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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Are We Really a Colorblind Society?

My husband has always said that if I ever came home from preaching and announced that my children's sermon went really well, he'd want to know who I was and what I'd done with his wife.  I'm horrible at children's sermons.  Really.  Really.  Horrible.

But I came home from preaching this past Sunday, and announced that my children's sermon went really well.  As promised, he demanded to know who I was and what I'd done with Karen.

I was using the day's passage from Ephesians as my inspiration: Ephesians 2:11-22, to be exact.  It's basically talking about how those who were outside the covenant have been brought in because of Christ, and that all who have been brought together in Christ are now one, with all former hostilities replaced by peace and reconciliation.  A nice passage on unity and equality before God.

I called the kids up to the chancel area where they took their usual seats on the step I fell off of a few weeks ago (yes, it was embarrassing), and then I stood facing them.  I called the assisting minister over to stand next to me, and I asked the kids to name everything they noticed that was different between Gary and me.  They had a bit of an advantage because in deference to the high heat and humidity--and lack of air conditioning--I'd used my pastoral authority to place a temporary ban on albs, so the only 'uniform' in sight was my tabbed clerical blouse.  They noticed that I was wearing a black shirt and his was blue, and they noticed that I was a girl and he was a boy.  They noticed our different shoes, different hair, and even though we both wore glasses, they noticed that our glasses were different styles (that's some pretty decent observation!).

Next I called our two acolytes to come and stand in front of the kids, and asked them what differences they saw between those two, or between any of the four of us.  I was the only girl, the acolytes were younger than me and Gary, they had different hair, and I was the shortest one standing (yes, both acolytes were taller than me).  But none of the kids called out the biggest difference between the two acolytes, the whole reason I'd dragged them (without warning them first) into this demonstration.

No one observed that one had black skin and one had white skin.

I finally named that difference once the kids had run out of observations, then asked what all four of us had in common.  When they couldn't come up with anything, that's when I launched into my lesson about how we're all beloved children of God and all those differences they'd observed don't matter, and that we're all one family in Christ.  Then I prayed a little prayer thanking God for the diversity he'd created, asking for help in seeing everyone as our brothers and sisters, then I sent then back to their seats and went on with my 'real' sermon.

But I was troubled by the fact that no one called out skin color as a difference.  Was it that they truly didn't recognize it as a difference?  Or was it that none of them dared say it, because such a recognition is politically incorrect and socially unacceptable these days?

As much as there's a part of me that wants to believe the former, I can't quite convince myself of that.  In the context of the conversation, there were no value judgments being made.  They were observant enough to notice that the frames of Gary's glasses were metal wire, and mine were black plastic.  Every other conceivable difference was observed.  I just don't believe that the fact that one had the white skin of his northern European ancestors and the other had the black skin of his African birth (yes, he and his family just came to the US about two years ago) escaped those powers of observation.

So that leaves me with the belief that they noticed, but didn't want to say it.  And it wasn't just a bunch of white kids not wanting to point out the sole black kid in their midst; one of the things I really like about this church is that it is fairly diverse.  On that particular morning both acolytes had younger siblings who had come up for the children's sermon, plus there were a couple of other black kids not related to the acolyte, and a few of Asian and Latino heritage.  Caucasian was still the majority, but barely.

Why wouldn't these kids acknowledge racial differences, even in a nonjudgmental, strictly observational way?

I understand that prejudice is taught, and that young children don't respond to racial differences any more than they respond to differences in eye color unless (until) they see others responding differently.  But they do notice.  One woman in my congregation was telling me about her son--when he was much younger--playing in the sandbox with an African American neighbor.  He saw that the boy's skin was much darker than his own, and examined his own feet and legs to see if the sand was turning his skin brown, too.  He wasn't concerned; just curious.  I also understand that frequently when people talk about racial differences, it isn't in a strictly nonjudgmental, observational way.

But is it a good idea to make the subject entirely taboo?

I have trouble believing that pretending something doesn't exist is the way to honor the diversity God created.  Hair, eyes, and skin come in all colors.  People have different experiences and cultural traditions, and sometimes skin color plays a part in those experiences and traditions.  Pretending those differences don't exist and pretending we're all the same dilutes the richness of this creation, and robs us of the opportunity to better understand one another.  Because if we can't ask questions, we're left to make up our own answers, and that can lead to worse prejudices, or at least awkward misunderstandings.

I was never a big fan of Seinfeld, but there was one episode in which Elaine spent the entire show trying to figure out if her new boyfriend was black.  It wasn't that she didn't want to date a black guy; she just wanted to know this part of his story.  She examined every possible 'clue' she could find, and talked about it with all her friends, with one of them (usually George) looking very uncomfortable and declaring, "I don't think we should be talking about this."  The one thing she didn't do was ask her boyfriend.  Here's how it ended.

I would like to live in a society in which race doesn't matter, and I think we can get there (though I also think we still have a long way to go).  But right now we're living in a society in which we pretend race doesn't exist, and I don't think that's a good idea at all.

I'd be very interested to know your thoughts on this.  All opinions are welcome, but as always, please keep it civil.

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