This sermon was presented by Doug Trenfield on Sunday, February 28, 2016
I’ve been white my whole life. Many of you have been too. The awareness of my
whiteness, though, has evolved slowly. As a white person, I have had the luxury of letting that
awareness evolve slowly. Because I, like a large percent of white folk, I imagine, did not grow
up or ever live in environments where my not truly understanding my place as a white person put
me at risk, physically or in any other way. Not like the black woman I sat next to at a convention
luncheon, a woman about my age from Galveston. She told me and told me like it was just a
well-processed funny story, one she often traipsed out at convention luncheons when sitting next
to white folk that her mom taught her at an early age that when she goes into a room of people
she doesn’t know, to find the white people and figure out who they are. Her life, her prospects
for her future, her profession could depend on how well she did this, her mom told her. I was
stunned. I’ve told this to friends who are people of color, and they have not found this
remarkable. And I found that stunning as well.
Turns out, stories like this are common among those of you (not me) who identify as
people of color. After the horrible murder of Trayvon Martin by a selfappointed neighborhood
watchman in Florida, we’ve heard a lot about the talk, when a black father sits down with his son
and tells him how to act around white people he doesn’t know, around police. TaNehisi Coates
writes about this in Between the World and Me. There’d be real fear in his parents, fear that
someone would take away their children’s bodies, enough fear that his father would beat him if
he misstepped, hurting the very body he feared losing.
And all my life, I’ve gone blithely into that room, not knowing that the eyes behind the
darker faces took me in, measured me, judged me quickly because I might judge them quickly,
and if I didn’t like what I judged, that I would bring harm. I’ve gone blithely into that room,
aware only of prospects friendships, jobs, maybe romance and never was afraid. Well, not in
the way people of color speak of it.
I’ve never thought of teacher’s judging my academic abilities based on my skin hue. Tim
Wise in his memoir White Like Me writes of this. He was raised and schooled, thanks to
happenstance and, for the seventies, fairly enlightened parents , in a multicultural neighborhood
in Nashville. He had done little to distinguish himself academically, but apparently his whiteness
was his ticket to advanced classes. The skin hue of his black friends, many of whom he admits
were probably more capable than he, was there ticket to remain in regular ed or, sometimes, to
go to special classes.
I’m sure this sort of thing happened around me in school. Even now, 41 years after I
graduated from high school, the U.S. Department of Education reports harsh disparities between
ethnicities in how discipline in schools is doled out, and multiple studies (for example, one by
the Applied Research Center, suggesting racial bias when schools determine who will take
Advanced Placement courses) show how race can influence educators’ judgments of students’
academic abilities. I’m sure it did when I was in school, but I didn’t witness it, because I was that
well insulated. My parents were liberal college town folks, supporting vociferously the civil
rights movement (though showing some disdain for the uglier side of that movement [I
remember my mother, a supporter of Martin Luther King, saying that in a way he “asked for
it”]). They didn’t set out to insulate me. But the system insulated me nonetheless.
I’ve been wanting to talk about this, race from a white viewpoint, for years, literally for
years. I think it began when I discovered literature, and found myself drawn to the literature
coming from people of color. They had something to write about. My people, white people,
abdicated our ethnicity when we were accepted into the white club. We were no longer
EnglishIrishScottishDutchFrenchItalianGerman, we declared. We were white, void of color
and void of histories that reached further into the past than two generations. People with similar
ethnic heritage to mine and with my skin hue (yeah, I mean white people) who cry out about
reverse racism have never held sway with me. I’m more inclined to white folk like comedian
Louis CK, who a few years ago was doing lots of bits on race from a white vantage. He said the
following in one:
'Here’s how great it is to be white. I could get in a time machine and go to any time, and it
would be fing awesome when I get there. The year 2? I don’t even know what was
happening then. But when I get there, ‘Welcome, we have a table right here waiting for
Language and images get a little dicey here, so I’ll summarize. He said he would not go forward
in time in his time machine because, “We’re gonna have to pay for this sh!+.” And it gets dicier.
You get the idea.
But if you’re not familiar with how white privilege functions, and you’ve never been
around people of color, when you hear of measures to bring people of color to our bounteous
table affirmative action, for one something like reverse racism, as poorly coined as the term
is, comes to mind. A student at West Virginia University, responding to charges of reverse
racism at another southern college, wrote:
Reverse racism does not and cannot exist by definition. While racial minorities can
certainly hold prejudices against white people, they cannot be "just as racist as white
people" or "just as discriminatory as white people" because they do not hold the same
economic, institutional and political power.
A friend of mine, a former student who’s working on her PhD at Florida State, would agree. She
wrote, responding to a post on my FB feed:
Yes, racism is systemic, but it's not bilateral. In other words, it only goes in one direction,
and it always favors Whiteness. People of Color cannot be racist; we can be prejudiced
and biased, but we are not evoking racism. That is because racism is anchored in
systemically conferred powerpower being the operative notion. In racism, only White
people have power (just like in sexism, cismen have power, and xenophobia/nationalism
U.S. citizens have poweryou get the point). Power is unearned influence that benefits
one group (i.e., White people) over another group (i.e., People of Color). A simple
example of power is as follows: You can hate your boss, and your boss can hate you.
Certainly, you can hurt your boss' feelings, but only your boss has the power to fire
younot the other way around. Likewise, when People of Color pit against one another,
it's not racismit's internalized oppression. Because when we pit against one another, we
pull each other down, thereby anchoring White supremacy.
For a long time, I wouldn’t talk about race, but ethnicity. I think most of us know by now, from any scientific standpoint, there is no race. The American Association of Physical
Anthropologists has eschewed the idea of race. They wrote, in a 1996 position paper, "Pure
races, in the sense of genetically homogeneous populations, do not exist in the human species
today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past." But the word race has
crept into another very useful word, racism, which I’d hate to have to drop out of our discussion.
Besides, our prejudices toward peoples are not just about ethnicity, but also appearance,
specifically, and tragically for a large percent of our population, those features associated with
people of African heritage.
But why has this been my obsession? If I want to vaunt my goodness, I’d say it’s because
I want to do my part to understand and right centuries of wrongs. And though I do, I don’t think
that’s why I’m obsessed. Is it guilt? I think, yeah, though we you others of my skin hue and
having similar heritage (oh yeah white people) should do what we can to right wrongs, for
the most part, I’m sure, we’ve done nothing consciously to further these wrongs.
So I don’t know. I don’t have any memorable encounters that would lead me to this.
These are the encounters with people of color as I was growing up that I remember. In
4th grade (yes, it took that long for there to be a memorable racial encounter), my nice little
suburban neighborhood had its first black family, the Greggs. Kevin Gregg was in my class. He
was fun to play football with, which is all I wanted in a friend at that age. The next year, he and
his family were gone. Mom told me later that many of our neighbors made life difficult for the
Greggs, so the Greggs up and left. At that time, 1966, black families were concentrated in,
unironically, two areas of town Whiteley and White City.
Sixth grade. My sister Gail, five years older, the hippie in our family, brought home a
black friend who was a boy. My father as I’d said, a staunch advocate of civil rights had
never had race relations be so personal. The young man left. I remember there was yelling and
stomping. And I remember my father standing over a seated Gail, looking as though he wanted
to hit my sister. He didn’t. He wasn’t like that. But that’s how mad he was.
High school, ninth grade. I started at Northside High School in Muncie, Indiana, in 1971.
The school opened a year before, rumor has always had it, to give a neighborhood school to the
mostly white end of town. Town wasn’t big enough that Northside could exclude all black
students, though. I had black students in my classes, but they seemed to have no interest in
talking to me. But to be fair, I and my friends had no interest in talking to them. Or about them.
Odd, but there was no friction that I knew of. Black and white just lived in skew, though
unequal, worlds. At lunch, the blacks ate at one end of the cafeteria. So far as I knew, there were
no rules that mandated this. It just happened. After eating, they played on their own end of the
Eleventh grade, at a different high school, Larry Wilkerson broke my nose. No, no
drama. We were playing flag football in P.E. I mention it only to bring up Larry, who was a thin
bridge between the small group of black kids and my group of white boys (mostly boys). He had
good weed. And was open to some goodnatured kidding around.
I could go on, but not for very long, and it wouldn’t get more interesting. My point is that
I and I think I’m typical, a type do not have much to say about my experiences with race,
even though, as I was growing up, the U.S. struggled with it mightily (and among whites, mostly
unwillingly), and even though the black kids in my town would probably put race close to the
center of the stories of their youth.
So I’m almost done with my sermon. And I haven’t given you a lesson, a homily. I don’t
think a lesson or homily would be appropriate. I think it’s presumptuous that I, a white guy
raised in suburban Muncie, Indiana, would have a lesson to give about race. My purpose in
speaking today is to start a conversation. Would someone else like to speak on race? It’s hard to
talk about, I know. What’re intended as observations can be taken personally, yes. But I think it’s
important that we by we, I do not mean exclusively we at UUFHC, but all U.S. humans that
we do talk about it. No one needs to presume to give lessons, but I think it’s important that we
talk. Since I did not grow up around people of color other than AfricanAmericans, I did not talk
today about whiteLatino relations. How are those different? How are they similar? Since I’ve
spent almost all my adult life as a minority still white, though, so still a member of the more
powerful class here in the Valley, I could talk about it. But so could most of you, white or
Latino. And I’d love to hear the Winter Texan perspective on race here in the Valley.
The first reading today, Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” it’s connection is
pretty easy to see. I’ve loved that poem since I first read it as a young teacher. Hughes, I think,
gets at the subtler tensions between white and black, even though at the time of its writing there
were much less subtle tensions between the races. He says:
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
The second reading, the sermon at the end of the novel (and movie) A River Runs
Through It, is about what we can do when we don’t know what to do. Maclean writes, “And so it
is that those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them we can
love completely without complete understanding.” We may not understand one another because
of our various differences gender orientation, race, ethnicity, social class. We can work toward
understanding, but until we get even close to understanding, we can still love. And when we
love, we listen.