There was a show on Mtv called The Real World that I never watched in my teen years because we didn’t have cable. The premise was pretty simple. A bunch of people who didn’t know each other would live in a house together. What made it work was that the cast was all over the map; rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, city, country, 18 to early 20s, good looking, and better looking. With such an odd mix of people the show was rife with tension and conflict. Worldviews collided like a slow-motion train wreck. It wasn’t so much about watching TV as rubbernecking. (Rubbernecking: a term used in the Deep South to describe driving by an accident slowly in order to see what’s going on.)
I was on the Real World. Not the one on TV, mind you. But in the summer of 1996 I lived in Atlanta in a house with strangers. There were no TV cameras. We didn’t drink (officially). But we were rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Caribbean, 18 to early 20s, and normal looking. We were there to host summer camps for kids who lived in various public housing projects in inner-city Atlanta. It was called The Atlanta Urban Project. I thought the “project” was to help poor, black kids through Christian ministry. As it turned out, we were the project.
I was the only white dude there. That didn’t bug me. I loved black people. I enjoyed black people more than white people a lot of the time. My best friend was black. (And no, I’m not that white guy saying that to mask some racist sentiment.) James lived one house away and we were literally best friends. We spent the night at one another’s houses and raided each other’s fridges. I remember James taking a jar of artichoke hearts out of my fridge and asking, “What’s dis?” I told him an artichoke was a kind of bird. And as was his custom he would just slowly shake his head and mutter, “White people…”
My senior year of high school a good friend of mine moved in to our house after his mother’s boyfriend was shot in front of their house. Rod was black. He was a brother to me. He still is. I was a member of the Black Student Association at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi. I was elected their chaplain.
I bring all of this up to say that when I went to Atlanta in 1996, I saw myself as part of the solution; as a reconciler; as one of the good guys. Olatunde didn’t necessarily see me that way. (Olatunde’s name used to be Dante. Dante changed his name while at Morehouse College in an effort to embrace and celebrate his African roots.) It bugged the hell out of me that Olatunde seemed to live in the past. It bothered me that he didn’t treat me like one of the good guys.
One night our “Real World” group watched a movie together. It was a movie that dealt with issues of race. When it was over our group leaders facilitated a discussion. It went something like this:
Group Leader: So, what did you think?
Me: I loved it. (I really did enjoy the movie. To me it was a story of restoration and unification. Who wouldn’t like this movie!?)
Olatunde: (under his breath with disdain) You would.
Me: (more than a little annoyed) What’s that supposed to mean?
Olatunde: The white man saves the day again, huh.
Me: (standing and yelling) I’m sick and tired of you making me feel guilty because I’m white!
It didn’t get better from there.
Here’s the thing. I knew racism was real. I knew that race played an unfair role in the way our world works. I knew that my best friend James spending four years in prison while I spent four years in college wasn’t as simple as he made bad choices and I made good ones. What frustrated me was that Olatunde treated me like a “them.” I wasn’t them. I was me. I was different. I was like that white kid in the movie The Power of One we just watched who was a catalyst for change in Apartheid South Africa.
In my mind it was guys like Olatunde that had the problem, not me. He was the one that was making race an issue, not me. For us to be reconciled, he needed to stop allowing the past to define the present. It was unfair for Olatunde to hold me to account for sins I hadn’t perpetrated and atrocities he hadn’t personally experienced. How could he not see that? I understood the lingering wreckage of systemic racism in American culture. I wasn’t arguing for him to see the world through a different lens. I just wanted him to see me through a different lens.
And that, in general, is how a lot of white people view the race issue in our culture. We’re past all of that. Dr. King’s dream about an America where opportunity and relationships would be rooted in the content of one’s character and not the color of one’s skin is our heart-felt assessment of the way it should be. And that’s what Olatunde didn’t seem to understand. I was like, “Bro, I’m with you. I get it. Please stop punishing me for being white.”
It was shortly after our colorful movie discussion that the whole Real World cast and crew of our Atlanta Urban Project loaded up in a few vehicles and headed west to Birmingham, Alabama. We were there to visit the Civil Rights Museum which is across the street from one of the horrific scenes of the Civil Rights Movement. The museum overlooks the historic 16th Street Baptist Church where 4 black girls were killed on September 15, 1963 when it was bombed by racists.
I didn’t really want to go through the museum with anyone. I waited long enough in the entry way for my housemates to make their way through a room or two before I went in. Having come up in the South I was historically and academically aware of American slavery, the war that helped to end it, and the subsequent struggle for personhood, dignity, and freedom that reached a public crescendo through the civil rights movement.
As I walked through that museum, room after room, looking at pictures, reading Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, I began to feel uneasy. I remember seeing a picture of a black teenage boy who had been lynched and hanged from a tree. Standing underneath him stood three white boys smiling, arms crossed, like they had just killed an eight point buck. I recall staring at picture of a black woman who was nine months pregnant sweating in a Mississippi cotton field; her sack overflowing with cotton. I remember a series of pictures of the scarred backs of slaves. I had seen images like this before. We all had. But they seemed personal this time.
I went into a small, darkened room in which a loop of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” was playing. I sat against the wall with my head in my hands. Gravity held my heavy heart- shackled, as it were, with the weight of ignorance washed away. It was a hard day. It was also beautiful, in a way.
I realized something important as I sat in the room and that seminal sermon continued on and on. You see, my basis for understanding racial reconciliation in my own life was based on a simple idea: I am not my great-great grandfather and you’re not your great-great grandfather. For me that meant we didn’t need to be defined by their ideologies or oppression- whatever they may have been. I saw the color of people’s skin, but I judged them on the content of their character- just like Dr. King dreamed aloud. But that is precisely what led me to misunderstand a man like Olatunde.
Olatunde is not alone in that when he sees those pictures of our history, he sees them differently than me. Whereas I see three boys standing under another who is hanged from a tree and I say confidently and honestly, “That isn’t me.” Olatunde looks at that same picture and with a sincere solidarity says honestly, “That is me.” And here’s the difficulty- we’re both right.
It’s easy for a lot of white people to say, “America has changed. The civil rights movement worked. We’re continuing to repair the wrongs. One of my best friends is black. We have a black president. I just downloaded Alicia Keys’ new single. Can’t we move on?” In one sense, no we can’t. For Olatunde, who he is as a man is based on the history I just wanted to move on from. What he derived strength and pride from I would strip him of for the sake of us “moving past that.”
That’s what I never understood until that day. Racial reconciliation wasn’t going to come because I could prove I wasn’t racist. Reconciliation with a man like Olatunde could only come when I was willing to see the world from his perspective; to walk a mile and perhaps another in his shoes. And this will make many of you uncomfortable, but what I realized that day was that if Olatunde could look at the scarred back of a slave and say, “Those are my scars,” then I could look at the whip that made them and say, “That’s my whip.” Olatunde was a representative of his history and heritage. For me to be in relationship with him meant I would need to be a representative of mine. Understand I never felt like I owed him anything. He didn’t owe me anything. But we were in the Real World together and something had to give.
My eyes adjusted from the dark room of King’s dream to the bright reality of Birmingham’s sun. I walked over to Olatunde who was looking at a sculpture on the grounds of the museum. I told him what seemed like the only words I had left for him. “I’m sorry.”
I think I had come as close as I could to understanding him- to seeing the world from his perspective. For some privileged reason I thought this whole time that my subjective lens trumped his; that my perspective on our common history was somehow truer; that “moving on” would be equally good for the both of us. I was wrong. If his were the scars then mine was the whip. For our sake, I could own that. I couldn’t change it. I couldn’t erase it. I couldn’t ask him to cease to be who he was in order to accommodate who I am.
Olatunde hugged me. It was real. Reconciliation didn’t happen because he forgot his past. It happened because I owned mine. The summer ended. He and I never spoke again. But I learned a lot looking at myself through his eyes. And for that, I will always be grateful.
I have told this story a few times. Most people don’t really understand it I don’t think. I am not saying every black man is Olatunde. I’m not saying every white man is me. I’m not saying that relationships between black people and white people ought to be predicated upon a sincere apology. I am saying that real reconciliation is rooted in things deeper than a lack of racism, music tastes, political affiliations, and who we count among our friends. True reconciliation comes from walking in someone else’s shoes even when your feet begin to blister and bleed because they are rubbing you the wrong way. Frankly, most folk ain’t got time for that.
It’s tough to own up to the whip. Then again, my whole life is rooted in the belief of a God who was willing to endure the whip and hang from the tree for me. Over every foul misstep of my broken life, Christ says, “That is me. Hold me to account for that.” In light of that great hope, the least I could do was blister my feet for a mile or two in a black man’s shoes until I could understand why he’d call himself Olatunde; which means “blessings have come again.”