Being Anti-Racist in 2013– Happy Birthday, Dr. King

I have a dream that my four little children

will one day live in a nation

where they will not be judged by the color of the skin

but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today!

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream” speech, August 28, 1963

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be 84 years old today had his life not been ended by violence in 1968.    For those who shuttered at the vision he had the courage to share with our nation during his ministry, his death no doubt was an illusory moment when they thought they had silenced him.   But Dr. King’s voice and his words continue to reverberate through the soul of America as we struggle still with what it might mean to heal the wounds that racism has wrought among us.

Dr. King’s words and courage have always inspired me in my life as a justice-seeking white person.  He described the pulse of a movement that changed the texture of my life as a child of the American South.  He gave me words to understand the urgency and the potency of working and risking for justice.  Indeed he is an icon for me of living a life of Christ-filled purpose, of making sacrifices for a better world, of telling the truth even when it cost him dearly.

It is that spirit of purpose, sacrifice, and truth-telling that I strive to hold onto in my own life, in my own ministry.  So much of my work is born of the vision God holds out in front of me of a world healed from the ravages of racism.   Part of living into that vision means that I have had to risk telling my own truth about my whiteness, about my privilege, and about the ways I have both been distorted and profited by the way race functions in this country.

Perhaps one of the most pivotal lessons I have learned in the last ten years of life concerns these famous and oft-quoted words of Dr. King about a world where character, not color defines how others regard us.   From that famous phrase, progressive whites (like me, like my family, like my fellow Presbyterians, like many, many other progressively-minded whites) have taken our cue to strive for a “colorblind” society—a society where we “don’t see color, we just see people.”

But the important lesson I have learned about these words is that we whites have misunderstood them.  And being colorblind is absolutely NOT what we need to be anti-racist in 2013.  And I believe, with everything that is in me, that Dr. King, too, would agree.

The colorblind aspiration that progressive whites have espoused is a dangerous invitation—and more and more, it is jarring to my ears.  It sounds more to me like an invitation for people of color to act white than it sounds like creating space for us to honor who people really are, where they come from, who they are becoming.   And it lets us white people off the hook—after all, whiteness is the absence of color.  So, if you are white and you don’t see color, then you don’t really see anybody who doesn’t look like you.

Surely we can be more careful with the words of a dream from a man who challenged us to see the world anew.  He challenged us to move out of our destructive mentalities of racial inequality toward a world where we honor the humanity, the beauty, the possibility of every human life.  He urged us to make our laws and policies reflect our collective values of freedom, liberty, and justice for all.

Surely we can take great care with this dream of his—and hear the substance of his call to really see one another.  He wasn’t asking us to not see the color of his four children’s skin—MLK with familyhe was asking us not to attach hatred, biases, assumptions, fear, and judgment to the fact that their skin is black.  He was asking us to see them as whole people—as complicated, as promising, and as brilliant as all children are when their lives stretch out before them.  He was asking us to dream with him of a world where the fact that their skin was black would not put them at an immediate disadvantage, would not put economic, legal, and social obstacles in front of them.

The hard truth is, my fellow white people, that our mistaken interpretation of Dr. King’s word as license and encouragement for colorblind laws, policies and habits has not healed us from racism’s disease.  This colorblind mentality has exacerbated many of racism’s worst affects.  This colorblind mentality has made us blind to our own privilege and distorted in our capacity to see how race still deeply influences the contours of lives and communities in this country.   If you want to know more, I encourage you to read Tim Wise’s book, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, in which he carefully and thoroughly describes how white colorblindness has only made the potency of racism’s affects harder to spot and even harder to address.

On this birthday of a man who has taught me and taught us so much about who we are and who we can be, I want to honor him by continuing to train my eyes to see the vivid colors and contours of each person that I have the privilege to meet.  May I have the courage to see my own true colors, too.   And may we see ourselves in 2013 with a rich palate of truth, the kind that can finally set us free.



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8 responses to “Being Anti-Racist in 2013– Happy Birthday, Dr. King”

  1. Tony Aja says:

    In an ethno-relative society and church, the qualitative dimensions of those who are different must be explored and affirmed, not just tolerated. I call this a “color sighted” methodology and church life over merely a “color blind” concept where the goal is to see everyone the same and usually from the perspective of those in power. This, in my opinion, negates God’s plan of creating a diverse world where everyone’s particular traits and characteristics are celebrated.

    • Marcia says:

      Thank you, Tony. Your insights are very helpful. You are correct, usually when we create a generic “every person” it is in the image of the those with the most social power. Ironically, in an effort to be equitable, the colorblind strategy actually erases a person’s humanity more because it denies the truth of their particular experience. And in American culture, there are many, many things that continue to be profoundly affected by race–from economics and housing to health and life-expectancy. Your “color sighted” approach is an important step to not only celebrating differences, but also toward acknowledging the powerful legacy of slavery in this country. Thanks again for reading and commenting. Your words deepen the discussion.
      Peace,
      Marcia

  2. Marcia, this wonderfully written piece brings to mind a moment in my parenting that has always caused me to pause. My 3 year old daughter (now almost 20), came home from preschool one September day and attempted to relay a story to me. The story included a discussion of one of her teachers of which there were three. One was Asian, one Caucasian and one was African American. I asked in several ways, without supplying labels, for her description of the teacher because she could not at this early stage of the year remember all their names. I struggled with the effort. I wanted to choose physical features, and my darling daughter was using phrases like, “She wears bright colors.” Or, “She gives me a hug every day.” I was incredibly proud of her that she was not using skin color as her basis for description, but I finally had to say, “Is her skin pale like me, or is it darker?” thereby narrowing it down to two women who gave her hugs every day. I, by asking that question, forced her in a way to say, “Her skin is more brown.” Ugh! How do we as sensitive people in a world of differences leave behind that sensitivity and handle this piece of conversation? I am totally on board with not being “color blind” as the article suggests, but I am still not sure how to be “color sighted” without bringing to it all the hate that has surrounded this issue even now as an adult. As I sponsor women of all backgrounds into my business , I want to be the best mentor I can be for each of them and respect their heritage and uniqueness. This does require a familiarization with culture that has roots in race. Thank you for making me think today!

    • Marcia says:

      Thank you, Lindy. Your story is a good illustration of some of the dis-ease and confusion we white folks feel around how to navigate race in a respectful, life-giving way. One point Tim Wise makes in his book (which you would appreciate I know) is that studies show that white parents “sparing” their kids conversation about race does not help their children escape the biases in our culture about race. The best thing we can do is to have honest discussions about the history of racism in our culture, including how white people have benefitted from it. Being anti-racist doesn’t happen by accident or by avoidance, it happens when we are intentional and engaged in substantive conversations and relationships. It sounds like that is exactly what you are doing in your business. I’d say continuing to unearth and wonder about your own assumptions and biases in the midst of the stories of others you are hearing and learning from is the best thing you and any of us can do for the world today.
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Your honesty enriches the conversation.
      Peace,
      Marcia

  3. marie-claude provencher says:

    Thank you Marcia for this timely piece. I, too, draw from Doctor King’s life. My biggest source of inspiration and energy comes from his letter from the Birmingham jail in which he says: ” I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice”. I am holding this goal of not being a stumbling block.

    Colorblindness makes us blind to understanding different realities. My favorite saying these days comes from the France national football (as in soccer here) team: “Nos différences nous unissent” which translates as “our differences unite us”. That to me is a more inclusive and richer way of living. It is a motto I use while raising my mixed-race family.

    Love and miss you,

    Marie-Claude

    • Marcia says:

      Thank you, Marie-Claude, your wisdom, experience, and commitment bring a lot to this conversation. You and your family are a source of inspiration for any who seek to be anti-racist! I, too, appreciate the words from Dr. King’s letter. And it so clearly points to where the conversation is today in this country about race. It is not the extreme bigotry that poses us the greatest challenge. Most people see/hear that and recoil and reject it. It is the quiet, stealth ways that racism inhabits the status quo. It takes intentionality not to be a “stumbling block” because there is so much that is really beneath our awareness when we don’t make it our business to excavate.
      Thank you for the ways you help me and so many other keep digging and taking a closer look.
      We miss you all! Je t’aime!
      Peace,
      Marcia

  4. Nana Morelli says:

    Marcia, thank you. Being “brown” and biracial is part of the beautiful fabric of who I am. A friend once assured me she didn’t see color and I told her “but I want you to, I just don’t want you to use it to judge me.” My curly hair, my brown eyes, my brown skin, being female, my age, my tattoo, my piercings are all part of who I am. All or part may be used to describe me, to identify me in a crowd and frankly I love this. Hugs, Nana

    • Marcia says:

      Dear Nana,
      Thank you for reading and for commenting. You put it so beautifully! Each person’s uniqueness requires us to be attentive to all these aspects of our identity. To try and regard each person as a “generic” individual in order to create a groundwork or framework for honoring them as a full human being seems counter intuitive to me in my own experience. Thank you for adding your testimony to the conversation. It is a blessing!
      Peace,
      Marcia


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