Rich Paxson

This January weekend I attended Trinity Institute 2016 “Listen for a Change | Sacred Conversations for Racial Justice”. http://bit.ly/1QsmqFG The conference was located at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York. Our group of eight settled in at the parish hall in St. John’s Church in Mason City, Iowa attending the event via online, live-streaming video. We were our own ‘small group’ so when it was discussion time we just turned our chairs around. Groups like ours were scattered across the country, maybe even around the world.

The movie “I’m not a racist … am I?” aired Friday evening. http://bit.ly/1ZN1nOx A phrase from the film connected with the Fernando story for me. One of the characters in the movie stated that ‘whiteness’ is never defined. The underlying process of excluding those who are other than ‘white’ boils down to the message, told through endless variation, that ‘you are not white.’

In the Fernando story in-groups were bound together through defining Fernando as not one of them. These acts both excluded Fernando and created a cohesive sense of group identity. The Fernandos of the world can respond in ways that recognize neither the existence nor the validity of the excluding group’s negative messages. But, ignoring, or worse, returning in love as Fernando did threatens the stability of the excluding group so often triggering a violent reaction.

The weekend movie and the Fernando story triggered a long-ago memories for me. One evening in the 1950s after dinner at a restaurant in Chicago our family of four was driving home in our 1952 Chrysler. I was in the back seat, a boy around ten years old. We must have been driving through a low-income area where most of the residents were Negro (in the language of that era). I remember saying something like ‘they don’t deserve such treatment.’ Yes, they do. My parents replied. They are different from us.

Growing up, I attended physically integrated schools in Chicago but at a time when de facto segregation was the dominant reality in this northern American city. It took me many years before I uncovered the beliefs about persons who are not white that the ‘social other’ had conditioned me to accept. As an adult, I realized that these deeply buried attitudes about race were inaccessible without peeling away the smiling facade I had created to cover-up my ‘not one of us’ orientation that determined until I could look at it, much of my identity. Thankfully, at some point in my adult life, I opened that big, right-rear 1952 Chrysler door and got out of that car.

Gwendolyn Brooks http://bit.ly/1Pfva0O was an African-American poet from the same generation as my parents. Her poem about driving through the Beverly Hills Chicago neighborhood where I grew up is available on the Internet here: http://bit.ly/1UlOKbV. I am very grateful to hear her ‘Fernando-returned’ voice.