While I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital, her daughter’s pastor, a prominent African-American pastor, also made a visit.
We were making small talk, the kind pastors generally make during a hospital visit, and I asked Pastor McCormick how long he had been in in Alaska.
“My family came here in 1944,” he said. I knew that during that time a lot of African-American soldiers were sent to Alaska to work on the Alaska-Canadian highway. “So your dad was in the military,” I said.
“No, we came up to homestead,” he answered.
“That’s funny,” I thought. “I didn’t know that Black people homesteaded.” Fortunately for the situation I did not say that out loud, because I would have greatly embarrassed my parishioner.
It was not only a stupid thing to think, it was out and out racist.
I certainly did not mean any harm in what I thought—in fact, as soon as I thought it I knew it was NOT something I should say out loud. And if I had, I am also sure that Pastor McCormick would have been gracious in his response, because he had a great soul within him.
But that is not the point. It was still a racist statement, even though I meant no harm by it. Not all racism is intentional hurtful. I don’t have to hate people of color to be racist. I just have to be ignorant and prejudiced, and in this case, I was. Of course African-Americans can homestead, and many did. In fact, the Homestead Act of 1862 was updated in 1872, and it explicitly stated that there could be no distinction “on account of race or color.” (Revised Statutes of The United States, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (1873), Sec. 2302, 424.)
Racist speech is not always hate speech. Sometimes it is just ignorant speech. When I assumed, wrongly, that all the homesteaders had to be white, I was making an ignorant assumption. It would be easy to write this off by saying I didn’t mean any harm, and that would be true. But how often do we have to write off ignorance?
Why did I assume all homesteaders were white? I have only seen pictures of white homesteaders, so it is understandable that I assumed all homesteaders were white.
History has a pervasive sense of being whitewashed, showing only the dominate culture and our story. For example, around one fourth of all cowboys in the Old West were Black. It is possible that the term “cowboy” was a derogatory term for Black cowhands. Given those odds, you would think that Black people might show up in movies about the Old West. But does John Wayne ever deal with people of color in any of his movies? From Hollywood’s perspective the only people of color in the Wild West were Native Americans, and their portrayal was hardly historically accurate.
I said earlier that my belief about homesteaders stemmed from ignorance. I like to think that I am a broad-minded, fairly educated person. Yet I have this huge lack of knowledge. Prior to writing this article I had never heard of Claudette Colvin, Onesimus, Bass Reeves, Esther Jones, Bayard Rustin, or Bessie Coleman. (And to be honest, I still don’t know a lot about these people.)
But it is more than that. How many books do I own written by people of color? (And I have A LOT of books!) How many histories have I read that feature people of color in a prominent way—or that feature them at all? I am a pastor, and I own a bevy of books concerning theology and religion. And how many of them are written by people of color? Probably less than one percent. (Even the majority of books I have on Buddhism were written by White Americans.)
Whether I want to admit or not, I live in a very White bubble. And I know I am not alone in that bubble.
Now at this point I could say, “If you find yourself in that same White bubble, then go find a person of color and have them educate you.” But I am not. Let me make this clear. It is not THEIR job to educate you. You’re probably a pretty smart person. You have the wherewithal to educate yourself, at least to some extent, on these issues. A lot of it just means you keep your eyes and ears open, and you listen a lot more than you speak. So how to you hear people of other cultures?
For me that means starting at my bookshelf. To be honest, I am not sure what comes after that. Along the way I hope to meet with a variety of people who can open my world, but if I am making friends with people of color because I feel guilty about living in my white bubble, then I am only using them.
So I am going to start by making my reading more multi-cultural. I am going to start with Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a small start, but it’s a start. I plan to have at least every third book I read be something that takes me out of the comfort zone of my cultural bubble.
I also want to issue a challenge and a request. What bubble are you in? You may not think you are, but I didn’t either when I made the remark about homesteading. The challenge is to figure out what bubble you are in, and then find a way out of it. There are many different ways of doing that. I am starting with my library. I realized, while writing this, just how White it is. You may want to follow suit, or maybe join a Facebook group where people of color write about their issues. Perhaps you can find an ethnic restaurant where you are the minority, and go there enough to get to know the owner and other patrons. I have known people who changed churches so then can deepen their understanding of other people.
What can you do to expand your world? I am looking for suggestions that we can all share and benefit from. I can post what I am reading, and I welcome other’s suggestions, but also more than just reading. What can we DO to get us out of our bubbles?
Please, if you find something that works, share it with the rest of us! That includes activities, reading lists, and those “aha” moments like I had with Pastor Otis.
People of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your bubble!
Readers will notice that I go back and forth between the terms Black and African-American. That is also a part of my own lack of knowledge. I have heard both terms used by people of color, and to be honest, am not sure which is preferable these days.