality. Somehow these people were clearly not us. They were different. Disenfranchised.

In addition, my friend and I were both in school during the height of forced integration and witnessed inner city kids mysteriously arriving and leaving our neighborhoods by the busload everyday. Tanner Colby talks in depth about the grand farce of desegregation in his 2014 article, The Massive Liberal Failure on Race: How the Left’s Embrace of Busing Hurt the Cause of Integration. “And if you’re going to look at where the left went wrong in repairing the sins of Jim Crow, you have to start at the beginning, with the squandering of the greatest liberal victory of all: the 1954 Supreme Court decision meant to put an end to segregated schools, Brown v. Board of Education.” I personally don’t recall anyone explaining busing to me back then. At the time I think I just assumed that those kids needed something that was not being afforded them in their own neighborhoods, a decent education. As it turns out, we were living in the messy backwash of a great tidal wave of social injustice. In retrospect, the ultimate irony of course is that we were all, regardless of race or zip code, being subject to the same inferior Los Angeles Unified School District tutelage. We were learning precious little, and even less than that about the significant history that had caused us to be sitting in those “integrated” classrooms.

Anyway, I remember that I shared many of these observations with my friend at the time. I also recall that my theory of some unavoidable, implicit, passive racism was countered by her saying that she had absolutely no feelings of engendered prejudiced toward anyone at all. So there. Perhaps, then I thought, it was just me who was sensing some kind of engendered racial divide.

I recalled this long ago conversation with my friend just the other day when I was watching This Week with George Stephanopoulis. Martha Raddatz was interviewing writer/professor Jelani Cobb about the shootings in South Carolina.

RADDATZ: You also write, “The fact that Dylann Roof appears to have acted without accomplices will inevitably be taken as solace. He will be dismissed as a deranged loner, connected to nothing broader. This is untrue. Even if he acted by himself, he was not alone.”

COBB: Right. You know, he — there is a tradition of this and, so, we look at the history of this country and we understand that there’s a great deal of terrorism that, you know, has been — has taken place since the foundation of it and that African-Americans have been on the receiving end of that terror. And so he is part of a lineage and part of a tradition that is deeply rooted in American history. And so we can’t — even if he acted alone, he’s standing on the shoulders of the people who committed atrocities before him.

“Even if he acted by himself, he was not alone.” Cobb’s words struck me, and their impact stayed. His reference to Roof standing on the shoulders of the people who committed atrocities before him somehow prompted me to haul out and reexamine my dusty, adolescent theory about the possibility of some inherent, passive racism that might reside in me. Was I in any way complicit?

My hunch is that by this point in my sharing you may be screaming White Guilt to anyone unlucky enough to be in earshot. Admittedly, that may be a partially accurate accusation. I am Catholic after all, and as such I am highly susceptible to self-reproach in any situation. In addition, my deep-seated need to suffer makes me shotgun trigger-happy to assume some amount of responsibility at all times. For example, in the late 60s the Cub Scouts taught me how to make fire with nothing more than a stick and string, and just three decades prior to that the Hindenburg went down in flames.

Yes, I joke, however I know that at some level my religious dysfunction intersects with my suspicion about the existence – in me and in America – of a dangerous and corrosive, passive type of racism. After all, I sit by in a country that proclaims liberty and justice for all, separation of church and state, and a litany of other truths that are promoted as self-evident. And yet with all of that – or more to the point, because of all of that – I continue to tolerate the existence of political debates that try to justify our reverence for symbols of hatred; our communal hand in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and our ratified withholding of basic rights from select individuals.

Freakin’ A, we are a complicated lot. And when it comes to the subject of race, we seem to be more confused and conflicted than ever.

Case in point: there was a recent controveaffleckrsy surrounding the PBS series, Finding Your Roots. The show uses the lure of celebrity lineage to elucidate interesting facts about history. Research for one particular episode apparently uncovered information that some of Ben Affleck’s relatives were slave owners. Affleck subsequently used his Hollywood clout to see that the slave reference was excised from the final cut. The incident came to light after the show’s producer was called on the carpet for caving to the movie star’s pressure. Affleck eventually addressed the controversy on Facebook by posting, “I was embarrassed.” He went on to explain that “the very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”

I understand Affleck’s feelings of shame. And, as a gay, HIV-positive, fallen Catholic, I can easily relate to his desire to conveniently edit the truth. But these are exactly the conversations about race and history that the America needs to be having. They are imperative. The very long arc of our healing process demands it.

I also believe that the embarrassment that Affleck spoke of may be more than simply White Guilt, but actually a connection to what I refer to here as a passive or cultural racism. I had very similar feelings not long ago when I was dropping my son off at preschool and he requested that I read to him a certain book.

You see, we have a daily ritual at drop-off time: we read two books, share three hugs and three kisses, and then wave goodbye through the classroom windows. On this particular day, my son handed me two books to read: Once upon a Potty by Alona Frankel, and The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. by Johnny Ray Moore. I was very familiar with the edge of your seat drama involving Prudence and the gift of her new porcelain potty, but the MLK book was one I had never seen. The heavy cardboard pages made me believe that it belonged in a preschool classroom, and indeed Barnesandnoble.com has it listed for a 3-5 age group.

We got through to the (happy poop in its proper place) ending of Once Upon a Potty, and then I began reading The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. The narrative started off in an uplifting and engaging way – a story about a little boy who loves school and wants to please his teachers – but it quickly tuned into a conflicted tale of an angry child who was only permitted to drink from a certain water fountain. D’oh. I quickly found myself beginning to edit as we went. I would scan each page and then share select portions, or skip sections altogether. I found myself reading in an unusually hushed tone so that his teachers would not be able to hear my seat-of-the-pants censorship. We reached the end – thankfully – and I continued to bid my son goodbye in the usual way. We waved to each other at the window and I watched him turn and integrate himself into the rainbow demographic of his toddler classroom. Standing there, I felt both thankful and ill equipped.

Yes, an argument can be made that the subject matter in that pre-K MLK book was a little advanced for a three-year-old, but it is important to note that my editing of it in the moment was spurred by a number of personal feelings; among them embarrassment, shame, and a desire to protect my son from an unfortunate truth about an unyielding national injury. I was not, and, in many ways, I am still not prepared to expose him to those wounds in me – in all of us. It is an ongoing conundrum for a father like me who preaches the power and importance of truth and transparency.

A few weeks after the MLK censorship incident, one of my son’s teachers brought to my attention a specific book that he seemed to enjoy more than the others. In particular she said that there was a passage that referred to a child having two dads, and that every time it was read my son would smile. I was elated to hear that they were including stories of diversity. The teacher offered to let us borrow the book for that night’s bedtime reading, and I have since purchased it for our home Library.

The book (and song),same voice We All Sing with the Same Voice by J. Phillip Miller and Sheppard M. Green, could be construed – especially in the wake of the Charleston shootings – as a grand and beautiful lie. The book begins, “My hair is black and red. My hair is yellow. My eyes are brown and green and blue. My name is Jack and Fred. My name’s Amanda Sue. I’m called Kareem Abdu. My name is you.” And later a repeating verse comes in, “We all sing with the same voice, the same song, the same voice. We all sing with the same voice, and we sing in harmony.”

Side by side on the shelf, the real life story of MLK would clearly seem to be a far more honest read than the Pollyanna, It’s a Small World slop of We All Sing. But here is how I justify – at least for now – the inclusion of one and the censorship of the other. Song. For me, the message of the latter is that in music there exists a transcendent, connective magic that ultimately has the power to unite and help us heal.

A cop out? Maybe so, but for now, it’s all I’ve got. My truth.

So, while the city of Charleston mourns this week, and we all grapple for understanding and fight to move on, I will continue to examine my greater connection and my personal culpability – passive,cultural, or otherwise – as it relates to America’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with what seems to be our growing racial discord.

I will also do my best to educate and arm myself to address the hard-hitting questions that will undoubtedly be asked of me by my son. For example, when he wants to know why I felt the need to shield him early on from the story of one of our greatest civil rights leaders, I will apologize for my shortcomings and once again haul out my dusty, convoluted theory about a dangerous, and pervasive passive racism. And when he calls me on the carpet for my ridiculous assertion about the transcendent and connective power of song, I will march him straight down to Broadway and subject him to every glorious musical on the holy boards. One of which will undoubtedly still be this sacrosanct gem:

Les Miserables, Act One: Song 6.

“There was a time when men were kind

When their voices were soft

And their words inviting

There was a time when love was blind

And the world was a song

And the song was exciting

There was a time

Then it all went wrong

I dreamed a dream in time gone by

When hope was high

And life worth living

I dreamed that love would never die

I dreamed that God would be forgiving.”

Ah me, out of the mouths of whores.

And a son will watch with embarrassment as his father openly weeps.

God bless you. God bless Charleston. And God bless America.