A few years ago, I was in a doctoral seminar, as a second-year PhD student in religion. The thing about being a second year PhD student, is that it means you have survived your first; you’ve learned the lessons of your first; and, having weathered two semesters of rather daunting work, you think you have something important to say.
I thought I had something important to say.
So I’m sat in this doctoral seminar, on this brilliant spring day, in Nashville, TN, where spring always comes early and beautifully. The sun shone through the windows. It was an unusual setting for me, for us, on this day, because we were actually in a church, not the university. We were visiting a local, white progressive Baptist congregation to learn about their church, to interrogate their ways of being church through the sophisticated theories we were learning.
In the moment, we were already talking about white progressive Christianity and how white progressives often say they would like more diversity in their congregations. One of the pastors of this white progressive church where we were visiting was also a guest professor for this class, because it was being taught by a group of academics and practitioners, and, if I’m remembering this correctly, she had lamented how white her community was, and a few of my black classmates had pointed out that this yearning for more diversity was something that they heard over and over from white progressives. And they were asking, who does that wish serve? Would black people really enjoy coming to this white, progressive church? Would they benefit from it, or rather, was this wish for more diversity, in reality, a wish simply for the benefit of the white people already there, so they don’t have to feel guilty for going to their all-white church, so they could pat themselves on the back for going to a diverse church?
Then, one of my black male classmates, a friend of mine, eased some of the tension in the room with this joke: he said that his father had pastored a black church. This was the church that my friend had grown up in, and he said he remembered quite keenly, that, growing up, he and his black parishioners were not always saying to themselves, “Man, I wish there were more white people here.” To which we all laughed.
I don’t know what it was inside of me that made me think, well, Richard, I guess you have something important to add to this discussion, but I was the first to speak after we stopped laughing. And then I said this dumbass, racist thing. I said to my friend – now, keep in mind, to understand this story, you are going to have to remember the fact that I am a white man. I just need to point that out, in case you all haven’t already picked that up. So, as a white man, I asked my black friend, “I wonder if class has something to do with these different attitudes about diversity.” To which a black woman in the class rightfully responded, “What makes you think his church is low class, because they’re black?”
And in response, I just became white and fragile all over the place. I tried to respond. You know, I could have responded, “Oh, yeah, you’re right, that was a dumb, racist assumption,” and I could have thanked my classmate for interrupting my racism and moved on with the class. How I wish that’s how I had responded. But if this story is going to be true, I have to confess to you all that I didn’t respond that way. In fact, I didn’t respond coherently at all. In fact, what I remember is that I couldn’t put two words together for the rest of that hour.
And you know, wouldn’t it have been great, if, having been helpfully interrupted, and thinking about it, I had realized that I had some work to do with my white racism, like I still do today, like everyone who is white and reading this has work still to do on our white racism. Wouldn’t it have been great if I went home to collect myself and came back the next week having realized I’m not as sophisticated and cool as I thought I was? Instead, after that class, I got white and fragile all over again. I argued with my black colleagues and made an ass of myself, trying to twist my words to show that, no, of course, I understood, I was totally down with the black church. So, I argued and argued and argued. Because, after all, I was a second-year doctoral student who had everything figured out, right?
And that’s it. There’s no happy ending to this story. If there was, if I told you I’m now an enlightened white progressive Christian, a pastor in a white progressive Presbyterian church, who never falls on his face when talking about race, who has arrived to the mountaintop of anti-racism, well, you would know that I was lying to you, or at the very best, that I am deceiving myself, casting myself in an innocent position that makes me feel good.
I will say this, though. On my better days, I’m no longer denying that dumbass, racist things come out of my mouth from time to time, because they do – if you are socialized as white and male, they come out of your mouth too. Most days, well, some days, I can admit, how they go through my head, how they blind me; how the racist frameworks given to me by my family and the news and my classrooms and our country still show up. I don’t like it. These experiences don’t match with the image I have in my head of myself, as an enlightened progressive, as a Christian, as a pastor.
But, you know, when I ignore them, if I excuse them, then I can’t interrupt them. I can’t walk beside my own fellow white congregants as they too interrupt their own racism, and sexism, and homophobia.
I initially wrote this story down for a story-telling event on the theme of interruptions. When I heard the event’s theme, I immediately knew I had to tell this story, but I waited; I procrastinated; I tried to think of any other story to tell. But you know, I don’t get interrupted that often, which is a pity, but again, and this is the last time I’m going to remind you all of this – I’m a white dude.
And that means people don’t interrupt me as often as they should.
So when I heard that the theme was interruptions, I immediately thought of this story. But I didn’t know if I should tell you about it, because I wanted you to like me. Because I didn’t want to get up here and show you this shadow side, this broken side of me.
The day before that story-telling event, I was working my day job as a Presbyterian minister. I helped lead our congregation through the first Sunday of Lent, which for the Christian calendar is a time of laying things down that get in the way of our relationship to that creative and transformative love that we call God. I recalled that handsome image I have of myself, of someone who is blameless, of someone who is innocent and smart. During worship, I realized that I needed to take another step in laying that fictive image down. And so this is my story for today. Thank you for listening to it.
Richard Coble serves Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC as their associate pastor.