çSome of you who attended our worship on February 21st saw the video that Nate put up for our story. In the video there was a short clip of Shirley Temple dressed as a southern belle dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an African American performer. The clip showed them dancing to a white audience. Such a portrayal by an African American man is a common racist trope to the caricature of the “happy negro” used in vaudeville throughout much of the 20th century. Sometimes this caricature was performed by white actors in “black face.” Such a portrayal is deeply racist and painful to people of color, including some of our own who watched that video.
In the breakout groups that ensued we learned of how painful this was. I apologized for not seeing it as racist. It was my responsibility to review the elements of the worship service and I did not catch this. Nate has issued an apology in his video for this past Sunday as well. We will do all we can to do better next time.
The fact that many of us as white people did not see this clip as offensive is indicative to how deeply ingrained racist imagery and messaging is in our society. Examples such as this one are rife in media and our culture today. Negative images of people of color are a common occurrence. As a congregation committed to racial justice, it is incumbent on all of us who identify as white to educate ourselves on these offenses and do all we can to act in anti-racist ways. To throw our hands up and say “this is just political correctness” is to further engage in systemic racism. People of color live with this reality every day, and they are unable to simply walk away from the discomfort. Nor can we excuse our mistakes as “not our intent.” Good intentions do not erase the impact of racism on people of color.
The racial justice work in which we are engaged is really just beginning. Becoming aware of our racist actions is not the responsibility of people of color to teach to white people; it’s the work of white people to learn about what is painful and then to do what we can to correct it. This will be uncomfortable work. We will want to excuse the actions of those we know as just “who they are” and “they didn’t mean to offend.” But the discomfort is actually a sign that we are learning and changing.
Over the coming months we will have other opportunities to learn and grow. We will have many opportunities to lean into the work of creating a racially just world. It will take generations but this is our opportunity to learn and grow. I hope you will stay with us as we become truly the beloved community.
Yours always, Rev. John