Who’s Coming to Dinner?
By Dr. Amy Laura Hall
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics
Duke Divinity School
"What if this is just like the Tawana Brawley case?” I asked. Syndi turned and looked at me, with obvious surprise, and appreciation. “Exactly! I bet this is going to be exactly like that.” She was staring at me like I had become, instantly, a different person. We had been friends for two years, but the recognition in her face was something I'd never seen. This was not at all what I had expected. I had steeled myself for an argument, only tentatively asking the question. It took me about three minutes to get a clue. The moment was a horrible intersection, a cross of misunderstanding. I was saying exactly the opposite of what she thought I was saying, and the question she heard coming out of my mouth had initiated, for a moment, a kinship that I hadn't even known was missing, until I saw it all over her face. After a pause, I said, “No, I am so, so sorry. I meant, what if she isn't telling the truth?” Our friendship really never recovered, on either side. I hadn't known what we were missing until, for about three minutes, I caught a glimpse of true friendship. The person she had suspected me to be had now been confirmed, and nothing I could say would quite make up the difference.
Syndi and I were both undergrads and residence advisors at a school in the South. We dealt with vomit, sorority girls passed out on the bathroom floor, pre-med students freaking out in the middle of the night — all the things that forge a bond between students paid to take care of other students. But the rift that went through our campus that year felt unsurpassable to both of us. A student was suffering deeply from tragically racist images written all over her dorm room, repeatedly. Students and faculty were talking about the case in classrooms and late at night in dorm hallways. To many African-American students, the repeated, hateful scrawl just made more obvious what was subtly written all over the school — a sense that Black people had better watch their backs. The happy race-diversity veneer was about half an inch thick. As one editorialist put it, Atlanta may be a city too busy to hate, but, give white Southerners a bit of time, and they will remember how.
Now, here, if you are reading this and wondering whether or not Tawana Brawley or this suffering undergrad were fabricating tragedy or actually surviving it, we've missed a chance to get a clue. The moment was like a Rorschach test. Like the end of Do the Right Thing. Like watching a guy from South Carolina shout “You Lie” at the President. Like the Duke Lacrosse case. Forget the whole “Who is my neighbor?” abstraction. These sorts of moments ask “Who is your kin?”
The cover of a recent issue of Newsweek had a huge baby face with words across its forehead blaring “Is Your Baby Racist?” The article is complicated, but the basic gist is this. Even babies note differences in skin color. No big shock to me there. (The title of the book discussed is “NurtureShock.”) The take home message of studies on race and parenting is worth a good, long, potentially painful moment of truth. Quoting the article, “It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin, every [white, volunteer] parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But according to Vittrup’s entry surveys, hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race.” These parents wanted their kids to “grow up colorblind,” and used lots of phrases like “everybody’s equal,” but the kids heard it mostly as blah, blah, blah from mom or dad. As one mom explained, after years of repeating the “equal” mantra, her kid finally asked, “What does equal mean?” He hadn't a clue. Kids note difference, early, and droning on about equality matters not a hill of beans.
Integrated education “gives you just as many chances to learn stereotypes as to unlearn them.” It continues, “Those increased opportunities to interact are also, effectively, increased opportunities to reject each other.” As anyone who has gone to an integrated school can tell you, we are not “All in this Together” dancing in beautiful diversity with perky costumes. Racial issues in the wider culture are pointier, stickier, puce rather than pink, in school hallways. Ask any middle schooler who trusts you enough to be honest.
Sometimes our children are our best mirrors. My youngest and I were sitting for over an hour waiting for a new tire. I had no nifty bag of tricks, only the cheesy magazines stacked on the little table next to the two chairs. We played every game I could imagine with the pictures of perfume ads and advice on how to cook a better casserole. She came up with a new game, “matching weddings.” She proceeded to go through and match up which man would be right for the woman in the perfume ad. Which guy should woo this woman in the mom-skinny jeans? There weren't many men, so she ended up pairing some of them twice. But polygamy wasn't worrying me. What shouldn't have surprised me but did was that she spent a good deal of time trying to make sure everyone was matched, Black with Black, White with White. This trumped other considerations. Uncle Ben ended up with Halle Berry. Thing is, it didn't seem to matter a fig that my little one is bi-racial.
"Mom,” she said, her voice rolling her eyes and then some, “Who do we know who isn't matched that way?” Huh. Pause. I named one couple we know moderately well. She looked at me again like I was stupid. “Mom, he doesn't look Black, and they aren't really our friends. I mean, they don't come over for dinner or anything.” Bingo.
Of course children note race. Of course they are watching us for cues. One of the studies in the article involves a Black Santa. Read it online just for this page alone. A group of white school children are thoroughly befuddled when their teacher reads a new version of The Night Before Christmas. Some of them shift uncomfortably when they see the family in the book is Black. But the class is sent aflutter when the teacher turns the page and Santa himself is Black. “A couple of the white children rejected this idea out of hand: a black Santa couldn't be real. But even the little girl [who was] the most adamant that the Real Santa must be white came around to accept the possibility that a black Santa could fill in for White Santa if he was hurt.” Yep.
In the next week’s issue, Newsweek ran responses to the article. In the age of Twitter, they now feature a little box with responses in only six words, in this case on “the roots of racism.” Sandy Davidson from Youngstown, Ohio wrote the six words: “Religion taken out of our schools.” I am not sure exactly what Ms. Davidson means here, but I am willing to take a cue. (One might argue that a book about Santa comes pretty close to religion in school, but, I digress . . .) The article, as I read it, begs for another kind of family, and a particular truth that Christianity is supposed to quicken in me and my little ones. Saying “God made everyone, red and yellow, black and white,” is all well and good, but it probably doesn't mean much if almost everyone at your church is white.
The good liberals of Austin can repeat “equal” until their faces turn Obama blue, but their kids are watching who comes to dinner. And guess who, it turns out, isn't coming to dinner? My eldest was the most clued in during the first three years of her life, when we were going to a church whose children were predominately African-American. The year she was three, she told everybody proudly that she was an African-American cat for Halloween. She had been held, loved on, scolded, and taught by African-American women, women who adopted her even though they were not very sure about her grad student mom. This was one of the few things I have done right by either of my children. We all came up and ate what we explained was Jesus' body and drank what we explained was Jesus' blood. At Mardi Gras, we danced around together in purple and green beads. In that place, it was easy to believe that Jesus is Black.
I hope and pray that both my precious girls will grow up with a clue. I've put them in schools where they have to get a clue, and fast. Yes, school matters. Yes, words matter. But what I am pretty sure matters loads more is how we break our bread, and with whom. May it be so.