This spring I am teaching two classes that deal with the issues of race and racism. One is “Racism and Black Theology” and the other is “Poverty and Social Justice.” I invited one student from each class to engage in a dialogue about race and racism at Elon University while drawing on their learnings from each course. This is the first in a series of posts that will chronicle that dialogue. I hope their conversation will prompt readers to also think more critically about issues of race and racism. And I invite readers to engage their ideas in the comments section.
The authors of this dialogue are Chris Tarpley (Racism and Black Theology) and Casey Morrison (Poverty and Social Justice).
So a little bit about me, I’m a junior from Spartanburg, SC. I’m a Music Production and Recording Arts major with a minor in Jazz studies. I was raised in a Black Southern Baptist church where my dad, who is an ordained minister, was the youth pastor of the church.
Being raised in the South as a black male, I have had a very different experience and understanding of racism and racial bias than other students who may live not live as far South as I have. Like I said in our meeting, I have not experienced direct racism during my time at Elon but I have experienced direct racism for as long as I can remember back home.
Things such as not being able to eat at restaurants, not being able to be friends with certain kids, or getting in trouble when I played with certain kids that really affected my childhood. One of the most vibrant memories I have was when I was in second grade, I was playing with a white girl during recess and a teacher came and made me sit out and said, “You are not allowed to touch or play with white girls.”
Another experience that did not happen directly to me but to my younger brothers when they were 9 and 2. We have a grocery store that would serve popcorn to kids who were under 12 years old. My brother came back from the counter crying because the lady who was supposed to be serving said that she doesn’t serve “n-words”. So that is just a quick background of the environment that I grew up in.
Most of the issues that I have dealt with at Elon were disrespect in the classroom especially when we would discuss issues of races. One of my most recent examples was in a class I took last spring. I was the only black kid in the class and we discussed some issues regarding race. Most of the time, my opinion was in the minority. I did not feel comfortable in the class because I felt as if my opinions did not matter especially my opinion on racism and racial bias. I started to feel like I was becoming the angry black kid and because of this the other students would deny and not listen to my experiences.
This semester, I am taking Racism and Black Theology, which is about the history and development of Black Theology and the different aspects that are included under that title. Personally for me, this class is helping me discover the history of the theology that I was raised in and get a better understanding of the development of the theology. Also, a main issue that is always addressed in Black Theology is racism and how Christians are supposed to handle racism. So hopefully this gives you a better understanding of my background and what my class has to do with racism.
I appreciate your sharing that part of your own story with me. I grew up as a white person in the North, so your experience is pretty vastly different from my own childhood. I didn’t realize how much of our country was still so unapologetically racist until the summer of 2014. I spent two months interning with a small grassroots community development organization in the Black part of a little town in Arkansas. The organization worked out of a four-room abandoned sock factory at the edge of an endless field of soybeans and was the kind of locally-run place where everyone who worked there knew everyone who lived within a five mile radius, at least as long as those people were Black. With your being from the Deep South, I would guess that sounds familiar.Of course I can’t know what your childhood was like, but my short time in Arkansas at least gave me a small amount of context. I talked to parents who told me about the pool in town that only the white kids could use and I watched kindergarteners write in their letters to Obama about how white people hate Black people just as casually as they asked him to say hi to his family for them. It was a shock for me. I’d never before been exposed to anything that so explicitly showed not only how racism affected tiny children, but how clear their consciousness of racism was even from that young an age Like I said, it was the opposite of where I grew up, where people avoiding talking about racism like the plague. It doesn’t help that rural upstate New York is about as white as the Adirondack Mountains after a blizzard.
I liked hearing stories from your childhood, so here are a couple of my own. They’re actually the only stories I have that indicate any awareness about race from my first 18 years of life, and the first I don’t even remember. When I was about 7 and my family was driving into the nearest city, my mom recalls my asking, “Mom, why do all the brown people have to live in all the broken houses?” It was an innocent observation from a child, but within a few years I’d been exposed to enough racist white culture that I lost that sense of racial injustice. The next experience happened during middle school, and although I’ve long forgotten the context, I remember hearing one of the two Black students in my grade mentioning to his friends about his ancestors being slaves. At first I was surprised more than anything, because I’d never even made the connection between the enslaved people of the past and African-Americans in the country today. After that I remember a sense of dismissal, or maybe even annoyance that he would mention it. After all, I was sure it wasn’t relevant anymore.
I didn’t really begin to think consciously about race until college, when I had a Black suitemate with the patience to help white people like me try to understand. The more I learned about race, the more I felt obligated to take action, so during my first couple years at Elon I took a pretty active role in race and social justice initiatives. As time went on, however, I was confronted by a feeling of hopelessness. We were speaking, but no one was listening–not the students and not the administration. No matter how much effort we put in, we never seemed to gain any ground. I quickly grew frustrated and fatigued, and by the end of my sophomore year I’d burnt out and mostly gave up on taking action to address racism outside of my personal life. Since I had the privilege to walk away, I did.
Most of what I did after that was rant with my socially-minded white friends about racism and how unjust it was and vocally admit to our white privilege. I still talk about it in my classes and I can’t say it’s not somewhat satisfying to be more knowledgeable about it than most white students. I’m frustrated with myself because race has become something of an intellectual exercise to me. It’s not that I’m not emotional about it. I’ve often had tears come to my eyes after hearing about another racist attack or finding myself helpless in convincing someone I love that racism exists in our world the way it does. But at the end of the day, the pain in those tears doesn’t keep me awake at night and doesn’t make me worry about the well-being of the people I’m closest to. Racism might be an issue that affects us all, but no one I love deeply and personally is at risk of getting attacked for going out at night wearing the wrong clothes or being in the wrong places just because of the color of their skin. I hurt for the impact racism has on all of us as a society, but I don’t know the sharp biting pain of watching someone in the news or on youtube being physically or emotionally attacked and picturing that person as my family, or even a close friend. I have the privilege of getting upset and forgetting soon after the conversation changes.
My class, Poverty and Social Justice, is the capstone for the poverty minor. It’s a class about race because at its core it’s a class about inequality. The books we read take all different angles, but all focus on ways of understanding the inequality in our world and how to address it. Some are more relevant just for socioeconomic issues (not that those are extricable from race issues), but others can also be used as helpful ways of understanding racially-driven inequities in their own right.