Race is a four-letter word (Part Two: A Tale of Two Wal-Marts)

The whole country’s been talking about race lately, and I think we all know why. I’m certainly not immune to this myself.

Like most Americans (at least those of us in the “flyover states”), I simultaneously loathe and frequent Wal-Mart. I hate the ugly, run-down stores. I hate that the employees are underpaid and undertrained … and, as such, are generally very little help. I hate that the corporate ethics are more Machiavelli than Jesus.

But we have just sacrificed a large portion of our income so that the wifie can stay home with our little one, and that means we have to tighten our belts. I’m now in the same boat as the majority of Mississippians: I lack the economic privilege to get snippy about shopping at Wal-Mart.

I live within easy driving distance from two Wal-Marts, which I’ll refer to as “Highway 98” and “Highway 49.” For some reason, I usually prefer to go to Highway 98. I never gave much thought to “why.”

I was getting my list together to go to Wal-Mart the other day, and my first instinct was to go to Highway 98, even though it was farther away. Even though it didn’t carry some of the rarer items I like (KerryGold free-range cheese and butter, for example) that Highway 49 does.

And it occurred to me that maybe this was a matter of race. You see, the Wal-Mart on Highway 98 is a little newer than the one on Highway 49, but it isn’t really cleaner. It doesn’t have better selection. It’s not closer. But it is “whiter.”

Don’t get me wrong: in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, you’re not going to find any all-white or all-black establishments, other than a few barber shops (except for churches. But that’s a rant for another post).

But different parts of town and different stores have different apparent ratios, different unspoken “feels.” I think that’s the case with almost every town in America.

And I have to wonder if that’s part of the equation.

So what do I do? I don’t know if this is ideal, but I decided I wouldn’t darken the door of the Highway 98 Wal-Mart unless I was already out that way (it’s near Sam’s and Target and such) or I was after something Highway 49 didn’t have in stock.

Highway 49 is my Wal-Mart. Whatever reason I had for wanting to go to Highway 98, I won’t be acting on it.

I’ll always be white, and I’ll always have a white American’s viewpoint. I’m not ashamed of my race or ethnicity, but I will not insulate myself from people of other races or ethnicities.

It’s a small thing, really, the choice of which store to shop at. But maybe it’s a start.

Privilege Part One

I’m a pretty regular reader of Rachel Held Evans’s blog, and today, I saw something there that really pricked my conscience: “Church Stories: A Plea to Engage in Racial Reconciliation.”

I urge you to read this.  I’ve never been a “racist” but I know that as a white American, and a Southerner that racism is not a thing of the past.  It lives on in our communities, in our churches, and in ourselves.

(edit) As I posted in a comment at RHE’s blog,

I think it’s like growing up in a house with lead paint on the walls.  Even if you don’t eat the paint chips, you can’t ever really escape it.  The heavy metals hover in the air, seeping into your hair and skin, your blood and heart and brain, like a slow poison, dulling your senses and clouding your mind.  And even if you get out of the house, the lead remains in your system for years, possibly forever, unless you take conscious, even drastic steps to purge it.

Too often, as white people, we hold on to parts of our past that looked good and comforting from our perspective, but were really ugly, unhealthy, and even oppressive.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people praise the values of the 1950’s, but the truth is, for every Beaver Cleaver there was an Emmett Till.

I had some African-American friends in high school, mostly through Beta Club and Marching Band, but the college I went to was overwhelmingly white.

That’s not surprising for a Baptist college (for the record, I wasn’t seeking a sectarian undergraduate experience.  I basically told the college recruiters to show me the money, and Mississippi College gave me the best offer by far.  I think a lot of that school, to be honest: the instructors held us to a high standard of academic rigor, and yes, the biology professors taught us about evolution).

Though not surprising, it was somewhat problematic.  I think the first time I really thought about the issue of race was when the O.J. Simpson verdict was released.  Opinions on it were sharply divided along racial lines.  Ever black student I talked to was happy, and every white student was upset.  I think that was the first time I realized that just trying to ignore race entirely was not going to work.

My graduate school experience landed me in New Orleans and introduced me to a much broader set of ideas and beliefs.  I joined my first non-Baptist church (Crescent City Church of Christ), I became friends with people of several religions (including no religion at all) and people whose concept of gender was perhaps unconventional (at least for a sheltered Baptist boy like me).  It was good to reach beyond my narrow comfort zone in so many ways, but the quiet question of race still remained … specifically, the question that had plagued the South since its inception: white and black.

I graduated, got married, got a job, and basically nothing changed.  Then I started teaching school in Jackson, Mississippi.

If you haven’t been to Jackson, Mississippi, let me explain.  It’s a textbook case of white flight.  The white folks fled to private schools and the ever-expanding periphery, keeping their kids away from the black kids (and I do mean ever-expanding periphery: Madison is 45 minutes from some parts of Jackson).  And there I was, teaching in a school that was 98% African-American.

I really could have done better than I did.  I tried as hard as I could to be a good teacher, but I think along the way I forgot to learn from my students.

And so I find myself here, with my conscience pricked, realizing I am still surprising tone-deaf about race, surprisingly swaddled in my own white privilege.

And I know this isn’t how God wants me to be.