My All-White World

orange juice

I grew up in an all-white world.

Well, not exactly all white. There was Maurice, the black custodian at the local shopping center, who swept the sidewalks singing B.B. King songs. There was Joe Parche, the skinny, high-I.Q. boy who they bussed in from the city in an effort to “integrate” our high school. And there was Estelle, our cleaning lady.

Estelle came into my world surrounded with myth and mystery. My mother had prepared me for her arrival by drawing me aside to whisper: “Estelle’s son was a Black Panther; he got involved in those police shootings in Milwaukee.” I expected Estelle to somehow bear the marks of her son’s crime-soaked reputation, envisioning a hard, jaded looking woman, or perhaps an aging, sensual beauty of some kind. Instead, Estelle looked like someone’s grandma. Except quieter. In fact, she never spoke unless spoken to.

All the grandiosity of my status as a neophyte of the sixties hippie culture, which held hands with Civil Rights Movement and purported to tear down the walls of race and social status, restoring equality and harmony with all, crashed into the silence between us. What was this silence but a vibration broken in mid-air like a bird song muffled by a cat paw? It was never meant to be, and I would make it go away.

But when I came through the front door Tuesday afternoons, there she would be, the black servant in my all-white kingdom, showing wordless respect. Estelle, I wanted to say, I was born into this kingdom. I didn’t build it or make it what it is. And now that I’m growing up and analyzing what I have always ignored, I see gaping holes in the politics that say that you and I are somehow on a different plane just because you work for my mother and your skin doesn’t match mine. So let’s be friends, let’s be equals, let’s begin utopia right here and now.

But I couldn’t say all that, so I would say, “Do you want some orange juice?”

At which point Estelle would turn slightly from her dusting and croon, “Why, yes, Honey-child, that would be so nice.” I would fetch the orange juice and set it down on the table. This was our weekly ritual. A peace offering of orange juice to a race of people long ravaged by my own. In her people’s behalf she accepted graciously, willing away the bitter darkness as the sweet nectar of Florida sunshine washed her throat. “Estelle, do you want some orange juice?” “Why, yes, Honey-child, that would be so nice.” It was all I could manage.

At my all-white college we over-compensated in a kind of starry-eyed admiration. This was another attempt to keep people of color at a distance, though. Our great-grandparents traded them like cars, our grandparents made them ride in the back, our parents shut them out of their country clubs, but we are going to make up for it all and worship them.

I wondered: Could people of different ethnicities could actually thrive together as equals? Or was there something in our very natures that propelled us away from each other like magnets? Was there a chemical incompatibility that would automatically lead to explosion, like the bleach and ammonia Estelle used in cleaning our already clean house? I had to know, and the only way to find out was to try. But then, I lived in an all-white world.

Until I met Jesus. Becoming part of His kingdom meant that the Holy Spirit transformed engrained and inborn differences into catalysts in the bonding process rather than impediments to it. Finally in the global movement that comprises the Seventh-day Adventist Church, brotherhood with people from all over the map melted away inhibitions. Commonality that would never have been found otherwise came with faith in Jesus.

In my recent study of Revelation, I found this gem referring to the New Jerusalem, the eternal home of the saved: “Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there). And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it,” Revelation 21:5-6. That word “nations” is ethnos, like our “ethnic.” Each ethnicity has a certain God-given “glory and honor.” As the excellencies of each and every race of mankind flood the New Jerusalem, it will become an invigorating celebration of diversity.

I’ll be there, passing out orange juice. You?

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My All-White World — 108 Comments

  1. Maurice, I love what you said, start to finish. Sooooo true. Human nature always lapses into trying to be "better than" someone else, and using the flimsiest of bases for it. But your proactive approach, even when bearing the brunt of the "better than" problem, is inspiring.

  2. Two summers ago, two girls came to visit their aunts in Spokane. Our niece was white, the other niece was black. The two girls were best friends back home. Our niece asked if we could attend the multicultural/black church so she could be with her friend. We readily agreed. While there, the other niece invited ours to a swim party at a local pool. We asked about details such as transportation, etc. the other niece told us that if we dropped her off they would bring her home.

    When we showed up at the pool on the day of the party, the other aunt was there with several other children, all black. She informed us that she was not going to be responsible for any white child at the pool. Since we assumed the adults would be supervising all children at the party, this surprised us. We talked with our niece and asked if she still wanted to go. She was a little frightened by what the lady had said, but for the sake of her friend, she decided to stay. When the party was over, we received a call asking when we were going to pick up our niece. I stated we would be happy to do so, only we had been told she would be brought home and that was why we were not there. The lady exploded, and we received another lecture about how she is not responsible for a white girl. Because they were fellow Seventh-day Adventists we had trusted their word. I offered again to pick up our niece. The other aunt stated that no they would bring her to us.

    After that, the two girls drifted apart, both afraid to have anything to do with one another even after they returned home to their parents. I regret that our niece had to learn about racism in such a direct manner and at such a tender age, but my main concern here is that if we continue to pass on such racism, whether white, black or other, how do we ever expect to live in harmony with one another? I know whites that have been just as cruel. When are we going to break the cycle of racism which is nothing more than hatred with the excuse of ethnicity?

  3. As a church we have not adequately dealt with issues of racism. There are black Adventists who can painfully recall being denied entrance into typically all white Adventist colleges. ( Often there were only a limited amount of slots for minorities, if admitted at all) I personally recall sitting in my communications class at Pacific Union College (1979) as my white instructor lectured on what he felt were the similarities between the words, "nigger" and "WASP". Incidents such as these have created distrust amongst a people who have long claimed to all be part of the same body of Christ. It is time for an open discussion on the topic of race in the church - not just a list of actions that have been taken to right the obvious wrongs, but an open dialogue on how the church's worldly stance on the topic have impacted the policies and practices of Adventists and the culture of many of our church organizations. This blog, hopefully has opened the door.

  4. After all that's been written, shared and revealed about our problem with race/ethnicity/culture, what are we as individuals actually willing to do about it? We could go on for years about the injustice and how wrong we are. What do we actually begin to do to make changes with God's help?

  5. Jennifer,

    Wow I appreciate your honesty about your "all white kingdom". I'm mixed, white, black and mexican and was never accepted by my extended family or neighbors. Today people seem to act as if everything is "all good" and like racism doesn't exist and somehow by not acknowledging it, it isn't there. I can appreciate your candid conversation. Our experiences are something we shouldn't hide but face as matter of fact. I think about slavery, American history and God often these days. It was okay for kings, ex. Solomon, to force labor on other races than Israelites on their territory. But to beat and not pay a man his worth in labor is wrong. It happened so often in America then segregation to today (Trevon Martian). I go to an all black SDA church on the east side of Detroit cause there is none in my mostly white suburb where I live. They have warned me about the segregated camp meetings. Makes me laugh. Anyway. Thank you for that beautifully written story.

  6. Maureen, thanks for your story. So you're saying the White churches are dying out while the Black churches are thriving? Similar situation here. Last night someone facetiously asked, "Are there any white SDAs on the East coast?"

  7. Jennifer, I enjoyed your article. I think I remember you from the old Country Life days back in the late 70s. This is always a topic that generates a lot of feedback. Unfortunately, unless this same topic is being discussed by those at the tables that set policy and direction, it's going to be a long time in coming before we see any significant changes. In my neck of the woods, our two conferences, South Atlantic Regional and Georgia Cumberland, have announced initiatives over the years to move in the direction of breaking down the walls that separate us. The evidence seems to indicate that we might need a different approach. Thanks again for sharing your story.

    • Curtis, I was at the Georgia Cumberland camp meeting last May, and was very pleased to hear the president for the regional conference speak, upon invitation from the Cumberland conference. I was also pleased to hear him speak of hiring white pastors in the regional conference while the Cumberland conference hires blacks. Here in Florida we have combined pastors meetings with both conferences. I have also preached in and am currently doing some Bible worker training in one of our local black churches. I am so glad we are teaming up with the black and white congregations these days. When you do so you double your number of friends!

  8. The Adventist Review has a feature on "Racism and Health in North America."

    I'm glad we're talking about the issue. It's better than sweeping it under the rug.

    And while we're talking about it, let's focus on the here and now and what we can do to make things better. Focusing on the wrongs of the past doesn't create a better present.

    Appreciate your comments, Curtis and William, on the integration efforts in your conference. 🙂

    • I just now took time to view this 21-minute video of an interview of epidemiologist David R. Williams, Professor of Public Health at Harvard School of Public Health, by Canadian Piya Chattopadhyay of The Agenda on Ontario Public Television.

      I really recommend that particularly our white readers view this video. The statistics are nothing short of shocking, but the real value comes near the end of the video. Dr Williams makes clear that we all have unconscious biases due to negative stereotypes - whether they be of black people, gay people, fat people or old people. In this case, these unconscious, unchosen attitudes affect the level of health care provided to groups by health care providers.

      Translated into our inter-personal relationships, it means that we all have certain negative stereotypes that determine the way we relate to people. For instance, I remember car-pooling with several teachers in Michigan back in the 1960's. We taught in a school near Benton Harbor, which was a predominantly black city. So the race issue was very much alive in the area. In my mind I can still hear the exact intonation of one of my female colleagues proclaiming, "I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body!!" I was so shocked, because it was evident that she truly believed it. But her usual conversation betrayed that she was very heavily prejudiced against black people. (I was glad she wasn't looking at me to see my open-mouthed incredulity!) It was very funny, really, but very sad. It made me realize that we all have prejudices of which we are unaware, and I might have had the same prejudices if I had grown up in the same society. And the most prejudiced people are the ones who absolutely know they are not prejudiced! Thus it is best for each of us to recognize, "I am prejudiced!"

      The question is, What am I going to do about it?

      Let's remember that prejudice works both ways. A victim mentality will never solve the race issue. Only by making a genuine effort to see each other as unique children of God will we be able to understand and love each other.

      Another thing I took away from this video is that it is absolutely imperative that we do all in our power to work towards full integration - even if we (black or white) are more comfortable in our present situation. Segregation is the basis for negative differential treatment, and thus it should be eliminated in all possible venues, including our churches.


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