*I wrote this in 2010 after an upsetting experience in a Rockford coffee shop. In light of the Trayvon Martin death and subsequent discussion nationally I’m sharing it here.
A number of weeks ago on an early Tuesday morning I sipped coffee at a local Rockford establishment waiting for my friend to join me. Four regulars that I see on any given morning that I frequent the place were at their usual spot at the round table in the corner. They were conversing over the usual and with the same carelessness about being overheard that they usually exhibit. From all appearances, and with the snippets of information that I have overheard, the men are past their fifties, upper middle-class, well-connected and long-time residents of Rockford. And White.
This particular morning the conversation took a sinister direction as the venom of racism surfaced to the top of their loud and outspoken political pontifications about the needs of our city. I do not think I have ever heard such unabashed racism. One man thought that a large number of houses on the west side should be bulldozed and “those people” shipped to Freeport. Another said, “I think we ought to buy everyone a ticket for a nice cruise out in the ocean, fill about three of those cruise-liners, and then when they get out there, ka-boom!”
My stomach knotted. My hands shook. I was angry. I am a pastor so Bible verses come right to my mind even when I am in shock. Jesus said, I recalled, “Out of the heart the mouth speaks” and His idea of morality is such that even if a man just thinks a lustful thought or a curse word, he’s guilty of adultery and murder in his heart. I was so sick and frustrated, not knowing what to do. I had a friend who was unusually late and I was stressing out about trying to make a quick decision as to whether we should stay in the establishment for our weekly meeting or go outside. Or just leave the premises altogether. I actually entertained the idea of going up to the men and confronting them, but my friend was going to arrive at any moment and I could not tell what would be the most loyal thing to do for him. I had to take him into consideration. The friend meeting me that morning is Black.
Internally I was seething in a quagmire of righteous indignation and confusion. I suddenly found myself wondering what to do at that very moment to disassociate myself from the evil at the table in the corner and to show my solidarity with my Christian brother, my black brother. It seemed like hours, but it was actually only a few short minutes before my friend strolled into the coffee place and in a matter of seconds I became aware of a fact about racism that I had not yet fully grasped: I had just been racially profiled!
When my friend walked in, the men at the round table in the corner suddenly toned down their voices. I do not know if I imagined it or if I actually heard it, but I could swear I heard one of them mutter to the others, “Speaking of which….” However, it was in those split-seconds while they dialed down their rhetoric that I realized one more aspect of the evil of racism that is not discussed enough. Racism not only demeans others of different color, but it demeans its own race. I didn’t need to worry about these middle-age white businessmen talking loudly and insulting my black friend as long as he was actually in the room. Upon seeing his skin color they put a lid on their odious toxin and kept the bile of their sick souls under the thin guise of civility, talking softly about other topics and sipping their coffee. Instead, I realized that these rich misanthropes who have nothing better to do but meet every morning to grumble about the decline of society had just insulted me. Looking around the room and seeing that we were all white they subconsciously made a judgment call about their own race and me. They decided that they didn’t have to be cautious with their murderous speech (and, yes, Jesus says it is murderous). They didn’t think they had to be careful because we were all white. That inspired me to update my Facebook status to say, “I feel as if I am sitting in a café in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Era. Unbelievable and overt racism at the round table in the corner.”
When my Black friend sat down I, nodded in the direction of the round table in the corner and said to him, “See those four guys over there?” Then I told him what I had overheard. I wasn’t going to keep their secret for them. Since they talked loudly enough for Whites to hear, I thought that what they said should be made loud enough for Blacks to hear. That’s why I’m writing this. The least I could do for my friend that day was tell him what the four men in at the round table in the corner thought about him.
My Black friend is a Christian man. And a professional. With manly dignity he shrugged his shoulders and noticing the age and the socio-economic status of the belligerents at the round table in the corner said that it wasn’t all that unusual to receive racist vibes from their type. He and I now knew that his presence made them feel uncomfortable. We had our coffee and tried to get into the normal conversation that marked our regular meetings. But four racists were sitting at the round table in the corner and I don’t think either one of us could get it out of our mind. My Black friend said he just accepted it as a reality and that one has to get used to it. I’m not sure how one gets used to it, but he hasn’t been back to that coffee place.
White racists made me feel unclean and unwanted. And I’m white! But even though I despised them for what they said, they talked freely because they had glanced around the room and profiled every White there as potentially sympathetic to their racism. They subconsciously assumed that I would not be disturbed by their foul speech because I am white. They profiled me to be one that would not be offended by their suggestions, but I did not realize it at first and thought they were just being stupidly loud until my Black friend walked in. Then, in flash, I realized they were prejudiced about every White person in the room, including me, when they instantly lowered their voices from obnoxious to normal low as soon as one lone Black professional man entered the room.
Racism is a form of hatred that condemns people of its own race to a judgment, not by the content of their character, but by the color of their skin. I realized that one of the reasons for my anger was that I had been treated with prejudice because I am White. Merely by my skin color they had assumed that I would not be scandalized if I overheard them, thus they threw discretion to the wind. I also realized the helplessness of being judged by one’s skin color. I can’t cross the threshold of any establishment with a sign on my head that says, “I denounce all forms of racism.” I have to hope that it will not be assumed that I am hateful of Blacks just because I am in white skin. But racists are so small-minded they end up judging even their own race by the color of their skin.
My friend and I just want to be two coffee-drinking Americans comfortably discussing religion, politics, sports, family, and God. So now we go somewhere we feel is more accepting of us as we are. The following week as we were planning our weekly coffee time, my Black friend suggested another place in town. He says the coffee is better at the other place. Being an amateur connoisseur that knows something about coffee beverages I know that judgment is up for debate. Being a pastor that knows people, I know that even bad coffee tastes better where you’re welcome. And so I said, “Yeah, I think the coffee is better there too.”