When I was in high school, I had a friend named Ebony. She and I sat next to each other in our journalism class, and we were inseparable. We spent our time talking about poetry, editing each other’s news stories and searching the Internet for college scholarships. We went to our senior prom together, she in a white dress and I in black. It was our version of “Ebony and Ivory,” and it was part of what we laughed about together; Ebony is black and I am white, and our friendship felt like a kinship, a bond between sisters.
One weekend, Ebony invited me to an overnight youth event at her church. She was so excited to invite me that I immediately said yes.
She lived in Ford Heights, Illinois, which was just down the road from the trailer park where my family lived. Whenever we drove through Ford Heights, we locked our doors and rolled up our windows. There was no police force in Ford Heights; there were no grocery stores or buildings that hadn’t been vandalized. It was once categorized by the federal government as the poorest suburb in America.
I was excited about the youth event -- that is, until the moment I was getting ready to leave. I picked up my phone, called Ebony and told her that I was too tired and was going to stay home.
The decision felt automatic. I remember thinking, “Oh, Mom wouldn’t want me in Ford Heights” -- even though my mother was often gone and I was free to do as I wished. And I remember the slightest recognition of fear: fear that I would get mugged or attacked in a black neighborhood in the middle of the night.
That fear immediately moved me to pick up the phone and make an excuse to my best friend. It moved me to avoid something that made me feel unsure, scared and awkward. And it moved me so quickly that I didn’t know what it was at the time. I remember my 18-year-old self talking too fast through the receiver, my dear friend’s voice confused on the other end: “But why can’t you come?”
I tell this story now because it is a confession that I need to make. I tell the story because it haunts me, more than 10 years later, as an example of the biases that shape me as a white person in America. I tell the story because Ebony and I drifted apart, and whether that was from the distance between our colleges or that phone call I do not know, and I have not been able to find Ebony to apologize.
And I tell the story because I am convinced that, in light of the shootings in Charleston and the racial unrest in our communities, the work of friendship beckons to us.
There is no doubt about what has shaped American public life the most this past summer -- every week, I hear another story about a black church being threatened or a young black person being subject to brute police force. There is disagreement about these events, there is denial of them, and then there is the truth. My brother-in-law is a police officer, and he recently encountered a report where a “suspicious black person, not from around here,” was seen on various people’s property in a particular neighborhood. The suspected person turned out to be a new mailman.
And can we really deny what is going on? The Atlantic recently reported on the research of Daniel Lichter, a sociologist at Cornell who studies the formation of neighborhoods. Despite the belief that we live in a “post-racial era,” Lichter’s data regarding zoning laws, real estate practices and the racial makeup of American neighborhoods shows that white flight is not only alive but thriving. In the August issue of the American Sociological Review, Lichter and two co-authors document what they call a new “macro-segregation,” starkly evident in communities such as Ferguson, Missouri: “Between 1990 and 2010, the black composition of Ferguson increased from 25.1 to 67.4 percent. The size of the white population dropped from 16,454 to 6,206 over the same period.”
It is a pattern that repeats across the country, and it shows that racism does not just look like Dylann Roof; it looks like a redlined neighborhood, like a phone call. Like avoidance. And it shapes our habits and hearts in ways that are sneaky, silent and damning.
What I have been thinking about since the Charleston shootings is the example of friendship that the nine slain parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church offered Roof. The forgiveness that the victims’ families and church community have extended to Roof is extraordinary; the welcome that the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s Bible study group gave Roof is astonishing. It is just as much a witness to the Christian faith as the response of forgiveness. For what else were our brothers and sisters doing but seeing Roof as a friend? Someone with whom to read Scripture, and to pray, and to share a table?
Paul writes that, as ambassadors of Christ, we have been given the “ministry of reconciliation”; we are to “regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16-18 NIV). That is what the faithful of Emanuel AME did: a twitchy, stone-faced white kid showed up unannounced at their door, which had also welcomed Dr. King and thousands of civil rights protestors, and the Rev. Pinckney and his parishioners invited him to pull up a chair. They knew what it meant to see God’s image in all people, especially the one who, unbeknownst to them, came in as an enemy.
It is easy to laud the people of Charleston. It is harder to examine what the ministry of reconciliation looks like in my own life. What I keep thinking about, and what keeps convicting me, is this sin of avoidance. I may share articles about white flight, but what am I doing to repent of my earlier avoidance with Ebony? In what ways have I continued to avoid confronting racism? How can my life, and my choices, bring me to a place of authentic engagement as a means of racial healing?
The other day, I took my son to a routine doctor’s visit and needed to go to the grocery store afterward. The day was hot, and I could either drive 20 minutes to the grocery store I usually frequent or step into the Stop & Shop next to my son’s clinic. I chose the easier route and took my son into the Stop & Shop, which sits in urban Jamaica Plain (an economically and racially diverse neighborhood that borders my husband’s seminary in Boston).
I immediately noticed that we were the only white people in the store. My son noticed the brightly colored helium balloons, the rows of Goldfish crackers and the cashier, a young woman who smiled at him while she scanned our granola bars and soda. “Bye! Bye! Bye!” my son said, waving with an almost frantic joyfulness. The cashier waved back, and as we left, I thought, We have to keep grocery shopping here. We have to keep coming back.
And I have come back to this grocery store, my son with me, his hand pumping wildly at the cashiers and the old ladies and the young men pushing strollers through the aisles. I keep coming back to this grocery store because my son needs to see people who look different from him; I keep coming back because my race and position in life give me the freedom to grocery shop anywhere I want, and I need to use that power with wisdom and attention. Instead of avoiding my African-American neighbors, I need to choose ways to be present with them, even ways as mundane as standing together over a bin of apples.
I don’t delude myself about the significance of this small effort. But I can make this effort, and other ones: I can take my son to a library play group that, although 15 minutes farther from our apartment than our neighborhood library, has black children with whom he can read books and play.
I have the power to do this, and I also have the responsibility to see it as a necessary act of contrition for my own sins of avoidance. For what does Christ command us to do but to love one another? Perhaps in my small acts of reaching out, kinship -- the mark of family, an image of the kingdom of God -- will present itself again. Perhaps a fellow shopper or mother will become a friend, someone with whom I can share a meal and a prayer.