Moments of Awareness & Silence
Thoughts on race and confronting racism from a former fundamentalist
We all have those moments in our lives, when we wish we could go back in time and do something differently, right? Lately, I’ve been returning to one prominent moment from when I was about 20 years old.
I was playing half-court basketball one warm summer night behind the gym at the South Carolina college I was attending. There were probably six of us. As it happens in these scrappy pickup games, one player eventually bumped into another or something and one young guy got angry. He didn’t just get angry though, he called the young man he had clashed with “a stupid n*gger.”
In that moment, the remaining five of us could have done many different things. What we all did was stand in awkward silence for a few seconds, saying nothing. Nothing. I said nothing. The other three white guys said nothing. I’m pretty sure one of the other guys was a university employee. He said nothing.
I have returned to that moment many, many times over the years. I’ve returned to it many times over the last few days.
Silence is complicity folks.
I wish I could go back and tell that young white guy to apologize. To dress him down. To tell him that regardless of whatever happened on the basketball court, he has no reason to resort — not just to bringing up his opponent’s race — but to bring up the most vicious racial slur imaginable in our culture. I often wish I could just punch him. And I’m not one to believe in punching first. I wish I could go back. I can’t.
That’s part of the reason I won’t shut up now.
I’d like to address my friends from those college days.
The college we attended, Bob Jones University, was itself a breeding ground for racism and bigotry. I think many of us who attended there get that. We dance around it, however, sometimes because we understand that not all of our friends from those days agree. Maybe we don’t want to make them uncomfortable. But it’s true.
I mean, Bob Jones University had a no inter-racial dating rule in place until the year 2000. Now, many of us who attended there never agreed with that rule. But this rule had a real-world impact. I knew couples who were told they couldn’t date. People of mixed race were actually told they had to choose which race they were going to date. As recently as 1998, BJU denied a white male student admission because he was married to a black woman. And despite protests to the contrary from the school’s former President more recently, this policy wasn’t *just* a custom. It wasn’t “insignificant to the school and never talked about.” It was a rule which affected student life daily. It was a belief taught as “scriptural,” using Bible verses, which were twisted to justify deeply racist beliefs.
“White folks and colored folks, you listen to me. You cannot run over God’s plan and God’s established order without having trouble. God never meant to have one race. It was not His purpose at all. God has a purpose for each race.”— Bob Jones Sr., founder of Bob Jones University
But the justifications for racism went much deeper. The races were separated at the Tower of Babel we were told from the pulpit, so who is man to bring them back together again. Black people were descendants of Cain and his “mark” in Genesis 4:15 represented his black skin. Not to put too fine a point on it: That teaching is virulent nonsense. Dangerous nonsense. Beliefs which enabled people to think of our black brothers and sisters as sub-human and to justify slavery.
This was a university, which didn’t even allow black students to attend until 1971, 17 years after Brown vs. Board of Education was enacted. And the racism didn’t disappear there then. The school found ways to justify the racism and bigotry which has been deeply embedded in its DNA since its founding. Due to these beliefs and others, I am not proud of attending Bob Jones University. I typically avoid telling people I attended there because (sadly) they may leap to conclusions about my own beliefs in the current day.
If you attended BJU with me and we’re still friends in “real life” or at least on Facebook, I’m guessing you probably no longer believe that inter-racial dating and marriage is wrong. Maybe you changed your mind on that issue. Maybe like me, you never held that particular belief. Allow me to politely prompt you then. If you and I attended that institution where this sort of inverted morality was taught on race, and if the school eventually admitted it was wrong, what else was (is) the school wrong about? Especially on race but by no means limited to that. What other misconceptions about race might we be clinging to? What other unexamined beliefs might you and I still be holding on to, which we grew up soaking in?
Some of you still work and attend there. Some of you still align yourselves with the school. You might be tempted to chime in and say that the school has changed. Great. (I have my strong doubts as to how much it’s changed.) That still doesn’t change the fact that we spent so many of our formative years steeping in these deeply bigoted beliefs.
It’s OK to change folks. It’s OK to change our beliefs. It’s OK to change our actions.
The unexamined life ain’t worth living.