By the Rev. Julie Peeples
One hot, steamy summer afternoon when I was 6 years old, my parents, five siblings and I headed to one of our favorite spots: the Battery in Charleston, a picturesque park right on the harbor in my hometown. The year was 1963. Running around the western edge of the park, I bolted over to a water fountain for a long, cool drink. I remember that fountain clearly: an old brass one with green streaks around the base and water leaking at the top and bottom.
As I reached up to push the button, my father stopped me with a firm, “No, don’t,” his large, gentle hand reaching out for me, pulling me back. Confused, I looked up at my 6-foot-2-inch dad. He stumbled over his words as he tried to explain to me why I could not drink from that particular fountain, how that fountain was for “colored people” only.
I remember thinking, “That’s dumb; it’s water, isn’t it? And I’m so, so thirsty.”
His discomfort was palpable, and I had the distinct impression he did not agree with this strange rule. But there was something more than discomfort in his voice and demeanor. There were people watching, he said, people who might hurt us if they saw me drinking from that fountain. White people. And he glanced over his shoulder toward the shadows of the ancient oaks.
What kind of monster, I wondered, could possibly make my big, strong, brave daddy so fearful?
What kind of monster, indeed. Over the years, I learned to label this menace by different names. For a while it was convenient to point the finger at certain people as the monster. We were not like them, so many of us told ourselves. We knew better than to make overt racist comments or jokes. We knew to treat all people with respect.
No, we were not like those mean people, like the mother of my best friend in fifth grade who celebrated the day MLK was murdered. And besides, my family wasn’t well off. We didn’t live in the nice neighborhood. We knew something about being left out, didn’t we?
Years later, I convinced myself the monster was slowly dying, that enough good, strong people had put it in its place. Much of the time I have been able to forget about it altogether. But then came Trayvon Martin. And Ferguson. And Baltimore. And New York, North Charleston, McKinney, Cleveland and ... Charleston.
Then came the people I had known and worked with for years pouring out their pain, anger and frustration.
Then, as if for the first time, I heard parents telling me the instructions they are compelled to give their children about how to behave around police officers, how to dress and not dress, what to do if confronted. I read more of the history of white violence against black churches. How did I not know? I had no doubt been told stories before of what it is like living as though there is a target on your back, but I had never really heard them.
Slowly, slowly I am trying to look the monster in the eye. As it comes into focus, what I see are very old and very far-reaching tentacles intertwined with our systems of justice, education, health care, the economy.
It is not simply one unhinged shooter, one bad cop or law enforcement in general or that scary guy on Facebook, not this group of people or that department or government official or political party. It is an intricate network of systems, a tangled mess of policies and habits, laws and practices, overt actions and unconscious attitudes. As it comes into sharper focus, I see this shape-shifting beast pervading the environment: It is the air we breathe, the ground we build our lives on, the culture we reside in, the way we consider one skin color, one experience as normal, better. And with an even closer look, I can see my reflection in its eyes.
Although those of us who are white can refuse to see it if we choose, the monster takes its toll on everyone: black, white, Asian, Hispanic, male, female, law enforcement, government officials, fast-food workers, Ph.D.s, clergy, presidents. Everyone. It thrives whenever we demonize others, but it also feeds on our silence and grows stronger with indifference.
Given the size, scope and cleverness of this behemoth, is there any hope we will ever rid ourselves of it? Is it possible to even envision a future without racism?
I honestly don’t know. What I do know is we have an enormous amount of work to do, and it is high time for us white people to accept our responsibility. This is our teachable moment, and fortunately there are teachers available for us if we will pay attention.
I am finding the most amazing instructors: bright, engaging young people who tell me of being followed in store after store, being pulled over for no apparent reason, questioned on their own street, looked upon with fear by many. Good, dedicated police officers who tell of living with incredibly high stress and frustration. Clergy friends who tell me stories of their church members who are routinely turned down for housing loans and are never called back for job interviews though they are well-qualified. People of color who are forthright in letting me know that throwing stern words and good intentions at the monster won’t cut it. Women and men of all races who have been courageous enough to do this work for years. Thank God for teachers.
There are things that all of us can do to diminish the monster’s power and reach, things like learning the history — not what’s in the official history books but the real, hidden history. We can reject the usual strategies employed to avoid the truth such as blaming the victims and the protesters, analyzing the black family or debating affirmative action, zeroing in on class issues. We can listen, as hard as that can be, to the worst of the anger and frustration and pain. Listen to young black people, white middle-aged police officers, weary educators and grieving grandmothers. Listen first, then speak up when we hear people dismiss it all by any of the usual tired excuses.
We can engage in dialogue that leads to action in the form of policy changes and fair business practices, independent citizen review boards, protection of voting rights. Learning about privilege is in itself a huge step. So is knowing how to move beyond guilt.
Ridding ourselves of this scourge is a long-term commitment. One vigil or expression of outrage on social media or signature on an online petition isn’t enough. Doing only what makes us feel better doesn’t count. As challenging as all of this is, our future depends on it.
If a mass slaughter in a sacred space in the city nicknamed Holy, by a gunman spouting racist poison, does not awaken us in the white church, I am not sure what will. White church people who are rightly horrified by that massacre can be a part of that awakening by refusing to remain silent. For people of faith in particular, complacency is not an option, not if we truly love our neighbor.
Today I can walk up to that water fountain and take a good, long drink without fear. Much has changed, much of it for the better. But clearly, the destructive evil of racism is alive and well. The water fountains — and the fear — are still there even when we can’t see them or touch them. It’s time for us white folks to face them. The monster has to go.
The writer is pastor of Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro.