I can honestly say that I grew up fairly colorblind. It began with the great love of my childhood, Catherine, a dear African-American woman who cared for me as a boy. We were not a wealthy family, but with three young children, my mother used what little extra money she had for some help.
Catherine loved me like few others, and I her.
On my birthday, she would hide candy bars in my bed to the number equaling my age; we would get inside sleeping bags and slide-race each other down the stairs; she would always make me my favorite lunch, macaroni and cheese.
One day I came home from school and Catherine was waiting for me in our kitchen. While trying to hide it from me, she had been crying. I remember feeling so upset – what had made my Catherine cry?
I asked her what was wrong, and she simply said that a great man had died that day.
I discovered later it was Martin Luther King, Jr.
I didn’t face racism until much later in life. I was born in Chicago, and then raised out west in places like Los Angeles and then later Seattle. Moving from Seattle to a small coastal town in North Carolina, just before my sophomore year in high school, was nothing less than a culture shock.
I had always played basketball, and had played for my high school as a freshman in Seattle. I went out for the North Carolina team, and soon discovered that I was one of only two white boys who did. At that school, white boys played football, and black boys played basketball.
I made the team, and loved those guys. But many of the whites called me “Oreo,” after the cookie.
Get it? A little bit of white in the middle of black.
But there was more community on those long bus rides back from games, listening to the Commodores and Parliament on my teammates' “Boom Boxes,” than anything I had ever experienced before.
Now jump ahead again.
I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2004 on the very day when the tenth anniversary of the ending of Apartheid was celebrated. During my time there, I went to the Apartheid museum.
There are two entrances.
When you buy your ticket, you are randomly assigned to one or the other. You then find out that one is the “White” entrance, and the other is the “Non-White” entrance. You are only allowed entrance through the door of your race.
It’s then you realize that the entire museum experience places you under apartheid.
I was assigned to be black, and had to enter that way, and experience what that would be like. I felt everything you might imagine – awkward, ashamed, sick to my stomach that humans would ever treat each other that way.
But most of all, I felt the evil of it all. Because it was evil. It was the antithesis of God’s call on your life, and mine, which is to enter into community with others. We are called to be a gathering of old and young, black and white, male and female, rich and poor. And most foundationally, to be able to join with those very people and experience life as family that is both holistic and healthy.
So I celebrate this day for all that it represents.
Because it’s less about one man’s life, and more about a dream.
A very biblical one.
James Emery White
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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