Learning about race

Conrad Moore, a primary teacher at my Damascus Road experience

A few weeks ago, I attended the Damascus Road Anti-Racism Process workshop in Philadelphia. What I learned there helped me make sense of the depth of pathos in our nation following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.  This weekend I also saw this thoughtful reflection on the role of race and the killing of Trayvon Martin by Leonard Pitts:  http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/24/2712390/in-trayvon-martins-death-consider.html

I learned again that as a white person, I easily assume certain privileges that do not readily extend to people of color, even my close friends who are members of Mennonite Church USA.

For example, I can walk down the streets of most villages or cities and no self-appointed neighborhood watcher or police patrol will give me a second look. That’s not true for most people of color, who bear the burden of being watched or profiled for just walking on the sidewalk in certain sections of town, as Trayvon Martin was doing.

The teaching at the workshop underlined for me the profound everyday reality of a number of stories that have been told to me, all by members of Mennonite Church USA.  I offer a number of examples:

A young African student at Hesston College in Kansas dropped off his car in nearby Newton to get it serviced. As he was taking a little stroll to pass the time, a policeman drove up to ask what he was doing in the area. A neighbor had seen the student walking down the street and called the police.

One African American student at Goshen College learned that if he walked down the streets of Goshen, Indiana with a backpack, he would not be harassed. Presumably, the neighborhood identified him as a student. But if he walked with a hoodie and without a backpack, he would be followed, especially when he entered a store.

A Hispanic friend told me he was stopped by police as he was traveling through New Orleans late at night. Not because of any traffic violation, but because of his color.

Another Hispanic friend explained to me how she responded when she heard about the killing of Trayvon Martin. She said “My son has been stopped by the police several times, once for looking suspicious as he was in a convenience store in the middle of the day.  Early on I had to teach and talk with my son about ways to keep himself safe from the police.  Things like after purchasing anything keep receipts available in his pocket; when approached by police keep his hands where they can be seen at all times; comply with police and be polite even if they are calling him names.”

Still another Hispanic friend told me of being berated by a white couple in a small town in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for speaking Spanish to her mother on her cell phone while standing in line at the counter in a grocery store. The couple followed my friend into the parking lot, insisting that she should speak English in public places, because this is America.

I have come to understand that these are not isolated incidents; but everyday realities for many people of color, not only on the streets of America, but also in the pews of our churches. Unfortunately, it’s just as common now as it was 25 years ago. That’s why many of us are speaking up against the discrimination and violence that took Trayvon Martin’s life. We want our streets and our churches to be safe for people of all colors, not just for whites.