Faith seeking understanding, my personal journey towards a deeper knowledge of and intimacy with God, the cosmos, humanity and myself through thoughts, words and (occasionally) images, is a series of [hopefully] daily reflections I’m writing with the purpose of publishing something on a regular basis for others to read, either here, at joncarllewis.com or among my writings at Medium.com.
When I patiently explained to my therapist that I needed to do a lot of reading and learning before writing about race, he slowly brought me around to an understanding that my take on it is as valid as anyone else’s who might write about the subject.
He tried to convince me that I had everything I needed to tell a compelling story within me, within my own experience, and that I could trust that experience. In searching for reasons to refute this assessment, I told him that I didn’t think I was worthy of writing about race because I come from a life of relative privilege compared to the situations of even some family members whose lives on the surface seem to have been more curtailed by systemic racism than mine. In short, I felt my social location made me a relative outsider and, thus, invalidated anything I might say as a Black man living in America.
Yet, when America looks at me, they see a black man. Much as I wish I could control what people see first, perhaps the intellect or the creativity or the spirituality, what appears on the surface is dark skin. And no amount of Land’s End or Lacoste can mask that signifier. Nevertheless, on the inside I don’t feel “legitimately” Black. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I was raised in a town that was predominantly white and had classmates and friends who were almost exclusively white. This didn’t register to me as unusual in any way until I had to interact with cousins living in predominantly Black communities even when there were whites living a separate-but-more-than-equal life in another part of town.
Although, at first, I took the difference between my socialization and theirs to be a Northern/Southern dynamic, I realized that a key difference in their minds was that I was acting “white.” I maintained that I was acting the way I was raised: intellectual, middle class with professional aspirations and a love for aspects of the dominant culture from which people who looked like me were usually excluded. Furthermore, unlike my brother, I was unable to easily code switch to mimic the accents and affect the mannerisms of my cousins. This made me feel like an outsider among my own “people” even though I was still loved in spite of my strange speech and mannerisms. This contrasted with a feeling of belonging I felt when I was among my white and other dominant-culture friends. I gained a sense from somewhere that I should feel uncomfortable—or, at least, more uncomfortable in the dominant culture than I actually was.
I could easily try to blame my parents for this state of affairs, but the reasons for my ease of getting along with people living in the dominant culture actually go back generations. There were professionals, including teachers, on both sides of my family tree as far back as my mother’s great-grandfather. So there was an expectation of literacy and learning which I was surprised to find was not universally held, especially among descendants of enslaved people who were brutally and psychologically punished for aspiring to the lowest levels of literacy or comprehensive education.
In addition to this literate and professional orientation, my family had a long history of getting along with white people, either as trusted servants or as classmates, teammates or friends. In the majority-white town where I grew up our family had been a fixture since before the town was even incorporated. I was raised by people who showed little more deference to a white person than their “station” in life commanded, and who seemed to associate freely within the dominant culture. I say “seemed” because there were constraints and exclusions on my parents that I wasn’t aware of until after my formative years were well in the past.
So, I knew little of the brutal and traumatizing, systemic racism that suppressed—and continues to suppress—people of darker skin.
Perhaps it is now survivor’s guilt that accounts for my embarrassment at not having been raised with more overt prejudice or structural constraints (though, again, the structural constraints were there—I just didn’t know about them at the time). I can look back on a life where I have assumed a place of privilege that I didn’t know was not intended for me. But I can also see, looking back, the places where structural racism and race prejudice severely constrained my life—whether I knew it or not.
And perhaps at another time I will share reflections on the ways these forces have impacted my life, sheltered though it might have felt, from before my birth to the present day.
Thank you for your time and attention.
I’d love to know your thoughts on what you’ve read.
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May God richly bless you on your journey.