By Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski
As a child, I witnessed a rally of the Ku Klux Klan. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was young enough to have been very confused by my mother’s fierce anger when the hand-made KKK signs started appearing in our neighborhood.
I don’t remember how she explained the group to me, but I vividly recall seeing the event itself as it was held early one evening in an empty corner lot alongside the state road which was the regular route into our neighborhood. Riding home in the family station wagon as the sun was setting, I saw hooded figures in bright white robes standing listening as someone with a ragged voice shouted over a loudspeaker. I had a glimpse of flames rising high as we sped past. The fire was likely contained in a barrel, but in my mind it was a conflagration. My vision could have lasted only the few seconds it took to drive by – but the scene has been seared in my memory ever since.
I recently asked my parents if they could confirm this happening. I hadn’t imagined it, had I? They indeed remembered the rally, and my dad was prompted (as he often is) to tell a story of how he recalled the event. A black friend of one of my older brothers had shown up at our house. He’d been on our side of town, and the only route he knew home went along the same state road we’d just traveled past the rally. He wanted to be home, but he was too afraid to go the way he knew. My dad, who as a city police officer seemed to know every back road ever paved (or not), took the young man into his truck and together they returned to his home by a different route.
For years, whenever I have heard the phrase “white supremacy,” I have returned in my mind to that scene of flames, hoods, robes, and angry voices. Yet, in the past few years, I have begun to see white supremacy located not in an abandoned lot a few blocks from my childhood home but in a place far closer and more frightening – in my own heart and mind.
For most of my life, fighting racism was something I imagined I could do by focusing outside of myself. Only recently have I begun to grapple with the fact that my struggle is at least as much an internal one. As my eyes have been opened, I have begun to see how deeply white supremacy is a part of me. I do not consciously think of myself or people who look like me as superior, but the vast majority of my friends are white – as are most of my co-workers and my closest ministerial colleagues, most of the people at my church and in my neighborhood, and every member of my family. Even my Facebook page was a mostly white enclave until a friend posted the challenge “Do all of your Facebook friends look like you?” and I took steps to widen my circle of social media connections. There are exceptions, of course, but my life tilts in a particular direction, and I know I am not the only one.
This reality is not a coincidence. This is the result of my conscious and unconscious decisions within a society in which separation is often the path of least resistance. And this reality is not without consequences – it affects the way I understand the world — the stories I hear and do not hear, the things I know and do not know, and what I think of as normal, natural, and best.
I have unknowingly but regularly lived out of a supremacist framework in the groups I have joined (or not) and in how I have conducted myself within them, in the priorities I’ve set for my work and how I’ve gone about it, in how I have planned agendas and run meetings and taken minutes, in the decisions I have made and the ways in which I’ve made them, in the silences I have chosen to ignore or did not notice, in the way I have written job descriptions and conducted interviews, in the areas of my personal life in which I have focused, in the relationships that have received most of my energy – I could go on.
The same reality impacts the institutions that matter most to me. In the past few years, courageous people within BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz have raised their voices to name specific ways in which people of color have regularly experienced harm within our organization, an organization committed to peace rooted in justice, an organization with explicit commitments to welcome and inclusion. We didn’t see it. We didn’t mean it. Our intentions were beyond good. And yet, it happened and is happening.
Guilt and shame serve no one and cripple rather than motivate efforts for change. So how shall we move forward? The least that we can do is to recognize the depth of the work that is to be done and the flames of fear we’ll have to face to do it. No matter what path we choose, the road to Beloved Community runs through dangerous and difficult places, some of them closer than we’ve ever imagined.
Perhaps a different route will take us home for the first time.
LeDayne McLeese Polaski is the Executive Director of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz (Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America). www.bpfna.org