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My experience with racism and prejudice

I recently discovered that my adopted 9-year-old Sudanese-American daughter had been called a “gorilla” at school.  It broke my heart.  Trying to assume the best of people (especially young kids), I got the impression that the boy who said this spoke out of ignorance and not out of hate. That kind of comment still hits a young child’s heart in a bad way and will have a cumulative effect over time as ignorance and hate express themselves.   I posted the experience from a father’s point of view on Facebook and the response has been pretty intense. One response that prompts me to write some more on this topic was this comment by a sister in Christ: “I wish more Caucasians would speak up on this issue.” OK. I’ll speak up some more. I’d be glad to. Maybe others will too! As a white guy I sometimes think, “Do I have the right to speak on this issue?” Apparently, I don’t just have the right, but my brothers and sisters want me to speak up! Here goes.

Whiteness in Sunny California

I was raised in Sunnyvale, California for 18 years. Great town. Great schools, parks, sports, and a low crime rate. Middle Class through and through. Nearby towns of Palo Alto, Los Altos, Cupertino, and Los Gatos were even nicer, so somehow I felt like we were “blessed” but that others had it better. Having lived in various places across the US since, my understanding has changed. We had it “really good.” Those nearby places were really rich, and we were just less rich.

I had cognitive dissonance at my elementary school, however. That’s a fancy phrase for saying, “I was uncomfortable in a confused kind of way.” I loved school, particularly for the opportunity to play sports at recess with friends, and at PE time. I did well in class, for that was the expectation, but sitting still was not my thing. At recess time (they had a lot of recess in those days) we all got out there. We competed in everything from soccer, to kick ball, to tether ball, to basketball, and football. Now here’s where I felt uncomfortable-in-a-confused-kind-of-way: At recess I looked out on the hundreds of kids playing and I only saw one black person, Mike Davis. One. Out of hundreds of kids. I’d estimate 8-10 Latinos, maybe, attended the school, but my memory is not as exact on that front.

But when there is “one” and only “one” African-American, well that’s kind of noticeable. And, it was kind of disturbing for a little kid. Why is there just one? The teachers are nice, the people are nice; what’s wrong with this school that we have just one black student here? I knew as a youngster that there were many more white people than black people in the US. I also knew that people attended school based on their neighborhoods, so that meant there was likely one black family in all of the surrounding neighborhoods near the school. One. “What does this mean?” I asked myself. Here is my childhood reasoning regarding the possibilities for this discrepancy:

  1. Black people are afraid to live in these neighborhoods with all us white people. Or they just don’t want to. Or maybe white people don’t want them to. If so, that’s not cool.
  2. Black people can’t afford to live in these neighborhoods with us white people. If so, that’s not cool. Why wouldn’t they have just as good of jobs as white people? The San Francisco Forty-Niner Willie Harper moved into a neighborhood near our school a little later. Does a black person have to be a pro athlete to live in this neighborhood? What’s going on? This is crazy.
  3. I’m no expert, but I got the strong feeling that the fault for this lies with the white men that came before me. Something got screwed up. The show “Roots” came out when I was 7. I watched some of it. I started to put two and two together on how “that” still affects us today. I got this feeling in my gut that my ancestors screwed something up and that maybe I might need to be part of some solution in the future. It seemed to me that if the white people broke something then maybe the white people ought to fix it. Common sense is easier when we’re 7, ya know?

One Black Friend

For good or for bad, those were the thoughts of a childhood boy in the burbs. Now here’s the only cool part of this chapter. Mike was awesome. Mike played sports with us and we had a great time! I never saw him made fun of or excluded in 4 years together at that school. (I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but I didn’t see it.) Mike was one of the guys. It felt right to have a black friend. America is a melting pot, so shouldn’t we be melted together? It just didn’t feel right that there wasn’t more diversity. It felt like there were forces at play that were dark in nature.   Exclusive in nature.

Recently, I got in contact with Mike Davis through Facebook. I was super eager to know “what he felt” in our 99% white community growing up. I asked Mike, “remember me?” He said, “You are the guy I threw my only touchdown pass to in the 5th grade!” Well, I was taller than everyone else! We had a good chat and I asked him straightforwardly about how he felt being the lone black kid on the playground and if he experienced grief and a feeling of exclusion or separateness because of it. He told me that he had a good experience in elementary school, and can’t recall anything negative there, but that the racial stuff hit later on in middle school. It was great to catch up with him and hear that he is doing well in life. It was sad to hear that racial hurt began in middle school.

Well, knowing Mike was a blessing as a kid. I knew one black guy, and he was great! But the fact that I knew only one black guy haunted me. What was the reason for this? My middle school experience was much more diverse, thank heaven. Truth be told, a rival middle school was closed and the two were merged. For the first time I experienced sitting behind Jerry Curls dripping on Members-Only jackets, break-dancing on cardboard, and a host of other wonderful cultural experiences. Now this was living! I loved my more-diverse middle school! It still wasn’t as integrated as it could have been, but what an improvement!

Alas, with re-drawn lines for high school, I went to a mostly white school with some Asians, a few Latinos and an extremely few blacks in one of those “nicer-than-ours” cities. It was a good school but that uncomfortable-confused feeling returned. Why aren’t there more Latino and black families in this neighborhood? Are blacks and Latinos excluded in the marketplace from getting good enough jobs to afford this neighborhood? If so, that’s messed up! What’s going on in my society?

God in a Black Brother

Fast forward to UCLA in 1990. I’m in a fraternity with mostly white kids (I joined to impress my girlfriend at the time). In my pledge class we had a great young black student. I believe there were one or two more in the whole fraternity, so 2-3 out of 120 or so guys. Spiritually, I began to seek God. I became a Study of Religion major in hopes of finding God. A young black student my age (Darius Simmons) tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to a Bible study group at his place. At that moment, my life was about to change. I would go on to study the Bible with him and become a Christian. Everything I’ve done since that meeting was completely affected by that one pivotal moment in time. Here are the thoughts that I can reconstruct at that very pivotal moment about Darius:

  1. You are friendly. I like your spirit.
  2. You seem like you have a strong faith. I’m impressed. My faith stinks right now, and I could use some help. You are offering to help me? Thank you! I can’t believe you just walked up to a stranger and shared about God. I’d be terrified to do that.
  3. You are black. I’d love to learn from a black person. I’m still confused about how black people seem to be so excluded in so many ways in our society. Maybe you could help me figure that out. You want to be friends with a white guy? Are you sure? I’m glad you’re black. Let’s do this. I’m guessing you’ve overcome some things in your life based on your race. I need some help overcoming a bunch of stuff in mine.

Darius was used by God to save my soul, and we remain good friends to this day. Praise God for the inter-racial fellowship I became a part of there at UCLA. I briefly had an inter-racial relationship (boyfriend-girlfriend) that I won’t go into but suffice it to say we had some very painful experiences. We broke up for spiritual incompatibility, not racial issues, and remain friends in the fellowship. Neither of us would have backed off the relationship for racial reasons.

An Opportunity to Suffer for the Sins of My Fathers

After college I taught for 3 ½ years in a 65% black/34% Latino middle school in a rough part of Southern California. The school was poor. They had no air conditioning (with temps at 90-100 degrees in September), and no after school sports or music programs. Class size was terrible, averaging 40-42 students per class. Many of the middle school students didn’t come to 7th or 8th grade with their times tables memorized. The “promotion” rate was as high as the “graduation” rate. Fights were extremely common. Many kids were being raised by very young single moms, a grandparent, or foster parents. I began to see upfront what some of the issues are in our society.  I-N-E-Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y.

My heart went out to the students. It was the fight of my life to reach them. Many of the students took their frustrations from life out on me. Many of the black students especially hated me as a white teacher. I was called a lot of white slurs in very creative ways. I’m no saint (just ask my bride), but my heart was stirred working at this school as I recalled my childhood elementary school. I wanted to lay down my life for these kids. I wanted to suffer for them. I wanted their frustrations towards their lives and the system they found themselves in to come out. I was willing to bear their pain and their insults. In some way I felt I deserved it. The sins of my fathers (not my own personal ones) needed atoning. I felt it incredibly unfair that I was raised under wonderful conditions, a great school, and a strong community in comparison with what I was witnessing. If they want to hate “the man,” then I felt like they could go ahead and take it out on me. I wanted to show them that this guy may be white, but that he won’t give up, attack back, or stop trying to reach them. I strove to return curses with blessings, and most importantly, to love. Jesus refined me daily in these fires.

All of my favorite experiences at that school involved trying to win over kids that gave me the hardest time or hated me the most. My faith was so fresh! I believed the love of God could wear down anybody. One of my 8th grade black students put up quite a battle towards me for many months. One day I got an idea. Tiger Woods had become all the rage in golf in the 90’s and I had started to play. This young guy (an athlete) who was battling me had an interest in the game since Tiger made it look so cool. But he had never played. I told him to ask permission from his mother to stay after school the next day because I was going to take him golfing. He was stunned! We played 9 holes at a small course near by and this kid’s smile went from ear to ear the whole time. What a thrill it was to watch him! Do I have to tell you that this young lad gave me no trouble the rest of the year? We had a special connection moving forward. Love wins. Oh, how I loved to try to win people over! It didn’t always work, of course, but I laid it all out there.

Years later in Arkansas I taught at an all-black high school for a year. The school was not in an all-black area, however. There was quite a bit of white-flight. Several Little Rock high schools were all or mostly black at that time for the same reason. I encountered improved white slurs at that high school but set out to win over and build connections once again.  Loving people is fun. Loving people that hate you is even more fun. Really hard, but fun. I gave the kids the best I had and was able to connect once again with some of the strongest white-guy haters. It is a powerful feeling to break down walls. I can never shake that feeling from my elementary school playground that this racial division thing just shouldn’t be that way… and that it would take a lot of love and a willingness to suffer in order to change things.

A History-Altering Phone Call

Fast forward to 2009. Keri and I decided to embrace a marriage-long dream to adopt. We submitted all of our paperwork (Keri submitted it actually. She’s amazing! There’s a LOT of paperwork.) to become foster-to-adopt parents. We put in for any race child, nearly any situation in terms of health, ages 0-7. After obtaining our license in January, we got a call on Friday, May 29th at 10 am saying they had an African-American baby boy that needed a home.   Now this is foster-to-adopt, so you have to foster for months or years before possible adoption becomes available. I was a little shocked they were placing a black baby with us white folk; I was kind of expecting maybe a Latino baby given our really pale skin tones. But, hey, we’re good – bring that lil baby over!

Two hours later they said, “Oops, it’s a girl. An African-American girl.” Keri holds the phone and calls across the room, “Hey, actually the baby is a girl, an African-American girl.” Now, how do you get that wrong, I’m thinking? I reason for like 2 milliseconds, “Well, we were leaning towards wanting a baby boy given having two girls already, but hey, we got the bikes and clothes and such for girls, and this is a baby, so that’s great!” “Honey, bring her over!” That afternoon 3-day-old Nylah was placed on our kitchen counter with some formula and the next chapter began.

Our journey with Nylah has been great. When we are out and about, she gets a million compliments on her beauty from people of all colors. Truthfully, the contrast in our skin colors brings her a lot of positive attention. She has VERY high self-esteem. There are some super painful parts too. Any adoptive kid longs to see themselves in their parents and this is more difficult for her given the wide gap in our appearances. We have just recently become engaged in getting to know many of Nylah’s birth family so we are hoping this piece of the puzzle will be filled in.

God’s Eye-Opening Stages

There are lots of other stories I can share, but I fear I may have reached your listening limit. In summary, my main points are these:

  1. God used a mostly-white school situation (and “Roots” I think) to convince me as a young boy that something is wrong racially in our world. It produced in me a strong desire to be part of the healing process.
  2. God used an African-American man to save both my soul and my life from where it was headed. It’s hard to put into words, but you just get a feeling about certain people. When I met Darius, I just had this feeling that something right was happening right there. And, something “really right” did!
  3. God placed an African-American child in our family to do something special in her life and in ours, and to bring Glory to Himself. How this will all play out, I don’t know. We know pain will be part of the process, but we believe there will also be joy in the morning. We are trying not to be naïve. We realize the hardest parts of being an inter-racial family are still ahead. We believe that God loves to break down walls between peoples even though it will come at a cost.

In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it (Isaiah 2:2).

And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9).”