American Buddhist Center
“This must have been written by some illiterate Italian who can’t speak English.” The remark slid off the pastor’s tongue as he read the announcements from the church bulletin. He chuckled when he offered his opinion about the typos he was encountering, but he did not smile.
I elbowed my husband. “Did you hear that? The preacher just made a racist joke!”
Ben’s words came slowly. “I know…yeah…” He seemed as alarmed as me. But not as mad.
We had visited the church on a whim the previous Sunday; we’d moved into a house down the street. We returned, because Ben liked the music. I was wary, since mine was the only black face in the congregation. When the preacher made the comment, I felt attacked. If he joked like that about Italians, Lord knows what he’d say about me.
My mind took inventory of the possibilities. In my twenties, hard at work at the front desk clerk of a resort hotel: a guest sneered that my kind were fit only to clean rooms. In my thirties, driving my mother to the store: a pedestrian screamed a racial epithet at me and added an obscene gesture. In my forties, paused at a stop light in the suburbs: a man in a truck pulled up beside my car, rolled down his window and spat the N word. The preacher had said “illiterate Italian,” but I heard a lifetime of nigger.
Fear cowered beneath the anger. If a minister was prejudiced, I couldn’t trust anyone. I longed to give him the benefit of the doubt, so I could feel safe. Nearby parishioners made no sounds or gestures I could interpret as protest; maybe they agreed with the insult. Maybe they wanted me out of their church. Maybe they hated me. It was no longer Kansas City, 2003. It was Montgomery, 1961.
I had to get out of there.
Shame stopped me. It destroyed my will to do anything except disappear. It seared my cheeks and forced me to stare into empty space. Just as I had at sixteen, when my white stepmother took me to see Gone with the Wind. I hated Mammy’s black face, shining like polished leather under that stupid white bandana. I hated Prissy’s simpering uselessness, hated her for being exactly what Rhett Butler called her. A “simple-minded darkie.” After the matinee, my step-mom and I edged through a crowd of women who looked like her–– fair skin, straight hair, thin lips. I was Prissy.
The pastor moved on to his sermon, but my pounding heart drowned out the message. In fact, I constructed a lecture of my own, filled with moral superiority. I let him have it with both barrels. I shot him with how-dare-yous and shame-on-yous and a fusillade of you-don’t-knows. But the outrage could not sustain itself. The fear and shame could not endure while Ben cradled my hand in his.
Stripped of the option to fight, run or vanish, I sat. I struggled to find calm within a torrent of emotions. Beneath the still surface of my skin, my insides vibrated. I felt like a duck gliding across a pond, while its webbed feet paddled like crazy under the water.
Thinking, debating and remembering gave way to grief. Maybe intolerance is just part of the human condition. Fear breeds prejudice, and fear is universal.
The need to speak up persisted, although I no longer knew what to say. Rage had energized, but grief rendered me helpless, as useless as Prissy.
After the service, I turned to Ben. “I have to go talk to him.”
The minister stood at the front of the church, greeting parishioners. I trudged down the aisle toward him. He smiled when we shook hands.
I pushed my dreadlocks off my face and took a deep breath. “My husband and I visited last Sunday…and today. I felt welcome––until I heard that joke about Italians. I don’t feel welcome any more.”
His smile dissolved.
“Oh. Let me explain. We’re doing a pizza fundraiser with an Italian restaurant and…”
“I’m not here to accuse you of anything, or make assumptions about your motives.” I yearned to let him off the hook, longed for this awkward exchange to end. I usually ran from conflict.
“I wanted to tell you how I feel. That joke…it made me think…when will it be my turn to be laughed at.”
“That won’t ever happen. When you get to know me better, you’ll understand.”
He described his leadership role in the area of diversity. He recited the church’s contributions: civic committees, outreach to immigrants, programs for inner city youth.
I interrupted. “I’m new to your church. Didn’t know you when you made the joke.”
In the end he apologized. “Thank you for your courage and honesty,” he added. He draped his arm across my shoulders, uninvited.
I cringed, took a step backwards. I had spoken up, but did not feel heard.
Ben and I walked to the car in silence.
We pulled out of the driveway. “Awfully quiet. You okay?”
“Well, he’s not a bad guy,” I said, “but it’s the good people who aggravate me.”
“They’re so sure about not being prejudiced – they don’t listen.”
My anger refueled itself. The outrage returned. That preacher had done something I would never do.
In the weeks that followed, the monotony of house cleaning, yard work and grocery store excursions gradually dulled my irritation.
Attending a nephew’s football game, I crossed an urban schoolyard in search of other team parents. Three African-American students sauntered toward me. They were dressed in baggy pants and shirts that hung to their knees. Shoulder punching punctuated their banter, which grew louder as they approached. When they drew close enough, I asked for directions. To my surprise, they responded with well-spoken courtliness.
“If you continue down the walkway, ma’am, you’ll find the football field directly on your left. Have a nice day.”
I hurried off, intent on my destination and then stopped mid-stride. Something was out of place. What? I turned around. The young men continued on their way; their laughter faded in the crisp autumn breeze. What?
I had expected those young black men to talk like gangster rappers. I was astonished they had spoken politely in perfect English. Me, prejudiced.
When I’d looked that minister in the eye, I was face to face with myself. Just like the pastor, I was a good citizen and took pride in my achievements. And just like him … I’d rather talk than listen.
Confronted by his indiscretion, I’d dismissed his good intention. When both are acknowledged, the one can be forgiven and the other praised. In passionate monologues I clamor for change, but progress begins when I lay down the megaphone and pick up a mirror.
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