[Catherine Meeks, a Sojourners contributing editor, was an instructor and the director of Afro-American studies at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., when this article appeared. This is adapted from an earlier version of the article "In the Middle," which appeared in the May 1986 issue of Sojourners and remains relevant today.—The Editors]
Sojourners: How did you first become involved in work on racism, and why do you continue?
Catherine Meeks: The first time in my life that I realized race in America was something I had to address myself to was as a college student at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. A 16-year-old boy, named Larry, was shot and killed on our campus by a campus security guard. This was in the mid-'60s, when black people were very tired of having that kind of thing happen and having everybody say, "Well, isn't that too bad," and just go on about their business.
So we, as black students, waged a lot of protests around the whole event—how the funeral was handled, how the family was dealt with, and how the security guard was dealt with. Larry's death led to a time of questioning for me, a time of trying to figure out what kind of response I, as a Christian, should make in this situation.
I was a member of a black student organization, and I wanted to be really committed to it. But I also had a fairly strong and long-standing Christian commitment. I went to my church for advice, and their advice was that I should stay home until the whole situation got settled. To think that somebody who's supposed to be a Christian should run away from a situation where it looks like they could make a difference was appalling to me!
I was only 20 years old, working my way through school and trying to help take care of my sister, so it wasn't like I was "looking for a cause"; I was not. But somehow, in a way that wasn't completely thought out, I found myself at the house of the boy who got killed; I found myself talking to college administrators; I found myself in meetings with my peers in the black students' organization; I found myself in the white prayer group on campus. And in all these groups, we were talking about the situation and about what we should be doing. Somehow it became clear to me that as a black person I couldn't run away from those issues of racism and that my own well-being was mixed up in all of this.
While I was in college, I responded more out of passion and a sense of commitment to God. But looking back on those years now, I don't think I ever had a choice to not be involved. Even then I seemed to be geared toward reconciling. I was always trying to listen or to call people to look at both sides. And that's a lot of what I did during the events around Larry's death. By my mere involvement, I was forced to look into other points of view.
I was a scared, young woman from an Arkansas farm in the middle of a big problem on a campus in Los Angeles. I didn't have any idea what all that meant. I was just there. And in the middle. That was a funny place to be. And it's that funny place I've been in ever since.
I guess it wasn't until the mid-'70s that I started to really understand that racial reconciliation in America is an issue that black and white people have to confront personally, as an issue of wholeness. I suppose I could live my life saying, "I will never allow myself to try to understand white people. I will cut myself off from them. I will live my life as a black woman, and I'll just keep white people in boxes." But to do that means to keep myself cut off from a part of myself. And if white people do that about black people, I think the same is true: It keeps them cut off from a part of themselves.
For those of us who are Christians, I don't think we have any choice in the matter. I think God has made it clear that we're to be reconciled to God and each other. And if we're to be reconciled to each other, that includes everyone who happens to be in the world with us.
Reconciliation demands that you not take sides; it demands that you take a stand, I think—a stand that's maybe a merging of a lot of different pieces that represent several different kinds of philosophical stances. I think that one who chooses a road of reconciliation must be willing to look at more than one side of the coin.
Some people would say, "Racial reconciliation is fine and good, but black people need to get together and deal with their internalized racism and build a strong self-image apart from white people before they can enter a reconciliation process. And white people need to work at dealing with their racism before they go into a reconciliation process." How would you respond to that?
I think that's true. You have to have some sense of yourself before you're able to really call other people into accountability and get other people to deal with how they're responding to you. But I think we have to be very careful not to use that as an excuse for staying in our little pockets, safe and secure, and never dealing with the internal racial dynamics, either on the black side or the white side.
It seems to me that none of us is going to deal with racial dynamics unless we're forced to. And by interacting with one another, we are forced to confront some things we wouldn't otherwise deal with. I don't have to confront racism the same way if I'm dealing with another black person as I do if I'm dealing with a white person. Racial interrelatedness does, at least, present the issues to both sides.
What are some of the good experiences you've had during the time you've been involved in racial reconciliation?
The best experience occurred when I graduated from college and became part of a group called the Los Angeles Black and White Women's Camp-in Group. We were a group of community women and Pepperdine University women who decided to get together for a retreat in the summer of 1969 to have discussions about racial issues.
It grew out of a relationship between a white woman who was the dean of students at Pepperdine and a black woman who was very involved in Christian education in the city of Los Angeles. The friendship between those two women, and the vision they had for trying to call some black and white women together, arose out of the tensions that were occurring in the mid- to late '60s and the early '70s.
Out of that summer meeting grew a group of women who have been meeting for about 20 years now. The group is made up of older women and younger women coming from different educational backgrounds. But the women in that group really have made some commitments to one another in terms of trying to understand what it means to be black and what it means to be white.
There are also a lot of one-on-one experiences of seeing someone really be transformed. A couple of years ago, I was doing a three-day retreat for a group of Methodist women. The retreat wasn't particularly about race, but there's no way I can go into a retreat for three days and not talk about race relations when there are 400 white women and I'm the only black person there.
I remember one woman whose husband was an employer with a large company, and a lot of his employees were black. She lived in an area where it would have been unheard of for her to have any kind of gathering and invite the black employees to come be with the white ones. She had been really struggling with the idea of having some kind of party for her husband's employees. But her struggle was: Was she going to invite everybody over or was she just going to invite the white people?
She said it never felt right for her just to invite the white people, but she wasn't sure if she had the courage to invite the blacks, too. And at the end of that weekend, she said, "Being here has helped me to come to terms with this, and I'm having this party and inviting all the folks who work for my husband."
You know, that was a little step. But I think that if there are going to be significant changes in this country, they're going to be made by common people, like that woman, who are not willing to accept that it's all right to keep doing things the same way they've been done for hundreds of years.
What are the things that discourage you the most in this work? What are the bad experiences you've had?
I'm fortunate in that most people who have been in audiences when I've spoken about race have been polite enough not to throw eggs at me. A few times I've had somebody walk out of a meeting, which is always a shocking experience. Sometimes I think, "Well, maybe they're going to the rest room or something." But a woman got up out of one meeting and yelled at me as she was going out. So, it was rather clear that she leaving because of me, and it had nothing to do with her having to go to the rest room!
I have gotten anger from people in workshops, and sometimes folks come up to me to set me straight or to tell me how good they are. That's discouraging. I don't really know about the people who just leave and dismiss me without saying anything. But the folks who try to convince me how great, how liberal, and how open-minded they are discourage me even more than the angry people, because the angry people stand a better chance of making some changes.
It's the white people or the black people who say, "I never had any prejudice" who are frightening to me, because that's obviously not true. They don't even know themselves well enough to know that they do have some prejudice. I don't think anyone can walk around in America without having some racial prejudices.
In terms of attitudes, I don't think we've made any progress. Maybe we've made a bit of progress, but it's minimal. I think the systemic changes were made just because people were forced to make them by legal structures and not because people had any significant changes of heart.
When I look at the economic and spiritual conditions the majority of black people live in, I sometimes find myself close to despair. We had a big fanfare about racial equality, racial awareness, and black consciousness in the '60s and early '70s, and now people seem to think, "Well, we've done that, so we don't have to do anything else." Well, we didn't do it. We didn't do it then, and it's still yet to be done. The fact that we're sitting down as if we did it and we can rest now is disturbing to me.
I think young black folks, with their rage and their disillusionment with living in this culture, are going to force us to look at these issues again in a much more straightforward way. And I'm sorry about that, because I think we spent enough energy and blood in the '60s that we should never have to do that again. But we just don't learn from our history.
You have talked about the connection between racism and sexism. How have you experienced this connection?
It's a very profound connection, a connection that white people have a hard time making. Let me be more specific. It's a connection that white women have a hard time making, and it's a connection that black men have a hard time making, because it's not to either group's advantage to make the connection.
White women traditionally have wanted to say, "Because we understand sexism, we are not racist"—which is really a joke. Black men have said, "Because we know racism, we are not sexist"—which is equally a joke. And white men, of course, have just been racist and sexist, and they go on as if that's the way you're supposed to be.
For white women to say, "Sexism is really where we need to be focused, and this is what we need to be doing" is to ignore what black women have had to confront since the first black women set foot in this land. For black men to think that because they were enslaved and emasculated they somehow have an edge on oppression and therefore can't possibly be patriarchal and sexist is equally as crazy.
As with so many other things, it has fallen into the laps of black women to call attention to that connection between racism and sexism, because we are victimized on both sides of the coin. And as black women, we are left then to try to figure out what we're going to do about racism, what we're going to do about sexism, and who we're going to try to build coalitions with.
Our coalitions with white women have failed because white women won't acknowledge the whole of our problem. Yet they want our expertise and our energy to help them get something that they're not willing to share with us when they get it—the power that comes from being liberated.
We don't have any choice but to build coalitions with black men. They're part of our lives; it's not as if we can say,
"Well, we don't want to have anything to do with you." So we have to try and figure out how to have relationships with the men who can't seem to see what they have done to us by not acknowledging their own sexism.
It leaves us in a funny position. I think it may force us as black women to finally come together as a group. I don't think black women are going to work all this out without building coalitions. But we must be sensitive as to whether or not folks we're working with are really willing to understand the whole of the problem. Sexist oppression, racist oppression, and classist oppression—all of it equals oppression, and you can't have integrity in your stand against oppressors without standing against all oppressors, wherever they happen to be.
I have an unmerciful analysis of the white women's movement, because I've been in conversations with white women who wanted me to take sides. They wanted me to take a stand on the side of fighting sexism and not to stand against both racism and sexism. They somehow wanted to associate fighting racism with patriarchy or with standing with men. That's the kind of split no black woman in her right mind can afford to make.
How do you explain what racism is and how it is that people are racist?
Racism is a combination of prejudice and power. You can be prejudiced, I think, and have no power. Some poor white person who has no education, no money, and hates black folks can do far less to me than a white person who is the manufacturer of a product or who runs a business.
Power is used to enforce your prejudice and to keep other people from realizing gains and rewards in the culture simply because of your prejudice against them. It's personal as well as systemic.
When white people say, "I'm not a racist," they think of themselves not as somebody who wants to abuse and misuse somebody else because of the color of their skin. The way the average white person participates in racism, even if they're not somebody who would condone it, is by enjoying the gains that have come in a society that is built on the backs of black people and by enjoying the economic and political power that has come to them because of the color of their skin. By accepting that power as a birthright, white people enjoy the benefits and rewards of what their racist forefathers left for them, even if they don't use their power to exploit other people.
In terms of prejudices, we cannot live in this country as blacks and whites without having some disregard, I think, toward one another, because it's just in the air. If you're black, you don't have to necessarily grow up hating white people, but you grow up knowing you're black, and with a sense that it means something different than if you're white.
Now what often happens with white people is that they grow up not really knowing or having to think about race. They grow up in a kind of "a-racial" atmosphere, and because they're in control of everything or their parents are powerful, they're not threatened, and they don't have to deal with racism. That person is not much less prejudiced than the one who grew up being told not to "sit down at the table with niggers." Both of them are equally a problem for me as a black woman, because if your racism is that unconscious, you're a problem; and if you consciously act negatively toward me, you're also a problem. So you don't get off the hook either way, as far as I'm concerned.
What can people do about their racism, whatever the combination of prejudice and power it happens to be?
They can start out by really trying to think about who they are and how they got to be that person. Then they can examine their attitudes toward everybody who happens to be different than them.
One of my friends told me that she never thought she was racist or prejudiced. She always thought she was open-minded and accepting of everybody, and for the most part she was. Then, all of a sudden, she came home hysterical after taking her son to school for the first day, because he was going to have a black teacher. Somewhere in her was a stereotype of what a black person is that characterized black people as inferior. She was appalled at herself, and, thank God, she was willing to confront that in herself. If white people want to deal with their prejudices and if black people want to deal with their prejudices, they need to have that kind of self-reflection.
What can people do about their prejudices? I think if people really get serious about this, they can refuse to live their lives in isolated, homogeneous groups. It's important to be willing to go into situations where you know you're going to find people of a different class, a different educational background, or a different race, whose philosophies are different. It's easier to be with people who are just like ourselves. But there's no reason in the world why you can't interact with people who have different political ideologies, different religions, and who have been socialized in different ways from you. Such interactions help you to catch glimpses of your prejudices and help you deal with them.
I once did an internship in a public hospital, where I worked with cancer patients, some of whom were white, many of whom were black, and most of whom were poor. It forced me to look at and relate to a whole different kind of person from the graduate school crowd or the college teachers' crowd I'm used to. If we're serious in dealing with our prejudices, then we need to force ourselves out of our boxes.
But you can't go into this kind of process like it's a sightseeing trip. You've got to have openness and sensitivity; you have to be careful not to feel superior or be the one who's in control.