Today is my birthday. It’s also Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s not every year I am able to share my birthday with a national holiday, and I’m honored to enjoy my birthday on the same day as one of our nation’s heroes.
To celebrate, I’m “leaking” an adapted excerpt from my upcoming book Undefending Christianity: Embracing Truth Without Having All the Answers (Harvest House, March 2011). Enjoy!
In kindergarten, racism was not part of my vocabulary. My friends had skin of all kinds of colors in our somewhat urban environment. We were brothers and sisters, friends and buddies. Whether learning to tie our shoes or eat glue, we were one family.
Second grade presented a different twist. My parents left the city like an episode of Beverley Hillbillies. Only in reverse. We lived in a trailer, used an outhouse for a few months (Don’t ask!), and built our own home. We were redneck before redneck was cool.
And I changed schools.
On the first day, I sat in class with twenty other eight-year olds and noticed something markedly different: everyone had the same skin color. I distinctly remember whispering to the boy beside me, “Where are all the other kids?” I don’t think he understood what I meant.
For the next several years, I experienced the Middle-America, all-white, small town world. It was weird. I only saw people of color when we played basketball or football against another school in the next county. And on TV. But I knew people of other colors existed “out there.” I silently vowed to find those friends once again someday.
In college, my world changed yet again. This time, I had classmates from all over the planet. Some of them only spoke English well enough to pass the test for admission to the school. I loved it! I took a semester of Spanish, a semester of French, and even half a semester of German. I could say “hello” ten different ways and embarrass myself with a hundred new expressions.
Then I moved again, this time south to Dallas, Texas. Here I learned that racism had only more recently legally ended. Many parents the age of my own parents had lived through legalized segregation.
Though people continued to thrive in a variety of skin tones, I noticed subtle differences. Like the fact that Hispanics worked every position at McDonalds except manager. African-Americans could be my acquaintances but didn’t get too close. Asians of various types owned my favorite buffet restaurants orand mostly worked at hospitals. Indians had chosen to dominate the hotel business. And Koreans had lots of churches.
I also discovered that real Native Americans actually still existed. They owned the casinos (but only in Oklahoma). And they looked a lot like me.
Later, I consulted some Mormon family research website that pointed out that I, too, was part Native American. To be exact, I’m one-sixteenth or so Cherokee Native American, give or take a generation or two, just enough to grow a ponytail if I want and not call it a midlife crisis.
After grad school, I met an African American pastor named Dyron. Everyone called him D like the letter, which was sometimes confusing since people sometimes called me D too and we would both look up when people called our names.
But we had way more in common than the first letter of our names.
D told me he was born in a little town called Whitewright. From the start, he knew life had been stacked against him. He would say, “It’s tough to grow up as a black man in a town called White Right.” At the time, I thought he was joking, but the town of Whitewright, Texas is really on the map of the nation of Texas (Texas only pretends to be a state. It really is a country. Just ask any Texan.).
One day, D and I were drinking coffee at Starbucks and talking about life. He said hi to someone he knew who walked by. H because he seemed to know about every other person who walked through the door. But after this particular church member of his left, D shared something that caught me off guard.
“People gonna be talkin’ bout us meetin’ together like this.”
I asked D what he meant. He explained that even though white and black folks pretend to get along a lot in the South, they really don’t handle black and white friendships very well. At least in his experience.
Looking back, I should have taken D’s comment more seriously, but I kind of filed it into the back of my head for future reference.
Later, I invited D to speak at my church’s youth ministry meeting. The students loved him and he communicated with excellence.
And I thought I might lose my job.
No one had told me that a black man had never spoken at my church since it had been started in the 1970s. I later told D I wanted him to preach to my whole church but didn’t know if I could arrange it. He understood.
He had the same problem at his church.
Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say that Sunday at eleven a.m. was the most segregated hour in America. He was right, but sometimes the truth hurts. It’s like hitting my thumb with a hammer. I know it’s not right to cuss, but I sure feel like it.
My predicament now is that I know the problem but not the solution. Now my goal is to find and live more stories of Latinos and Gringos and Filipinos and guys with one-letter names like D who are worshiping together, praying together, and living together as brothers and sisters in unity.
Once upon a time I read a quote that said all wars are ultimately civil wars because we are each brothers and sisters, one to another.
Or, to put it another way, to erase racism we must each become an eraser.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dillon Burroughs.
BURROUGHS is an author, activist, and co-founder of Activist Faith.
Dillon served in Haiti following the epic 2010 earthquake and has
investigated modern slavery in the US and internationally. His books
include Undefending Christianity, Not in My Town (with Charles J.
Powell), and Thirst No More (October). Discover more at DillonBurroughs.org.