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Monday, January 15, 2007

My Confession

This is my confession on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, in which we remembered and honored the life and legacy of the Rev'd Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some of you think you know me, but you don't. Let me introduce myself.

My name is Elizabeth Kaeton, and I am a racist, in recovery.

I hear some of you giggling nervously. You know me as someone who is passionate about justice. Some of you know I was a young teen on the Mall in Washington, D.C. when Dr. King gave his famous, "I Have a Dream" speech.

(I had told a "white lie" (ahem!) to my parents who were opposed to the Civil Rights Movement, thinking it a Communist plot, that I was spending the weekend with a girlfriend - which I was - just not at her home, but with her on a bus with nuns from our church who wanted us to be there.)

I have worked long and hard on my racism, and I have come a long, long way.

Or, so I thought.

In 2000, Barbara and I were attending a conference in Atlanta, GA, and decided to extend our stay to include a Sunday visit to worship at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and a visit to the MLK museum there.

We came down for an early breakfast in the hotel restaurant and, shortly after we settled in, we watched as a family also came in for breakfast: A stately, older African American woman in a wheelchair, being pushed by her beautiful, tall, daughter, and accompanied by a Caucasian woman who was tending to her son.

Barbara and I smiled at each other and whispered how wonderful this was to see - Martin's dream fulfilled. There, in a restaurant in the city of Atlanta, was a fully integrated family, enjoying breakfast together while the men folk were out playing a round of golf before breakfast.

What could be more normal?

I watched as the Caucasian woman brought her small, delightful son with beautiful caramel colored skin, to look over the choices at the breakfast buffet.

"I want strawberries!" he squealed.

"I want strawberries, please, ma'am," she corrected her son in the southern way.

"I want grits!" he said as he clapped his hands with glee.

"I want grits, please, ma'am," she corrected him again.

"Oooooh," he said, "I want biscuits and gravy, please, ma'am," he said.

And, then, the Caucasian woman said something which completely shattered the illusion I had so neatly put together.

She said, "Oh, no, you'll make a mess all over your good shirt, and your Momma will be very, very angry."

It hit me - hard - in the pit of my stomach. This was not his Momma.

This woman - this Caucasian woman - was his Nanny.

My own racism had allowed me to see the possibility for equality.

But, I was blind to the possibility that the roles had reversed. That the Caucasian woman was now working in the role traditionally held by women of color.

I had no trouble imagining, however, that this Caucasian woman was making a far better salary than her African and African-American predecessors.

In that moment, I realized two things:

First, I would never be completely healed from my racism. How could that be? The toxins of racism - like sexism, classism, and heterosexism - are in the ether of our culture. We breathe in the noxious fumes on a daily basis.

I also realized that I had to renew my commitment to fighting against racism - my own as well as that of the church - especially in its more subtle and therefore more difficult forms.

I made a commitment right then and there that if God should ever call me to lead a church as rector and pastor that I would always commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., which is why we have this observance in this church every year.

I am most grateful for this opportunity to keep that commitment and for your enthusiastic participation in all of the events of this week end. Help us to remember the words of Dr. King, who said, "The arc of justice is long, but it bends toward justice."


Weiwen Ng said...

+Elizabeth, thank you for your confession. some have said elsewhere that you are being too hard on yourself, and I agree. but you do highlight the fact that racism stems from attitudes - attitudes that WE ALL HAVE, no matter how unracist we think we are, no matter what race we are, actually. and, being conscious of those attitudes is the first step towards recovery.

Eileen said...

Amen Elizabeth.

We did a special service at my church too. It was very moving, and sobering, and produced in me some of the same feelings.

It's important to keep trying to remember.

Grace said...

Mother Elizabeth,

I think we are all racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. in recovery, fallen sinners redeemed by the grace of God in Christ.

But, Mother, I have to agree with your friend, Madpriest. You are being hard on yourself. I think it would be pretty natural for anyone to assume that a young woman taking care of a child is probably mom, unless there is reason to think otherwise.

Plus, it's really true that racism can extend both ways. My stepson is married to a wonderful African-American woman. It was really some of her relatives that were most concerned for the marriage, not wanting my daughter in law to marry outside of her own race and culture.

For the most part, they have been well accepted everywhere. But, some of the most unpleasant encounters have been around black men, complete strangers really, who are resentful that an African-American woman would prefer a white man to them. (She is also extremely beautiful, a former model.)

Our culture has come along way, but we still have alot further to go with each other on all sides of the racial divide.

God bless you for your caring, and sensitivity.

Paul (A.) said...

Be as hard on yourself as you need to be, Elizabeth. Particularly us old white folks need to remember that we live lives of unearned privilege, which colors our thinking in difficult-to-discern ways.

Do remember George Fox's response to William Penn's question of how long he had to carry his sword: "As long as thee can, friend, as long as thee can."

Paul (A.)