Racial Pain Tourism? One White Dude’s Quandary

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I’ve written before regarding what an honor it is to study under the Rev. Dr. Tony Hunt, and to be included in this cohort of incredible people.

I’ve also mentioned that I am the only non-African American.

I’ve always mentioned the two of these facts for very different reasons than I will cite right now.

Dr. Tony and everyone else (save me and one other person) pastor in and around the Beltway. On the first day of the cohort gathering together, we went to historic Pennsylvania Avenue A.M.E Zion Church. Down in the basement were gathered pastors and scholars, all there to listen to the Rev. Dr. Helen Holton and the Rev. Dr. Lester A. McCorn, two seminal, nationally-respected leaders in both religious and civic life.  We had been invited by one of the cohort who was attending the all-day seminar focused on pastors returning to the rightful place of the church in public life, that of advocacy for the voiceless and solidarity with the oppressed.

The fish was on point too, I must say. I’m coming back to Ohio on Friday fatter, there’s no doubt.

We left after inspirational conversations, and my head was swimming having just witnessed the sort of meeting I have previously only read about in accounts of the civil rights movement. Trying to gather my bearings, I looked out the car window to see the remains of the Royal Theater, heralded as the Apollo of Baltimore.

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We whipped through streets that looked familiar from watching The Wire, something I learned you should never, ever say to someone from B’more.

Immersion education in action.

We gathered on a corner in Sandtown, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived. Dr. Tony pointed out the details of life in the hood. We were certainly being eyeballed, by both the Sheriff (Dr. Tony says they only come into the hood to serve warrants; they don’t go on chases through the alleyways, that’s for the beat cops) and the men on the corners waiting for the kids to get out of school and take the next shift. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I fought the urge to nod and say “hoppers” and to pronounce “corners” like Avon Barksdale.

I really wanted to start whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.”

And then all of that stopped when I saw the mural pictured at the top of this post. I gasped, and reached for my phone. I’ve spent enough time in cities–I did live in a heroin-infested neighborhood in Dublin, Ireland for over six months, and West Hollywood for a horrendous year; I’m not an idiot–that I looked around to make sure that I wasn’t a target. Then it struck me. There was nothing legit about me being there. It didn’t matter that Dr. Tony brought me, that I was with others from the area. I was there as a tourist. Taking a picture of another community’s pain seemed garish. Obviously, it didn’t stop me. I forced myself to snap one image from a distance. It seemed way too disrespectful to cross the street and inhabit the space.

I made an incorrect post on FB, citing the mural as the site where Gray was arrested. It isn’t. This is, the evidence of which shows that I took yet another picture.

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We hopped back into the car and sped away to the safety of Epworth Chapel UMC, and returned to our books and discussions of the biblical texts that will undergird our models of ministry. The men stayed on the corners. The kids got out of school and took their places. Addicts got their fix. Women and boys sold their bodies. Freddie Gray’s family remained incomplete.

Racial pain tourism is ugly. I know that isn’t what I did, but it certainly is what it looks like to anyone who might have been paying attention. Perhaps it is a common occurrence. Perhaps the men on the corner surmised that we were not pressing on turf and would soon make our way out. It is possible that they recognized Dr. Tony, but he said that he never walks though Sandtown unless he has a bodyguard and a gangbanger with him. That’s the only way to have safe passage. And I am certain that I am a major drug habit and some serious melanin short of ever walking the streets, even with aforementioned security.

I feel like the more attuned I am to racial realities the more I become aware how distant I really am to the true pain and experience. To be sure, at this point I can honestly say that most of my close male friends are Black. I’ve been named an honorary brotha by enough lifelong members of the club to know that it means something; I have heard some painful stories about racism that a lot of whites will never hear because…well, there are lots of reasons. You have to earn it. You have to keep earning it.

But let me not fall into the delusion that I am a “good white person.”* Don’t let me believe that I don’t need to listen more than I speak around issues of race; let me remember that no matter how “woke” I get, I’m not a Black man. No matter how much I use my privilege–or how much trouble doing so gets me in–to advance issues of racial justice, I can always walk away. I can cut the locs. I can shave the beard. I can shut my mouth. My willfully not doing that is not an act of courage. It is not something that should be celebrated or lauded.

The truth is, I think I may have crossed a threshold in my life. I am a zealot now. A zealot of love. A zealot for justice. Being here in B’more makes me realize how important it is that a place like Yellow Springs be an incubator for radicals and revolutionaries. That we speak to our youth, take them to mosques, place books in their hands, encourage conversations that are hard. God has not called me to Baltimore, but my call led me here.

I do this in the name of Christ. That is what I do; I follow Jesus, and when I am a tourist I make damn sure that I am aware.

I’m never really sure if anyone ever really reads my stuff, but if you do: thanks. You–or at least the idea of you–keep me honest.

*Please, don’t mistake this for self-hatred. I don’t hate myself. I don’t think that being born this “race” has made me evil, or that others of a similar hue are intrinsically Hitler either. Thats a red herring and needs to stop being thrown at me.

 

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