Last year, an African-American colleague and I went to rent a car for an out-of-state trip. "Go outside to Row E and take any car," said the agent. Outside, the first three cars all were bright red. We looked at them, then at each other, and laughed out loud. "Let's take the fourth one," we agreed, not wanting to attract any unnecessary police attention.
Another African-American colleague, who doesn't "sound black," tells of conducting telephone interviews before being invited to an out-of-town meeting—then being dis-invited when he showed up and people could see him in living color. What's wrong with that picture?
Many of us who are white won't see anything wrong. We're protected by "white privilege," as Peggy McIntosh explains in "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." We don't think that racism affects us, she writes, because we don't see whiteness as a racial identity, but as morally neutral, normative, average, and also ideal.
The UCC has a hard-earned reputation of working against racism. Of course, we say, how could we do less? How could we consider another human being—whether similar to or different from us—as anything less than a child of God? Nevertheless, our daily lives—and our church lives—are increasingly lived apart from people who are different from us as our nation gradually loses gains previously made toward racial equality.
The difference between the ideal and the reality was brought home vividly to me during a UCC FaithWorks event in Indiana in the early '90s. Sitting in the front row of the auditorium photographing the evening session, as I faced forward I could see a rainbow array of God's people on the stage: persons of many different races. But when I turned around, I saw 3,000 white people. Our UCC demographics (91 percent white) favor the view I got when I turned around. But our faith calls us to work for the view I saw on the stage.
A new board game may help us see how racism works. It's called "Life As a Black Man." Each player is an 18-year-old black man trying to make it to "freedom" from one of four starting points: the ghetto, the military, a black university or the entertainment world. With each roll of the die, the player is subject to typical pitfalls that befall young black men. "You're pulled over by police for driving a new car, move back two spaces." "Your co-workers repeatedly tell you racist jokes, move back two spaces." "Department store security follows you and your friend around the store, move back two spaces." The game also offers moral choices, for example, to go to church at any time or to accept or reject crime as an option. How desperate would any of us be to feed our children before we would choose crime?
One point of the game is to help us do something we seldom do in real life, that is, experience the life of someone different. But racism isn't a game, and we still need to go out of our way to engage others who are different. Once, in a 98 percent-white state, I visited a tiny, vital rural UCC church with much racial/ethnic diversity. How did this happen? Because church leaders drove miles to welcome newcomers to the state—and to their church.
"I try to teach our people about racism," one conference minister told me, "but do you know what I hear from our senior pastors? 'We've done that already.'">
Well, we may have—but not enough. We need to get back to work, because racism is still with us.
To order "Life as a Blackman" ($29.95) go to www.blackmangame.com or phone 877-blacgame (252-2426).
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.