This White Man’s Journey to Understanding Racism in America

Black and white human hands in a modern handshake

These are incredibly challenging times right now, aren’t they?

For months now, we’ve been dealing with COVID-19 and the isolation that comes with it. As if that weren’t enough, we’ve had three racially motivated killings during the same time.

Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by a father and son, one of whom is a retired police officer.

Breanna Taylor was shot in her apartment (8 or more times) while in bed. They said they were searching for a suspect who allegedly was already in custody (according to a lawsuit filed). 

And the final, most egregious of them all was the murder of George Floyd. A Minneapolis police officer held his knee on this man’s neck for over 8 minutes, suffocating and killing him senselessly while other officers stood by and watched. The look on his face and the lack of emotion in what he was doing was stunning.

I’m Angry 

As I’ve watched the outrage on the news and, more importantly, on social media, I’ve been surprised, amazed, and, if I’m honest, pretty angry about what I’ve seen. 

During the most recent killing of innocent black men and women, I’ve seen many people, especially white people, like me, asking what they can do. That’s good. We should be asking that question. We should have been asking that question and doing something about it for years. 

Conversely, I’ve seen far too many people expressing uninformed, often harsh opinions on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. They express outrage over what’s happening. They shame people who don’t feel that outrage. That self-righteousness grates on me. 

Over the past few years, that’s the pattern I’ve observed. Another police officer kills an innocent black man or woman. Media goes into a feeding frenzy over it. Everyone suddenly expresses outrage that this is happening and goes out of their way to show their anger. 

A Pattern Repeats Itself

Here’s the question – Where have they been over the last several decades? Do they think this is something new? If so, that’s sad. It’s been going on for hundreds of years. 

Here’s another question. Will the outrage be different this time? Will it turn into action after the news dies down? Because so far, that hasn’t been true. As one involved in this battle, it’s pretty hard to see this pattern repeating itself yet again. 

I’m hoping that hearing the story of how I went from an indifferent, disconnected, and a biased white person to the man I am today will offer some answers as to what you (we) as a majority community can do to affect change. I’m no saint. Nor do I have all the answers. If we’re honest with ourselves, all of us have racism in our hearts at some level. 

For those asking the question of what they can do, I will share my ideas in this post. My comments are based solely on personal experience. Take it or leave it. It’s up to you. And I will not try to shame you for what you are or aren’t doing right now. 

With that wordy intro, let’s get started.

A Sheltered Childhood

Who am I? I’m a white male Baby Boomer. I grew up in Zionsville, IN, an all-white community just outside of Indianapolis. The only time I saw black people were on the news, usually those arrested for committing a crime of some sort. The other times were on the basketball court when my HS team played a Marion County school that had black players. There were no schools in Boone County, where Zionsville was, or most any other school on our regular basketball schedule. 

I heard and was a part of tasteless jokes about blacks. The N-word was common among friends. I never had a black friend. Nor had I ever had a meaningful conversation with anyone of color. I suspect many of you who are reading this grew up in similar circumstances, whether you are black, brown, Asian, white, or any other ethnicity, likely hung out and grew up with people of the same or similar ethnicity and background. 

We don’t have a choice where we grow up. That choice comes when we’re on our own.

Relationships Matter

It seems that many of us form opinions about other people groups based on information we get from other people, be it friends, the mainstream media, or social media. 

That brings up a question I asked myself many years ago.

If, as a white person, I don’t have relationships with African Americans, how can I form such strong opinions and stereotypes about them? Where did I get the information that shapes those stereotypes and views? If it’s from the media, how do you think it gets portrayed? Do you ever see the media show blacks in a good light? Rarely.

In most cases, they show blacks at their worst. They emphasize gangs, guns, and violence. The portrayal is of a group of people who are criminals to be feared. 

That was my view for the longest time too. I had no relationships with anyone of another race, let alone another culture. There were no blacks in my neighborhood, my town, my school, or anywhere around me. Even in college, nothing changed. I hung out with people who looked like me. I was oblivious to the concerns I heard on the news from blacks about being mistreated. It didn’t affect me, so I didn’t pay attention to it. 

The Awakening

When my wife, Cathy, and I moved to Indianapolis from where we were living in Bloomington, IN, we started attending Second Presbyterian Church (Second). My brother and his wife attended there. We were looking for a church, so we gave it a try. That was in 1984. Second Pres. was one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in the city. That didn’t include us but did include many of the area’s business and civic leaders.

The former Mayor of Indianapolis, William Hudnut, was the pastor at Second before becoming Mayor. The CEO of Ely Lilly, some of the city’s top lawyers, doctors, and business leaders, were members and in leadership at Second. 

The Event that Changed Us

A Senseless Killing

Somewhere around 1987, racial tensions in the city were escalating (sound familiar?). During that time, Michael Taylor, a seventeen-year-old boy, was arrested. I don’t remember the reason for the arrest. He was handcuffed and sitting in the back of a police car. Somehow, he ended up shot and killed while handcuffed in the back seat of the police cruiser.

Protests began immediately. Leaders of black churches raised their voices. After the police investigated the killing, they determined that Michael Taylor had somehow committed suicide with the police officer’s gun while handcuffed, hands behind his back, in the back seat of the police car. I’m not joking. That’s what they drummed up at the time.

Tensions went through the roof. The Mayor of Indianapolis at the time, Stephen Goldsmith, called together white and black pastors of the largest and most influential churches in the city asking for help. It was there that our pastor, William Enright, met the pastor of Light of the World Christian Church, T. Garrot Benjamin. After the meeting, Tom Benjamin invited Bill Enright to do something together as churches.

In typical grand thinking, pastor Benjamin suggested the two churches shut down their doors on Easter Sunday and do a joint worship service in one of their churches. He was ready to roll. Since Bill’s church is Presbyterian, run by elders, and required to do things “decently and in order,” Bill told Tom he liked the idea, but it would take some time to work through the system.

The Planning Begins

I don’t recall exactly how long it took, but it was at least a year before anything got scheduled. A group of people from each church got together to talk about and plan an event. It was during this time that I met Andy Hunt.

Andy was the business manager for Light of the World Church. He and his wife Sandra and their three children moved to Indy from Atlanta for Andy to take that position. More on that shortly. 

Our group met regularly and finally came up with a plan. We would hold a joint worship service, not on Easter, but a regular Sunday at Clowes Hall on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis. We scheduled the event and continued meeting to plan the details.

The Celebration of Hope

The name for the event was The Celebration of Hope. We felt it captured what we were trying to portray. The hope that blacks and whites could come together in unity to worship, pray, and fellowship together. And that’s precisely what we did.

It was a beautiful experience. Our two choirs, with entirely different styles, sang together. Ushers from each church led people to seats. Elders from both churches served communion. We took an offering that day. It was divided equally between the two churches.

James Forbes, who at the time pastored Riverside Church in NY City, gave the message. 

The auditorium was packed. Most of us in attendance had never experienced a worship service like it.

Relationships Begin

I mentioned that I met Andy Hunt during the planning meetings. He and I hit it off almost immediately. We decided it would be good to get our wives together for a meal. So we did. Cathy and Sandra hit it off as well. 

As we talked about the event, we realized something was missing. It was great to get together in large groups for a single event. But what we needed was to build personal relationships with each other. 

To accomplish that, we decided to start a dinner group with couples from each church. At its peak, we had six or seven couples who were part of it. We met for dinner monthly. A different couple hosted each month. We continued meeting for a couple of years. It was a fantastic experience for all of us.

We learned that, despite our different backgrounds and experiences, we had far more in common than differences. We all loved our kids. Many had struggled with jobs, finances, relationships, etc. There was one difference. For the first time, the whites in the group heard about what it’s like to be black in a predominantly white world.

It was eye-opening and shocking to most of us. We had no idea what blacks, especially black males, had to deal with daily. Remember, we all came together after the Michael Taylor shooting. For blacks, this was a regular part of their lives. Fear of that happening to them was real. For whites, we thought it was an isolated incident. How wrong we were. 

A Moment of Truth

Andy and I continued to meet for lunch, and the four of us for dinner fairly regularly. But there was something that was bothering me about his and my relationship. I would talk to him about pressing issues in my life. He listened, but I always felt he kept a distance. As time went on, I continued to feel like he was holding me at arm’s length.

Finally, I’d had enough. Keep in mind; this was before email, texting, and the things we take for granted today. So, I sent Andy a letter. In the letter, I told him I was tired of trying to get close to him and to get pushed away continually. I said I wasn’t looking for any more shallow, surface relationships. I already had plenty of those. But if he wanted to start opening up to me and share his life, I was all in. I told him I didn’t know what his problem was, but that I didn’t cause it.

As soon as Andy got the letter, I got a phone call from him. He was on the verge of tears and asked if we could have lunch. We went to Hoolihan’s a couple of days later, where he finally opened his heart and told me his story. 

Crying Over Nachos

Andy and Sandy were in the process of moving to Atlanta. That’s where Sandra’s family lives. They just had their first child, Drew. Sandy and Drew went back to Atlanta while Andy stayed behind in California to finalize things with his job. 

Sandra’s mother loved Drew. It was her first grandchild. When she and Drew were together, grandma had Drew in her arms. One Saturday afternoon, they decided to visit a new mall that opened up in Cobb County. So Sandra, Drew, grandma, and grandpa got in the car and headed to the mall. 

As they pulled on to the ramp to the mall exit, a car full of young white men pulled beside them. They rolled down the windows and yelled the following: “What are you n***ers doing up here in Cobb County. You got your own n***er malls where you come from. You need to get your asses back to your n***er malls and get out of Cobb County.” 

Grandpa decided he needed to defend the honor of his family. So he was going after the boys. In the back seat, grandma said to Sandra, “take Drew.” Remember, that was something that just didn’t happen. Drew and his grandma were inseparable. She passed Drew to Sandra, had a massive heart attack and died in the back seat of the car.

As Andy told this story, I was balling like a baby. He could barely get the story out himself. What came next changed the nature of our relationship forever. He told me that after that happened to Sandra’s grandmother, he’s hated white people ever since. He said words that resonate with me to this day. I use them often. He said I let an incident become an indictment. The incident killed Drew’s grandmother. He indicted all white people as a result—powerful and poignant words. 

Changed Hearts and a Changed Relationship

That lunch happened almost thirty years ago. Other than my wife, Andy, is my closest friend in the world. He is truly a brother from another mother. The four of us have walked through life together ever since. We have vacationed together almost every year for the last twenty years. 

One of the life missions for Andy and me is to do what we can to foster racial reconciliation. We have been a part of starting three Great Banquet ministries. The Great Banquet is a three day spiritual renewal weekend. Other versions you may have heard of ar Walk to Emmaus, the Catholic Cursillo, and the Tres Dias. 

In 1995, I attended my first Great Banquet. Ironically, it was in Zionsville, IN. That’s the small white town where I grew up. I invited Andy to go there several times. He always had an excuse for why he couldn’t attend. Once we started a community at Second, he and one of our other mutual friends from Light of the World church finally participated.

The Truth Comes Out

I later learned the reason they wouldn’t go to Zionsville. It was because of its reputation as a racist, all-white town. Once it moved to Second, they were all in! 

That community now has probably around 3,000 or more members. Andy and Bill, our other friend, invited dozens of people from Light of the World church to the Banquet weekends. What started as an all-white group, now boasts a diversity that probably consists of 40% or more people of color. They’ve gone on to do more things together as churches. May personal friendships across racial lines now exist.

When Cathy and I moved to Northern Virginia in 1998, we started another Great Banquet out here. Our first weekend was in October 2001, right after the 911 terrorist attacks. One of our primary goals was to build a racially, diverse community. God has blessed that goal. Once again, with intentionality, the local community is close to 2,000 strong and of a similar level of diversity. Because it’s in NOVA, that diversity expands beyond blacks to include many Latinos and Asian Americans.

It Starts with Relationships

By now, many of you might be wondering what’s the point of all of this. That’s a legitimate question.

Here’s the point. If whites and blacks don’t start building relationships with one another on a personal level, I don’t see how meaningful change takes place. 

When our opinions come, not out of our personal experience, but from media or others, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to have empathy and understanding of the pain of our black and brown brothers and sisters. 

Until the Celebration of Hope and my friendship with Andy, I certainly didn’t. The result of that friendship has changed my life. It’s changed Cathy and Sandra’s lives as well. It’s made it easier for me to develop relationships with other people of color. It gives me a perspective of events I see that I would never have without these relationships. There is absolutely no way I’d have the empathy I do without hearing Andy’s and others’ stories. It puts faces with the struggles. I hear real-life, often chilling accounts of what they deal with daily.

Where to Start

At times like these, many people want to know what they can do; where to start. Here’s my suggestion. If you’re white, you know someone, either at work, at your kids’ schools, sports, or somewhere who is black or brown. Pick up the phone today and call them. Don’t worry about what to say. Keep it simple. Ask how they’re doing with everything going on right now. Ask them if you can have a cup of coffee (socially distant, of course) to chat. 

You don’t have to have any profound conversation planned in your head. Just say you’d like to get to know them better. Let them know you stand with them in their pain. Ask them how you can support them. Be willing to hear their passion, rage, tears, or whatever comes up. Understand that for them, the George Floyd murder was the tipping point. It’s the accumulation of decades of discrimination, of life devalued and being thought of as lesser than. 

A pastor friend of mine said it best. Just engage in the ministry of presence. Be with them in their pain. 

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

African Americans are tired. They are tired of being pulled over for DWB (driving while black), tired of having conversations with their sons about how to behave if you’re pulled over by police, tired of wondering whether their sons will come home that night.

They are tired of being followed in stores, tired of having to explain why they’re walking in your neighborhood, which also happens to be theirs. A friend gets a visit by the local police almost every time a new owner moves into his neighborhood on his street. It usually goes something like this. He’s out working in the yard, or even walking down his driveway. The new neighbor calls the cops to report a man who appears to be doing something untoward. They know Dave well. Many have been to his house before. But because they were called, they have to respond. So they come, have a brief conversation, and report to the new neighbor they live there.

They are tired of gentrification, being pushed out of their homes and neighborhoods in the name of economic development. 

They are tired of being turned down for loans, even though they have the same income, credit scores, and qualifications. If you don’t know this history, research redlining, a policy that kept blacks from buying houses, one of the most significant sources of wealth for white Americans. 

They are tired of being overlooked for promotions for jobs in which they are equally or even more qualified than their white counterparts. I have not only read about all of this, but I’ve heard personal stories from people I know.

Getting Defensive

Don’t get defensive if that’s what you hear. Even though it may not feel real or right to you, it is real to them. Think about it. As a white father, have you ever had to have that conversation with your son? I know I haven’t. It’s not something that ever crossed my mind. But every African American father I’ve met has had that conversation with their sons. 

Please understand. I don’t offer these things as some sort of expert on the topic. I’m not. In the years I’ve spent with Andy, Sandra, and many other African Americans, these are some of the things I’ve come to know. They come from conversations with many people with whom I’ve developed relationships over the years.

Two Types of Responses

I’ve seen two types of responses from whites during this and other times of police killings of blacks. The first, and most damaging, is the opinionated, self-righteous person who spouts off about blacks being their own worst enemies; that if they’d just comply with police, they wouldn’t get killed. Or one of the favorites, something like, “I don’t know why they’re bitching all the time. They have the same opportunities the rest of us do.” These words have to be coming from people who have never had a meaningful conversation or relationships with a black or brown person. Because if they did, there is no way those words would cross their lips.

The other response and one I appreciate is, “what can I do?” I hope the suggestions above provide some ideas. Sometimes, we make things more complicated than they are. We want to make a big difference. Start with one person. See where that goes. You’d be surprised at what you will learn. But it won’t happen overnight. Andy’s and my story is a perfect example of that. The person you’re sitting across from has lots of years of mistrust for white people built into their lives. It’s not personal. Be patient, and keep showing up.

For another perspective on the topic, I highly recommend this article from Josh at Money Life Wax – My Next Door Neighbor is African American and My Other Neighbor is a Cop

Or this one from Money Saved is Money Earned – A Brown Man's Experience of Racism in America.

Final Thoughts

The most important thing I’ve learned and been the most grieved about is that this is a way of life for black and brown people every day. We are all stirred by the senseless and inhuman murder of George Floyd. Remember Michael Taylor, the death that birthed the Celebration of Hope and my friendship with Andy and his family. That was 1987. Redlining started in the Roosevelt administration. Woodrow Wilson screened the Birth of a Nation in the White House. If you don’t know what that is, look it up.

Racism is in the very fabric of America. Is it better? Yes? Is it over? Not by a long shot. It won’t end until whites get involved and demand changes. What you’re witnessing now in cities across the country is a release of hundreds of years of frustration and anger at a system that refuses to change. It’s a shame that people are destroying businesses and looting stores. That’s criminal and, for many, reinforces the stereotypes many whites have of blacks. 

But let’s not be too quick to judge. Put yourselves in their shoes. Peaceful protests have not brought about meaningful changes. When another police murder happens, the pent up frustration reaches a peak. When there are three in a row like now, it can and did reach a breaking point. 

They want and deserve change; to be treated with respect; to feel like their lives mean something in a free society. I’m asking my white brothers and sisters to join me in saying, we hear you. We value and stand with you.  We will walk with you in pushing for changes that make a difference. 

If we do that, things can and will change. If we don’t, I’m afraid what we’re seeing now will be the way of life for the foreseeable future.

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