For a number of years now I have been encountering on a new kind of racism; it is subtle and politically correct. During the last election cycle our country witnessed this as some in the evangelical community quietly removed Mormonism from the cult category. Why? Could it be that it is more palatable to redefine cult than to have a black man in charge? I doubt we will ever know for sure, but the question is thought provoking.
This same set of issues has emerged at DOOR. Last year a youth group came and left DOOR on the same day. The “official” answer was because the neighborhood was unsafe. Based on the leader’s interaction with our City Director, having a black woman in charge was a bigger issue. I cannot help but wonder what the response would have been if the City Director had been a white male.
For our staff of color communicating with Anglo participants can often be frustrating. When staff of color confronts participants about internal or external community issues the information seems to be received differently, in a very subtle way. There have even been reports that these staff do not fully understand what DOOR participants are dealing with. The exact opposite response also occurs. In an effort to build bridges participants accept everything uncritically. Both extremes tend towards an unhealthy paternalism.
These concerns become more pronounced and complex among our summer staff of color. Many of our Discover participants come to the city to help the poor and oppressed. More often than not “poor and oppressed” equals people of color. When we put youth and young adults from the community in leadership positions the door is opened for all kinds of misunderstandings, assumptions, and hurt.
This past summer one of our summer staff of color (and personal friend of mine for the past 10 years) was accused by another summer staff person, who happened to be white and not from the neighborhood, of coming to work high. Apparently showing up to work singing, with a baseball cap off to the side, and being overly energetic is “proof” of drug abuse. Is it possible that he was just in a good mood?
I am not sure what the response to all of this should be. The subtle nature of these encounters makes it difficult to determine intentionality and motivation. I do know that these encounters are discouraging and frustrating for the victims. Moving beyond stereotyping is not always simple, but it is necessary.