We didn’t even know what a minstrel show was.
Seventh grade English always put on a play every year, chosen and directed by our teacher. Apart from the Easter parade (bonnets for girls, rabbit ears for boys) in kindergarten, I’d never been in a play before. Now it was our turn, we were excited.
“Here’s what I want to do,” she said, and explained how fun and funny a minstrel show would be. “This is probably the last time I’ll get to do this,” I remember her telling our class.
As I remember it, the classroom seemed quiet, maybe a bit uncomfortable. But who were we to argue? And I really liked this teacher. She was kind, she went to my church, she was a friend of my mother’s.
It was the sixties—Vietnam, civil rights, college protests lit up our TV screens, but if you were 12 or 13, in a small prairie town, Mississippi, Alabama, even Los Angeles was a long way away. I’d never met a black person; the only persons of color in our town picked our crops or cleaned our houses. A few were our classmates; I wonder now how they felt then.
I was the interlocutor, the only white boy in a white boy part, everybody else in black face, a kind of straight man/master of ceremonies, running the show. I played a racist.
I cringe now to tell you that, to tell anybody that. I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning it again. We didn’t talk about it as we advanced into upper grades; no one ever reminisced at a class reunion. It’s like it never happened. I wish it hadn’t. But it did.
What is a racist? Most of us are sure it’s not us. We would never dress up in khakis and carry torches, we would never burn crosses in lawns or wear a white hooded robe. We have friends of every race and color, friends we love. We smile and open doors for them, especially when something bad happens, again (how tiresome that must be). How could we be racist? Other people are racists.
I am a racist. I remember the first time I said that. I led a program called Theatre and Theology; we had just seen an August Wilson play with an all-black cast. An enlightened white audience of mostly Lutherans stayed after to discuss what they had seen with the cast. An August Wilson play is about as long as any white person has sat still and listened to a black person’s perspective, so of course, we had a lot to say.
I led the discussion, asked the questions; I was the MC. And the conversation was racism in America. A cast member made a point, but graciously softened it with, “Of course, I’m not saying anyone here is a racist.”
“I am,” I said; admitted. The room seemed suddenly quiet; it was like I’d just sworn an unexpected bloody streak. Maybe I’d just realized it, or realized it as soon as I said it; maybe even then I wasn’t sure.
I’m not one of those people. I would never. I resent that you would ask.
Racism isn’t a feeling—you will never feel like a racist. Racism is a structural reality, like the house you live in, it shapes your most important relationships. It’s embedded; learned and then forgotten, reactive, instinctual.
You may as well ask why the sky is blue—it is, and for good reason; it’s a good question, but it is a child’s question. Blue doesn’t affect my day-to-day life (though of course it does). I only notice when the sky isn’t blue, or blue again after days of gray. It’s just ‘normal’, the way things are, for me. When my ‘normal’ gets disrupted, that’s when I finally notice, clear as day.
Racism is systemic, historical, structural, pervasive. But we like this house; we like this teacher and everyone in it; this is where we grew up. Sure, it has some cracks in the foundation, some weeds in the yard; we often have dreamed of how we ought to remodel it. But it feels like home.
Racism is the bindweed on America’s soul. It’s not something chosen—it’s hard to imagine anyone (though perhaps a few) weighing the pros and cons and deciding yea or nay to be a racist. You grow up with it, you breathe it, exhale it, without thinking it becomes part of you. You find it lying around like an old pair of socks you meant to throw out long ago, the spoilage in the back of fridge. You don’t notice it until it’s your turn to mow the yard.
To say, “I am a racist, I see it now,” or “we are a racist society,” is not white guilt (though indeed, with a little self-examination, we may be). It is not to shame or blame anyone. I find blame never serves anybody, not even the one it excuses. But responsibility does; the kind of accountability where I don’t blame you or excuse me, but I take your side, work with you; your change, your growth, your success or failure is mine, too.
It comes back to love of neighbor—which is to say, freedom. Freedom is about the rights of all, not just me. Indeed, if it is just me I’m concerned about then it’s not liberty I’m talking about. Freedom is a relational term; I can only be free (or not free) in relation to you, to others, in community. My freedom must always take into consideration your good, indeed, the good of all (not just a few of my friends), or it is not freedom. It is just dominance, power, autocracy; or if it is just freedom for me and my friends, for those on my side, it is plutocracy.
Racism is not about good apples and bad apples. Right now, it is tempting to think it’s just a few bad police apples. It is a culture, a police culture perhaps, but our culture; we created this, we’re the ones who built and developed, or at least grew up in, this culture, and it falls to all of us to create a better culture. It is not them, it is us, it is me—that’s just being responsible.
Let’s say, we’ll have a race. It will be fun; a hundred-yard dash; any one is free to participate, and may the fastest person win.
But let’s say I get to start at the fifty-yard line. Why not? My family built this track & field facility, I planned this event, if it wasn’t for me, none of us would be here. Everybody else can start at the one hundred-yard line. Except for you—you must start at 150 yards.
That’s not a fair race. You might be an exceptional athlete; you might do very well even so. We might be duly impressed with your natural talent. But you will never win. And if we say, “Wow, nice effort; but you know everyone was free to participate, and you never did know how to handle freedom”—we’re just offering excuses for ourselves, not reasons for a fixed race.
I find no satisfaction in a game where the odds are stacked in my favor. But it is a thrill to play with the best; to see them perform well inspires me to perform at my best. The exhilaration comes in a fair race. Winning isn’t everything; but competing with the best is an awesome game. That’s not guilt, or excuses, or even affirmative action—it’s just a level playing field where everybody can be better than they are.
Yet even this moment could be an opportunity.
To see ourselves for what we are, rather than what we wish we were, can be painfully hard. But it is the inevitable step toward what we could be. It is an open door, a new creation. We can do better, be better; we could learn, we could change; we could listen.
As Lutherans, we should know this: We put confession and forgiveness and promise together all the time.
At church we changed the sign out front and added “Black Lives Matter,” which will annoy some people and gratify others. We’ll leave it there for just a few weeks, because it would be too easy to lull ourselves into thinking that a yard sign is enough to change the world. A first step will take you nowhere if it’s only a first step. We will need to move now to some of the things we do when we are at our best—listening, confession and self-examination, repentance and forgiveness, and most especially, faith working through love—which, as the apostle Paul pointed out, is the only thing that counts for anything (Galatians 5:6).
I am grateful for the pain of these days. I am grateful for our collective grief. I am especially grateful that this time it hasn’t gone away so easily, that it seems, perhaps, maybe, a little, we are willing to stay in the pain and see this heartbreak through. That we recognize not only our collective grief, but our collective responsibility.
And our collective opportunity. And I pray that we do not let this moment go, nor let it be twisted into something it is not, but grasp it for what it is: Perhaps our best opportunity in a long while to do better, to be better.
It is time to bring down the curtain on the last minstrel show. There are roles one should just turn down and not play; I don’t want to be in that play any longer. I don’t want to go back to normal; these past six months have made it abundantly clear, that bridge has burned.
But I would love to see an America fulfilling its promise, its bedrock belief that all people are created equal.
We can do better. We can be better.
© Paul R. Olsen