A white man’s frank and repentant exploration of how racism finds a home in white folks’ souls.
Change context, and you change people
What I learned about the socially constructed nature of racism in the United States by going to Ethiopia
by Jeffrey A. Schooley
From December 30 to January 13, I had the opportunity to represent and serve Washington (PA) Presbytery as a mission partner representative to the Southwest Bethel Synod of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY). Washington Presbytery and the Southwest Bethel Synod have had a nearly quarter-century long partnership centered on prayer, encouragement, and the sharing of resources.
As part of the covenanted partnership, every three years the covenant must be reviewed and reaffirmed. While 2015 was supposed to be the year when our partners from Ethiopia would come to us, shameful troubles with the US embassy in Addis Ababa left our partners without the necessary travel visas (specifically, Qes Endrias Essay, the president of the Southwest Bethel Synod, who has previously travelled to the United States, was treated with suspicion—not just scrutiny—and manipulated in the appeal process). I volunteered to travel with another member of the presbytery, Rusty Salminen, who has made many visits in the past.
Those are the bare bones facts of my trip, and for them I am joyful and prayerfully hopeful about the future of the partnership. Yet maybe one of the most important takeaways for me, personally, is the revelation of just how socially constructed racism is, especially in the United States.
To be clear, I am not unaware of the legacy of white privilege that permeates many African nations, especially those that suffered under colonization (which Ethiopia never experienced, though they were occupied by Italian forces for a brief period in the 20th century). As a result, many countries in Africa still have issues around race (and more around tribe). My point, therefore, is not about the African experience of race, but rather about my experience of race once I was removed from my context.
‘Integration of public places may, indeed, change the people who are forced into these contexts because who these people are—I’ve learned so well now—is largely a reflection of where these people are.’
To begin, I must confess that I am always aware—on one level or another—of race in social settings. I am not intentionally—or even unintentionally—manic about it, but, for example, when I went to Steak ’n Shake recently, I quickly noticed that the entirety of the wait staff and visible cooks were all African Americans. I do not try to read too much into these observations, positively or negatively (whether this means Steak ’n Shake is an Equal Opportunity Employer or that this restaurant is a parable of Jim Crow America with underpaid black workers shuffling food here and there for a largely white customer base). But I am aware. And in those rare instances where I find myself a racial minority, I am aware of—and occasionally discomforted by—this.
As you can imagine, my travelmate Rusty (who is also white) and I were the racial minority in Ethiopia. And—quite honestly—this didn’t immediately register for me. My normal racial awareness had been dulled by both the fatigue of travel and the general newness of being abroad. And then, on day four, as we were dining at a local restaurant/hotel that serves the few Anglo-visitors to this area, I saw a white person—an employee of the World Health Organization—and my awareness of race flooded me once again.
It was only upon reflection—after I returned home—that I realized I had spent 11 days in a country where I was the racial minority and that none of my typical awareness or discomfort ever presented itself.
Now, again, this might be chocked up to the overall experience of being abroad. It could be that my sincere focus on the meetings, the preaching, and the renewed covenant focused me to such a degree that I didn’t have the room for other thoughts. But I think something else happened. I think my typical experiences of race—the awareness, the occasional discomfort—are more married to my social location in the United States than they are to actual skin color. And if this is the case, then I have not yet experienced or understood a more robust confirmation of the social constructedness of racism than what I discovered in Ethiopia.
Almost no one disputes that elements of social construction invade our understanding of race and racism, but the degree to which this occurs is a perpetual debate. One need go no further than Macklemore’s new single “White Privilege II” to find a deafening cacophony of opinions about the good, the bad, and the ugly in race in America. Yet what I experienced taught me that the most important phrase in that last sentence is the last one: in America.
Once removed—even for a short time—from my social location, I found myself instinctively regarding those I encountered by other criteria than race. In other words, part of our obsession about (and discriminatory practices and modes of thinking regarding) race is a result of location in the United States.
I do not—as yet—have anything more profound than this to add. However, I do see some potential in exploring its significance in the future. For instance, if my typical awareness is a result of a conglomeration of past events—where I grew up, who I saw, the microaggressions I witnessed and learned implicitly to emulate—then a change of context, even within America, can change people. Put simply (and maybe simplistically), integration of public places may, indeed, change the people who are forced into these contexts because who these people are—I’ve learned so well now—is largely a reflection of where these people are.
For now, I ask you, thoughtful reader, to share your own stories—whether they affirm or refute my own—to see if this kernel of an insight has any legs. I would prefer we stick to personal stories rather than opining about Macklemore or mandatory bussing to integrate public schools, as I don’t think any solid reflection on those issues can be had before this primary issue of the role of social location is settled.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD andidate in Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.