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My 3 Stories: A White Man's Racial Journey

  • Dave Miller
  • Updated Aug 24, 2016
My 3 Stories: A White Man's Racial Journey

I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where dealing with racism was on the back burner because Iowa is one of the most lily-white states in these United States. Back in the 60s, it was even lilyer-whiter than it is now, since the influx of Asians, African refugees, and a large number of Hispanics (yes, many of them undocumented). Ours was anything but a racist home. In fact, my dad was a racial trendsetter back in the day. We had an integrated Southern Baptist church (Dad was one of the first SBC pastors in Iowa) and he worked to build bridges with local black pastors. We would sometimes drive over to the Mt. Zion National Baptist church after my long-winded dad was done with his sermon and catch the rest of their worship. Dad and the Mt. Zion pastor even switched pulpits.

But I also never had a black friend. It wasn’t a choice, there wasn’t a black kid in my school growing up – not kindergarten through sixth grade. Look up “Snow White” in the 67 World Book and they have my class photo from Truman Elementary. If there was an Asian or a Hispanic kid, I don’t remember it. That’s Iowa, folks. Ever seen the Iowa basketball team? Sometimes we have 4 white guys on the court at the same time! We are Norwegian, Swedes, German – a rainbow of shades of white. Most of us can’t even get a good tan.

So I was able to grow up without being racist but also without really having to deal with the problem. I didn’t discriminate against blacks, but I didn’t interact with them much either.

Three things have happened that I find significant through the years. One was a crisis. One was the beginning of a friendship. And the other was a movie – perhaps not even that historically accurate. These three significant events changed my views and left me with a desire to be active and forceful in fighting racism.

I will admit that I can be a bit pugnacious when racism is the topic. I do not apologize. I promised a friend I would do that 6 years ago and I intend to keep that promise. Let me tell my story – no, my stories. My three stories.

Story #1 – My First Pastorate – Encountering Blatant Racism 

I’m a city boy. More to the point, I’m a small city boy. I was a youth pastor for 5 years in Tequesta, Florida, before I was called to my first pastorate in a state that would be described as Deep South. Some of you know the church, but if you don’t I’m not naming it. I understand they’ve made significant progress over the last 25 years and there’s nothing to be gained by naming them.

We had a basketball goal in the parking lot of the church that got a lot of action with me, the summer youth pastor (a big guy about 6’7″) and our youth group. We called it “fellowship” and “discipleship.” One of our deacons, a man with a heart for God, came out of his house one day and found three young black kids shooting baskets on the rickety hoop that was at the end of his driveway. Thinking nothing of it, he told them, “Our church has a basketball goal in the parking lot. Why don’t you go down there and shoot hoops.” They did.

The next day the basketball goal miraculously disappeared. That next Sunday was business meeting and we were voting on deacons and the annual budget. My raise got taken away and my best friend got voted down as a deacon. It was one of those unique moments when you knew it was going to be fun – people who hadn’t been in church in months were suddenly there for the business meeting. They went home slapping themselves on the back because they’d sent a message to that young whippersnapper of a preacher. I’d evidently said a few things that annoyed them, like “Some of  you aren’t going to like heaven much. There’ll be black people there.” I guess I wasn’t “loving” enough.

I’m not proud of how I responded to that business meeting. With my 20/20 hindsight, I think I’d do something more like what Jonathan did – I’d call them to repent of their racism. But it was 1988, not 2016, and the deacon and I decided that it was not the right time to “go to the mattresses.” We’d just split the church, tear it to the ground, and gain nothing. So, we backed off, let the racists win, and I kept preaching. I often question whether our “wise” decision was a godly decision. I kept my job but I’ve never felt good about it.

Story #2 – Meeting Dwight McKissic

I was in Orlando, at the 2010 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting, talking to another blogger. A man named Dwight McKissic walked up. He knew the man I was talking to, but we’d never met. I’d heard Dwight preach, but we’d never spoken. I introduced myself and was surprised to know that he recognized my name. I was a writer for sbcIMPACT at the time and I was dabbling in things here at Voices. He had some complimentary words for me and I felt 7 feet tall.

In the arena, he offered a motion which was referred. I don’t remember all the details, but he’d tried, I think, to bring it out for convention action. His effort failed. I decided to go down and talk to him, to tell him that this was normal, that all motions were referred. That’s when Dwight changed my life for the first time. He told me something that shocked me and made me feel awful.

“Dave, did you realize that there hasn’t been anyone on the stage the entire convention except white men?” He’d been watching. “Every single person who has been up there, who has spoken, who has prayed, has been white.” That’s the gist of it.

And I never noticed. And I would wager my pancreas, my left arm, and several lymph nodes that no one said, “It’s important that we keep the convention white.” That was no one’s intent. But because they weren’t careful to include Asians, Hispanics, and African Americans, the stage was as lily-white as Truman Elementary School in Cedar Rapids had been.

I made a promise to Dwight that day. “I’m going to take this up as a cause. I will join you in this fight, Dwight, and help you fight racism in the SBC.” Ever since then, I’ve tried to regularly speak out against racism and make myself a general thorn in the flesh on the issue.

I don’t think that fighting racism should be the job of Black Baptists. They are the victims of the sin. It ought to be our job as the white majority to undo all the effects of 150 years of sin and intentionally include minorities not only in our fellowship but also in our leadership.

I am going to be faithful to that promise to Dwight. And I’m going to annoy some of  you in the process.

Story #3 – A Movie: The Butler

I was with my wife in Minneapolis for an anniversary trip. At the Mall of America, we went to see The Butler, a movie about a man who served in the White House for decades. It was the story of the dehumanizing racism and discrimination he suffered before he became a White House butler and even during his days there. It was a unique view of some of the great events of our time, providing a black man’s view of the civil rights movement, culminating in the election of Barack Obama.

Some of our blog commenters, after I wrote a review, argued angrily that the history of the story was wrong. I don’t care. It was a movie. This movie helped me to stop thinking about life from my perspective and make me start thinking about how black people view a lot of the things that happen.

Why do black people get incensed when we say, “All lives matter?” Do they not think white people are human? There might be a few in the more extreme political organization who hate whites and would say that. But the “Black Lives Matter” phrase isn’t about disrespecting white people. It’s about saying, “We have been treated as if we are less than human for 400 years. Our lives matter. Show black people respect as humans.” When we say, “All lives matter” – a true statement in theory – it is denying the reality of the suffering and pain they have experienced. It belittles the black experience.

Since I watched that movie, I’ve tried more and more to see our words and our actions as “they” see them. And it’s often not a pretty picture. It’s not about whether The Butler is a documentary, but about what it did for me – teaching me to look at the civil right movement not from the white perspective but from the black perspective.

Those who insisted on defending the Confederate flag did it on the basis of what it means to them, the “white people’s” perspective on things. They refused to do what I think they should – look at it from the perspective of those who suffered under the heel of slavery. How does the Confederate Flag make most Black people feel? We have to look at life from their point of view, not demand they see life from ours.

I can’t stand President Barack Obama – his policies, his actions, even his attitude sometimes. But I can understand why a black man who has been arrested without cause 15 times, who has been insulted, treated as “less than,” denied jobs, and viewed with suspicion in stores as he shopped, would feel a sense of pride that a black man was elected president.

So, What’s the Point?

Three stories, three points.

1. Racism is an ever-present evil in our hearts that must be opposed. It’s a fight that has to be fought. I will always regret not fighting harder in 1988. Sure, it cost me a raise and my friend got “de-deaced” but the racists won that round. They took down a basketball goal rather than let some black kids shoot hoops in the church parking lot – and I kept my job by going with the flow. Sure, I took some shots at them from the pulpit, but the racists got their way.

I think I’d feel better about myself if I’d fought the fight and gotten fired. Some folks have been pretty hard on Jonathan Greer, but some fights need to be fought. Some stands need to be taken. Sometimes, being “Mr. Nice Guy” isn’t necessarily the right thing.

2. We must be intentional about combating racism. No one went into the 2010 convention intending to be racist. But by not being intentionally inclusive we were negligently racist. We must be vigilant, and intentional in our fight.

Every time we start an initiative, someone sanctimoniously says, “Well, we should just elect (or hire, or select) the most qualified candidate, regardless of race.” That sounds great, doesn’t it. The problem is that when we do that, the good old boy SBC network tends to end up selecting more good old white guys. We have to be intentional.

We have 150 years of white momentum that will move us toward continued whiteness if we don’t carefully and intentionally force ourselves to move in the direction of inclusion and diversity.

3. We must seek to see the world from the other side. Don’t ask blacks to change to see the world as whites do. Seek to see the world from their perspective. Be sympathetic and empathetic.

Have you seen the fake PSA that a black friend of mine sent me a while back? It says, “Everyone deserves to be treated equally – Black or brown or yellow or normal.” (I’d post that pic, but then it would appear in social media and give people the wrong idea of my post.)

But isn’t that the idea we sometimes have? Our way of thinking is the normal way and all those other folks should bring their thinking in line with ours. But in honor to our brothers and sisters we should consider others more important than ourselves (Philippians 2) and seek to understand things from their perspective.

We are so defensive when it comes to racism. “I’m not a racist.” But the fact is that this is part of our flesh and it constantly needs to be fought. It is going to be a lifelong battle – till Jesus comes. But we must never give up, never surrender. We must admit racism exists and fight it where it does. All have sinned….

This battle must be fought. It must be won. We cannot be anything but ruthless in the power of God against the Satanic evil of racism.

This article originally appeared on Used with permission.

Dave Miller, Editor, serves as senior pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa.  He is a graduate of Palm Beach Atlantic College (now University) and SWBTS. He served churches in Florida and Virginia before returning to Iowa, where he grew up, in 1991, and has served two churches there.

Publication date: August 23, 2016