Tag Archives: racism

Building Lop-Sided Bridges

Building Lop-Sided Bridges    —by Jinny Batterson

About this time of year in 1997, I got a nasty shock. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A set of cells had gone malignant and might soon invade the rest of my body. Several months earlier, I’d had my annual mammogram and was told it was normal. So at first, I wrote off the lump that showed up around Hallowe’en as just another annoying symptom of menopause. I was a healthy, middle-aged white woman. I ate well, exercised regularly, had gotten all my prescribed screenings. I made a comfortable living as a consultant, had two college-age sons, a husband who loved me, and no family history of breast cancer. The lump would go away on its own. It didn’t. Further tests showed an aggressive tumor. By early December, I’d had a modified radical mastectomy without reconstruction. I was pretty shaky both physically and mentally. 

As I began to heal, I tried to use my experiences as a teaching tool. Our Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Richmond, Virginia had long engaged in efforts to help promote racial healing. Each year about the time of the MLK holiday, we had a special service with a racial justice theme. This particular year, I’d been working for several months before my diagnosis on the planning committee for the service. As I began to regain strength after surgery, I asked if I could do a short talk about my “lop-sidedness,” using my body as a metaphor for the way our entire society was lop-sided and hampered by our history of individual prejudice and systemic racism. We all needed healing. I composed and rehearsed my talk. By early January I was confident that I’d have the physical stamina and the psychological strength to deliver a 10-minute talk, even with the prospect of six months of chemotherapy looming. 

Then I went to choir rehearsal. Our young choir director wanted to use spirituals to accompany the service. He’d chosen “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, goin’ home to live with God…” as the meditation hymn. I flinched. Jamie was a wonderful musician, but I really didn’t want to identify with that particular song at that particular time in my life. Privately, I asked if we could substitute something more upbeat. I got a reprieve. We wound up singing “I’m so busy servin’ my Master, ain’t got time to die…”  Both the congregation and I survived to continue our work. 

A decade later, I learned that my favorite college roommate had developed breast cancer. Beth had grown up near Richmond, graduated from our small liberal arts school, then gotten an advanced degree in library science. She’d moved to different parts of the country. She spent much of her career administering college libraries—first in Ohio, then South Dakota, then Florida. We kept up via holiday cards and occasional phone calls. In her 50’s, Beth had changed focus slightly and taken a post as director of a set of public libraries in an economically depressed part of lowland South Carolina. Beth had been in her new job only a year or so when the cancer hit. Her family and friends rallied to her support. Once her most intensive treatments were over, I went down for a weekend visit. We traded survivor stories. When she passed the five year mark without a recurrence, I sent hearty congratulations. Then, a couple of years later, a non-cancerous illness destroyed her kidneys and took her life with little warning. That April, I drove south through timber plantations, palmetto swamps, and railroad cuts festooned with blooming wisteria vines to get to South Carolina for Beth’s memorial service. I didn’t know much about her town, but suspected it would be as highly segregated racially as much of the South I’d previously been exposed to.

The small Methodist church was nearly full. Some of the mourners were family members I recognized, but I was surprised to see half a dozen older black women among the mostly white worshippers. I guessed at first that perhaps the women were maintenance workers at some of the libraries Beth supervised, then chided myself for stereotyping. At the reception after the service, I had a chance to talk with one of the women.

“How did you know Beth?” I asked.

“We were part of a local support group called ‘Bosom Buddies’,” the woman explained, pointing to the discrete pink lapel pin she wore. 

I never learned much about the group. Beth may have had a hand in creating this cross-racial sisters-beneath-the-skin effort in the area she’d made her home. Whatever her role, she’d reached out across any racial divide, creating enough of a bond so that six women had taken the time to attend her memorial service.

Our country remains in need of healing. Pundits of many political leanings expound on all the ways we are polarized— economically, racially, politically, spiritually. Income disparities persist; wealth gaps have gotten worse. Gun violence takes too many lives; “stop and frisk” procedures and mass incarceration further divide us. Health outcomes vary tremendously, based partly on income and ethnicity. We’re still lop-sided. We all need healing. Perhaps those of us who are physically lop-sided can continue to build lop-sided bridges.

 

 

    

 

 

Racism: A Chronic Spiritual Wasting Disease

Racism: A Chronic Spiritual Wasting Disease    —by Jinny Batterson

The mostly “white” religious congregation I’m part of in Raleigh, North Carolina has lately become more visibly concerned with reducing racism. Our local intensification started amid a national denominational crisis about discrimination in hiring practices. It increased after a 2017 murder at a Charlottesville, Virginia “unite the right” rally.  Our renewed efforts to grapple with racism (and other related isms) is a positive step. During 2018-2019, we’ve slightly adapted the workshop curriculum “Living the Pledge” and held multiple sessions for congregational leaders and members. Over the course of these workshops, those of us privileged to be “white” have gotten a more complete understanding of our unfair advantages, based on centuries of overt chattel slavery and then at least another century’s add-on of explicit and implicit discrimination against “non-whites.”  During a particularly intense role play, it dawned on me how unlikely it would be for me to fully shed my “whiteness.” Despite my best efforts, my earlier conditioning, sometimes unconscious, could continue to trip me up sometimes. Racism, I came to believe, was not an acute condition that could be cured with a good dose of anti-racism training. Rather it was a chronic spiritual illness requiring lifetimes of work to reduce and eventually eliminate its damage. 

In addition to the workshop materials, I studied on my own—a frequent recourse among highly formally educated Unitarian-Universalists. By the time I tiptoed into it, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me had spent over a year and a half on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. His epistolary account of growing up as a “black” male in Baltimore reminded me of 1950’s childhood outings to eat and shop in what was then predominantly “white” West Baltimore, before fear-based real estate block-busting changed the complexion and economic resources of the neighborhood. I immersed myself in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, getting a “black” woman’s perspective on similar changes in the southside Chicago neighborhood that helped form her. I read a confessional analysis of the holdovers of “slaveholder religion” by “white” North Carolina-based pastor Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In his 2018 book, Reconstructing the Gospel, Wilson-Hartgrove explains how a skewed interpretation of the Christian gospels can continue to favor “whiteness.”

During an early spring 2019 trip, I had a chance to visit the museum and monument in Montgomery, Alabama, created by the Equal Justice Initiative to dramatize the connecting threads of racial violence through slavery and the period of terror-based lynchings to current mass incarceration. Recently I viewed the film The Best of Enemies, chronicling a cross-racial friendship forged during a two-week period of skillfully facilitated community discussions and soul-searching about school integration in neighboring Durham, North Carolina in 1971.    

Once we’ve studied, though, what do we do differently from what has come before? How do we learn to treat each person as an individual with “inherent worth and dignity,” as stated in our denomination’s basic documents?  How do we work toward dismantling institutional racism? How do us “whites” get beyond “white guilt” to become more effective in the struggle?  A clue came from a “white” woman activist who’s become a late-life hero of mine, “subversive Southerner” Anne Braden.  In an interview at her namesake education center in Louisville, Kentucky when she was in her late 70’s, Braden was clear and succinct: 

“I don’t think guilt is a productive emotion. I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt. Now there’s plenty for white people to feel guilty about but they’ll sit around and they’ll feel guilty then they’ll go hear a real militant black speaker beat them over the head for an hour and go home and think they’ve done something and not do anything for a year. I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think what everybody white that I know has gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in. The meaning of life is in that struggle, that human beings have always been able to envision something better.”

Racism is a chronic spiritual waste. Part of the work of  religious community is to harness the spirit to work persistently to reduce such waste, helping build the beloved community.