Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My Racism: A Sin Confessed

Sheila McJilton 
Several weeks ago, the Trayvon Martin case verdict was announced. On one side, there was a sense of justice done. On the other side, there was a sense of justice denied. Reaction was immediate and dramatic. Opinions flowed in newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts and Facebook posts about this verdict. One of the most powerful posts I read was written by Matthew Simmormon-Gomes.

As a white woman who was raised in the South in the 1960's, this young man's writing reminded me of how different a perspective I have. All through elementary school, I knew no people of color. I had relatives who were very prejudiced against anyone who was not white (despite one relative’s admission that generations back, a slave woman had been part of my family tree). 

Matthew's article reminded me of my own racism--a sin that I recognize as such. And as I noted in my own response to Matthew, his words remind me that overcoming the sin of racism is an intentional and continual process.

On Tuesday after the Zimmerman verdict, I had to go to the vet for cat food. As I left, I saw a young African American man in the waiting room with a big, beautiful dog on a leash. I thought for half a second, stopped, looked him in the eye and greeted him. "What a beautiful dog!" I said. His smile was wide. I asked, "What kind of dog?" as I slowly approached (aware that some dogs are friendlier than others and this dog did not know me.) He responded, "I don't know. Lab in there somewhere." By now, the dog was wagging all over. I closed my fist and extended it, at which point I got a good hand-washing! We exchanged a few more pleasantries about pets, we wished each other a good day and I left.

As I walked out, I was thinking about Simmormon-Gomes' article and my own heightened awareness, vis-a-vis the conversation I had just had. Did that article prompt me to speak to a young man of color? Probably. Did I then feel self-righteous? No, I did not. Truthfully, I felt ashamed and deeply sad, because I realized that it was only one small action on my part—an intentional act of working on my own patterns that were engrained in me as a child. I do not want to own the sin of racism. I want to overcome prejudice on every level. Yet if I, as a white, middle-class, educated woman, do not name my own sin, I cannot do the things that lead to repentance and forgiveness. I know I cannot change the big things in our society. I can only do my part. If my part includes one encounter at a time, so be it. I just pray that God will take my small steps and multiply them through God's grace and mercy. If that happens, may God's holy name be praised.

Sheila McJilton is the rector at St. Philip's, Laurel. Share your reactions and comments on Facebook.