I recently posed the question on Facebook; does the color of a person’s skin matter? I was hoping to illicit some responses which could lead to healthy discussions on race. Instead what I discovered was a collective yawn. I received a grand total of one response, which read essentially, “sometimes yes and sometimes no.” It seems that although the issues of race run deep and run continuously, they also seem to run below the surface. Concerns over skin color lie dormant until some actual or perceived injustice springs back to life, the cry of racism.
A few years back I was deeply moved by the testimony of a young teenage girl, given during a discussion about “race and how it affects me.” Her comments, to this day, produce a stir of emotions within my soul due too the profound truths she so innocently proclaimed. The discussion was part of an all night youth lock-in at the YMCA, culminating a two year cross cultural relationship between teenagers from two church youth groups; one group white, the other black.
Let me back up a little first. In 1995 I moved my family south, after having lived my entire life in Upstate New York. We suddenly began to encounter more African American’s in our daily interactions with society than we would have encounter in several months, back home. It was my observation at that time that although blacks and whites seemed too co-existed amicably at work and in society, there didn’t seem to be much personal interaction. This troubled me and I pondered how things “ought to be,” in light of living in the heart of the Bible belt.
My wife and I worked with our church’s youth program and we decided to phone around to see if there was a black church of similar size and located near by, which would be interested in working with us. Sure enough we found a church willing to push aside the status quo and tackle the issues of race head on. Our leadership teams met over dinner to discuss and design a strategy for getting to know one another. Although initially our interactions were tentative and sometimes awkward, we persevered and forged wonderful new relationships that previously were very unlikely.
Our youth met monthly and enjoyed swimming together, playing volleyball, bowling, basketball, roller- skating, worshiping at one another’s churches and other group activities too. For most of us, crossing the cultural barrier was a new experience, but one richly blessed with new understandings and insights. There were certainly challenges to overcome, such as the time we planned to visit a neighborhood swim club. I became concerned a couple of days before the event that the members of the swim club, located in a predominantly white neighborhood, might not appreciate sharing their facilities with twenty or so black teenagers. I didn’t want to assume the swim club members would be prejudiced and yet I feared that if they were, it would be very uncomfortable for our new friends to discover they were not welcome, with swim suit and towel in hand. So I called around to the board of directors of the swim club to seek permission for our use of the pool and facilities. In the end the board of directors had no issues with our use of the pool and the event went off without incident, but the awareness that something could go wrong was always in the back of my head; further evidence of the subtleness of racism.
Anyway, the night of the lock-in, the youth played basketball, swam and just had fun hanging out together and mingling until mid-night. During the two years of interaction prior to the lock-in, we never formally discussed race or anything related to race, so mid-night was selected as the right time to broach the subject. The youth were seated in a circle at center court and the discussion began. Initially the teen’s comments were general and polite. It was the consensus of the group, both black and white that racism wasn’t such a big deal. The teens felt that considerable progress had been over the years, but they didn’t feel their lives were significantly impacted by racism.
But then the girl I mentioned at the top of this article stood up and shared her story. She worked at a local convenience store as a cashier. She said, “When white people come in to pay her, especially the older white people, they lay their money on the counter because they don’t want to touch my skin.” Here was an innocent young girl sharing honestly from her heart, a very real pain she experienced regularly. She wondered why the color of her skin mattered so much and why she wasn’t good enough. This girl’s honesty provided others with permission to take off their masks too. I saw for the first time what was previously invisible to me and I have been forever changed by the courage of a teenage girl. I invite each of you to join me in taking off all of our masks so we can see what has been too long unseen. I honestly can’t remember the other stories shared that early morning, but I will never forget the girl who testified that the color of a person’s skin still matters; at least it does in her world.
Stephen C. Weaver Esq. is an attorney and President of the No Walls Ministry, Inc. located in Lynchburg Virginia, whose mission is to help churches work cross culturally and cross denominationally to address the needs of the local community. He has been teaching, speaking, writing and engaging in inner city ministries for over twenty years with his particular interest and passion being in the area of race relations.