Tuesday, May 29, 2007


A sign in the window of a downtown bar & grill:

Strict Dress Code

1. No hats or headgear of any kind.
2. No long T-shirts or tank tops.
3. No sports team insignia.*
4. No baggy pants.
5. No exposed gold teeth or grilles.

* The bar's decor has a baseball theme, and TVs are constantly showing sporting events.

"Anti-racism training" is all the rage in the Episcopal Church these days. It's required for new ordinands and, among others, members of the Executive Council. With some luck, I have so far managed to evade it, though I suppose that luck may run out someday.

I would like to think that I received effective anti-racism training growing up in the 1950s and 60s. I remember segregated waiting rooms at the train station in the small Arkansas town my grandparents lived in. I remember hearing stories about my uncles fighting over which one would have to deliver newspapers in the "colored" neighborhoods (only they used another word instead of "colored"). I remember the town officials closing a municipal swimming pool rather than integrate it. (I hasten to add that my parents consistently voiced negative value judgments on these attitudes and actions, thus contributing to the formation of my moral consicence.) I remember my southern-bred high school band director making (what he thought were subtle) racist comments about a black composer who would be conducting us in the performance of one of his own works at a regional band clinic. I remember the "Freedom Riders." I remember Bull Connor's fire hoses from watching them on the evening news. I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach the night Martin Luther King was assasinated.

Interestingly, while the suburb in which I grew up was overwhelmingly white, there were more than a few Latinos in the area even then. In my experience, they integrated into the mainstream of high school culture easily and naturally. They were quarterbacks and cheerleaders and honor students. Dating across ethnic lines was unremarkable. It didn't occur to me that anyone might be prejudiced against Latinos. For that, I had to wait until I moved to
California to attend college!

I will not hide the fact that I am more than a little disturbed by the metamorphosis of the very idea of racism. As near as I can tell, the principal definition in circulation these days is "the exercise of unearned white privilege." Not overt prejudice based on skin color. Not concrete if subtle discrimination. Not irrational race-based hatred. Simply the exercise of unearned white privilege.

Note two corollaries of this definition: 1) Only whites can be racist, and 2) Racist behavior requires neither knowledge nor intention.

Call me ... well ... racist if you want to, but such a definition is patently ludicrous. It capitulates to the sort of identity politics that is the scourge of our society. Most fiendishly, it makes a mockery of the experience of the victims of the real racism that Dr King died fighting. When the purveyors of alarm against faux-racism decide to get real, then maybe the effort to combat racism in the Christian community will get my support. (But they will have to call it something other than "training," which is itself a massacre of the kind of plain speech for which Christians should be noted.)

Now back to that dress code sign. Without saying so directly, the kind of attire it seeks to prohibit is that associated with Hip-Hop culture (aka "urbanwear"). And the great majority of those who are inclined to dress in such a manner are Americans of African descent. So, is the dress code, by its very nature, racist because its effect is to exclude black patrons?

I must confess, I was glad to see the sign, because it happens to be a place my wife and I enjoy frequenting, but if we were to have to endure Rap from the jukebox as we munch our burgers and down some brew, that preference would change in a heartbeat. Interestingly, I noticed the sign during my customary Saturday morning ambulation. The place is pretty hoppin' on Friday nights, so much so that the Dragonfly and I don't even try to get in. Saturdays are a different matter, however, and when we slipped in after the Vigil Mass, the dress code sign was nowhere to be seen! Moreover, the clientele was decidedly white and middle-class (not to mention superannuated--Brenda and I were the youngest ones there!). So, was the removal of the dress code sign for the Saturday crowd a further act of racism? (I've been known to wear a baseball cap into that establishment--on Friday night I would have needed to remove it, but on Saturday I could have kept it on.)


Anonymous said...

So from this, I take it that you oppose christians opposing racism? Doesn't that implicitly mean that you support racism?

You're just ready to walk away and say, "Hey, I was alive in the sixties, therefore racism no longer exists." That's, at best, very tenuous logic. Generally, if you have to start a screed with "I'm not a racist, but...", you're a racist.

I am guessing you're not a homophobe either, right? But...

Integrity, my friend, try to find some.

Anonymous said...

I have a similar background - Midwest instead of South. I admit to racist tendencies, which do not impede me from serving majority black and Asian congregations because I can recognize that my faith in Christ and his Church stand in judgment over my ethnic identity. You are right about the current racism training "industry" in the Church: it is perversely all about white people and the American (white) experience and has nothing to say about the Gospel and nothing to say to "people of color" who are just updated "non-whites" and incapable of the sin of racism.

It is good to be white and to have it all be about ME. Sorry, Africans and Asians and Latinos: inter-ethnic hatred and violence in your homelands and neighborhoods is really about us white people. Maybe, we can get around to including you in our anthropology later. Right now, we're too self-absorbed to count you as real people.