After many conversations with Christians over the past few weeks – on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and in person – I am left aching to communicate the pain I feel after conversations about race and culture when people I consider friends, or at least acquaintances, tell me race doesn’t matter, race doesn’t exist, Black people spend too much time thinking about and talking about race.
I wish race didn’t matter for me, for the thousands of students I’ve served, for their families, but…
After a recent lengthy conversation with a Christian brother on Facebook Messenger (for hours), I was left incredibly upset. I was not upset because of anything specific he said but because of a pattern of responses and posts I am seeing from some of my friends who are White and have shared church pews, auditoriums and camp cabins with me over the past 25 years.
I am heartbroken, because I see little to no compassion for how I and others who look like me have experienced this country. Responses to our many personal stories are all-too-often data and articles from magazines, not, “Hey! I’m sorry you have experienced the world this way.”
I was adopted because I was orphaned at birth by a White mother who couldn’t keep a baby she had produced with a Black man. Abortion would become legal months after I was born.
I was given the gift of adoption by a couple who had never had a personal relationship with Black people. My parents adopted me knowing life would not be easy but also unaware HOW DIFFICULT life would be.
Part of our family would embrace all of us. Another part of our family was not so accepting. Suffice it to say, I had an encounter with an extended family member that would help me realize most people who say racist things are not racists. Everyone has been “programmed” by media, education and family stories to believe certain things about those who are “different.”
So much of our beliefs are based on limited exposure to difference. We know well what has surrounded us in the environments in which we find ourselves. Problem: we are as segregated today (if not more) than we were in the 60s. We see evidence of this in neighborhoods, schools and churches.
Unfortunately, our nation’s foundation is steeped in racism. People came from Europe and “discovered” a land that was already inhabited. The Native peoples were destroyed in huge numbers, either intentionally or as a result of exposure to disease brought across the ocean on ships from Europe.
There are many White Christians who speak often of the Christian values of our Founding Fathers. This is not a conversation one would ever hear in a Black church. Were many of the original European settlers Christians? Yes, and yet they also had attitudes and practices that conflicted with Christian values (which is human nature). Imagine how Black folks or Native Americans feel when their brothers and sisters in Christ celebrate the fabulous Christian men who wrote the founding documents of this nation. Were we free at that time? Did we have rights? Were “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” available to us, as well?
Slaves were stripped of their dignity. They were separated from those who spoke their languages and understood their cultures. Women were raped. Families were often separated during auction.
Flash forward. Slaves were “set free.” Even after the shackles were taken off, the Africans who had been brought here were still not given the same freedoms as their owners. Up until the 60s and, in some places, much later, Black children did not have access to the same quality schools as White children. Up until the 60s and, in many places, much later, Black people were unable to eat in the same restaurants as White people.
My husband’s grandfather came back from WWII still unable to sit in restaurants in his hometown with the brothers who had fought next to him in the military. Although WWII veterans were provided with the GI Bill, my husband’s grandfather was unable to benefit, because redlining did not allow Black people to purchase homes in newly-constructed neighborhoods.
These realities have HUGE implications for how Black people now experience the United States. Because Black people couldn’t benefit from the GI Bill, it meant that Black people couldn’t access better neighborhoods. Because the United States funds schools based on property tax, that also meant Black children didn’t (and still don’t) have access to the same quality of education. Those neighborhoods don’t have the same access to quality food and health care, which further complicates matters.
I spent my entire childhood in The Netherlands and attended the American School of The Hague, where my parents were teachers. I spent my childhood around Americans, watching American television, American movies, listening to American music. I took AP US History as a junior in high school, but my parents also bought me books about the history of African people in the United States. I learned of slavery, Civil War, Jim Crow, The Civil Rights Movement. I watched The Cosby Show (I know that has a whole different context now) and A Different World, which led me to believe all Black people were now middle class.
I made the decision to attend Bryn Mawr College, after also being accepted at Princeton. I had done everything required to attend an Ivy League College – earned a 3.9 GPA, taken 11 AP classes, learned to speak 4 languages, been selected captain and MVP of 3 varsity sports 2 years running, served as President of the Security Council for the largest Model United Nations in the World my junior and senior years.
I came to the United States ready to prepare myself to be a world-changer. I was in for a rude awakening.
My mother and I would arrive in the United States on a Saturday evening and take a cab out to the college. My mother would fall asleep. We’d been on planes and in airports for over half a day. The first sign I would see after entering town would be “Bryn Mawr Cricket Club, no coloreds or Jews allowed here.” I made the instantaneous decision not to say anything to my mother about the sign, not to wake her up, because I knew I would be on the next plane home. Only recently, after wondering if I had made up that story, did I learn the sign came down in 2012.
Within my first two months on campus, a White student would approach me on campus to say to me, matter-of-factly (with no malice at all), “You know you are only here because we have to have ten of you.” I would learn later, as a part-time employee for the admissions department, that Bryn Mawr did have demographic quotas.
On my parents’ first visit to Bryn Mawr, we tried three restaurants before anyone would seat our family – two White adults and two Black children – together. In fact, in the third restaurant, the manager seated us together but in a back room…and closed the door.
My husband, James and I lived in Indiana together for 3 years. Segregation was a fact in South Bend, Indiana. We didn’t often leave South Bend, definitely not to drive south. We had many friends who warned us of the dangers of being Black in small towns to the south of Notre Dame. We were warned of “sundown towns,” places where Black people were not allowed to be out after sundown.
I was shocked to learn four years ago at a gathering of college presidents at St. Martin’s that those “sundown towns” are still in existence in Indiana. How did I learn this truth? One of the college presidents, after hearing my presentation on the Act Six Leadership and Scholarship Initiative, said out loud, in front of the group, “I love the idea of the scholarship you just described, but we should probably change the sundown town law in our town first, before we invite students of color to our college.”
Christian friends, please don’t give me any more data. Please don’t send me articles or videos. I have read them. I have my own that play and re-play in my head and heart. I have been studying this “stuff” for years, since I came to this country and began to experience the world differently. I don’t want data. I want compassion. I want to know that you are willing to listen and, possibly, (if necessary) cry with me or with others like me. I want to know that you are willing to stand up when you see others mistreated, when you hear jokes that are inappropriate, when you realize systems and structures are in place that are disenfranchising certain groups of people.
I’ll close with a story I share on occasion about my mother and me. My mom and dad had just moved to the United States (about 10 years ago), after retiring from teaching in the Netherlands. I had just been promoted to Assistant State Superintendent. Our State Superintendent had been asked to speak at a conference in Yakima for district superintendents. Something came up at the last minutes. He knew I was a public speaker (really the only one on cabinet) and asked if I would be interested in speaking on his behalf. Sure! I was so excited.
My mom had never been to Yakima. She asked if she could come with me. I was eager to have a companion. I put my best suit on to deliver my first big keynote address. My mom was in casual pants and a blouse. We showed up at the Yakima Convention Center. The person in charge walked right up to my mother, “Oh, you must be Erin Jones, our keynote speaker.”
What the heck?! My mother almost lost her mind. She pointed at me and locked eyes with the woman, fire in her eyes, “No! My daughter, Erin Jones, is the Assistant State Superintendent. She’s your keynote speaker! Erin, give me your keys!”
My mother stormed out of the convention center and stayed in the car for the duration of my speech. I found her out in the car afterwards. She had been crying the entire time. Here is what she said when I got into the car, “Erin, it wasn’t until today that I realized, maybe I wouldn’t see you if you were not my daughter. I can’t even imagine what it’s like being you – Black and young and female – in spaces where people don’t SEE you and don’t see you as having anything valuable to offer.”
My journey with my mother absolutely changed that day. How I even do my work has changed since then. I know I can “educate,” but education doesn’t change outside of authentic relationship.
To my church friends: I am begging you to reach out to those who are not like you. Listen to the stories of Black people, Native people, immigrants (recent and second-generation), Latinos who are Mexican and the many who are not.
I LOVE AMERICA. But today in 2017, RACE STILL MATTERS.
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Erin Jones has been involved in education for the past 24 years, working with African Americans, Caucasians, and some of the most diverse communities in the nation. Erin received an award as the Most Innovative Foreign Language Teacher in 2007, while working at Stewart Middle School in Tacoma and was the Washington State Milken Educator of the Year in 2008 while teaching at Rogers High School in Spokane. Erin received recognition at the White House in March of 2013 as a “Champion of Change.” After serving as a classroom teacher and instructional coach, Erin worked as an executive for two state superintendents. Erin left the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction 5 years ago to work in college-access at the school district level. She left her job to run as a candidate for State Superintendent and was the first Black woman to run for any state office in Washington state, a race she lost by a mere 1%. Erin is married to James, who is also an educator, and they have two children in college. Follow Erin Jones on FACEBOOK and TWITTER.
Watch an ‘Erin Jones Talk’ on TEDx: “Passion for Change” (below) —>>