Monday, May 17, 2010

Laughing With Black People: A Revelation

Ed note: I am having a revelation trying to write this blog. Why? Because it deals with race. I am trying to speak about race relations in a positive way, but I find myself starting sentences over and over, for fear of being offensive, or sounding too trendy, or desperate, or whatever. So take this for what it's worth: the language I use here is the best language I know how to use to present an insight into how race assumptions played into a church meeting I recently attended. I intend this post to be positive, amusing, and maybe even thought-provoking. I am going to just write it as it comes and stop worrying about being politically correct. (end disclaimer)

Yesterday, I presented our idea for cafe style worship to the Session at 4th United Presbyterian church in Knoxville. They had previously voted to allow our small group of worshippers to use their gathering hall for our service, and we were giving them a taste of what the service would be like: non-traditional, sitting around tables, powerpoint, interactive prayer.

It was a positive and friendly atmosphere, and an interesting group. We were 6 black people and 3 white, 4 women and 5 men. 4th United has been a predominantly black congregation, and our group of about 10 is all white.

As we talked about our plans for the church in the coming months, it came up that a young couple (white) had been attending services for several weeks. We shared our joy about that and were comparing notes to see if anyone had known them beforehand. One of their co-pastors, a black woman named Sonya, said, "Oh I just assumed they were with your group!"

Instantly my comedic self began to war with my politically correct self. It was obvious why she thought they were with our group, because they were white. But do I dare make a joke about this and risk an awkward moment? Fortunately, I know Sonya well enough to know that she has a very strong sense of humor. Comedy won: "Why did you think that Sonya? Because they're white? I don't know all the white people in Knoxville, you know!" Sonya's reply was quick, "Frankly my sister, that's exactly what I thought!" Thank the living God, everybody got it and everybody laughed.

And in that moment, I realized how very freaked out I still am, and I imagine most of us are, about race relations. After that exchange the room itself seemed to relax a little bit. I felt as if the subtext for me and Sonya in that moment was, "Hey! We're blacks and whites talking together. How strange and potentionally hilarious!" I realized in an instant that it is one thing to respect the congregation at 4th United for their dedication to God and each other; it is one thing to feel profound gratitude for their generosity with our house-church group, but it is quite another to feel free enough to laugh about racial assumptions with people of a different race.

We all say we want to be "color-blind." But I'm not sure that's the best approach. It is clear that there are black people and white people in our city, and that for the most part we live separate lives. We pass each other pleasantly enough on the street or in our work places, but as groups we circulate in cultural bubbles that rarely mix. It does us no good to dwell exclusively on our racial differences but to act like we don't notice the difference is artificial and denies us some potentially rich relationships.


  1. That is way too funny Liz. Yes, race is important and very scary for so many folks. But I on the other hand am a black female living her whole life in a white world…for the most part. And my way of existing in both worlds is by being frank. Many of my white friends really do appreciate that about me and find it quite refreshing. I can’t hide behind my blackness and really would never want to. But in the same way, I would never want to hide behind my way in the white world, which I find just as easy to live.

    I think we would be a lot better off, if we could be honest with one another. Bring our assumptions out and see where it gets us; that has been my saving grace with my Latino friends. But true, you can’t do that with every black, white, or latino person….so aren’t you blessed to have me in your life. Just kidding. I can be quite a mess, so if I ever offend you, please let me know. And true Liz, I do think that you know every white person in Knoxville; just like I know every black person in Knoxville. HA! Hope that didn’t hurt, but I truly can’t help it.

    Laugh with me, that’s the only way I know to go.
    Oh p.s.- And girlfriend…laughing with black people, a revelation?....Revelation...that is way too funny.

  2. Agreed on all counts!! Laughter is golden! And my friend Cheech says he thinks I know everybody in the world, white black or otherwise. Everywhere we go I run into someone I know. I think it's just coincidence but he thinks I have superhuman social skills, ha ha!!

    Being frank ROCKS and that's what I love about you and the way we are together. I figure, what the heck, put it out there, right?
    Love you girl!

  3. My husband thought that I may have missed you completely...hmmm not sure, you'll have to get back with me on that one. But now that I think about it, if those folks had been black, I still would have assumed they came with you all. Really! Oh well, another day in the life of trying to live black, but not too black and white, but not too white...whatever the heck that means. HA!

  4. No I think you got me! I believe you, I really thought it was funny, and wanted to share the experience that humor broke through more than racial barriers and made it acceptable (and fun) to be different from each other.

    I have a friend who is blind, and after a bit of time we have become comfortable talking about him being blind, and joking about it, and he jokes with me about being an idiot sometimes about his blindness, (like saying, "the white bowl has spaghetti in it") Duh! What is white to a blind man? When we were able to talk about stuff like that I felt instantly close to him, like we really understood each other at last.

    I want to meet your husband. Is he coming to the cookout? I'm assuming I should look for a black guy ;)!!

  5. Liz - we are all God's children and we are not all the same so why should we pretend it's so???? Yes, struggle - yes be respectful - yes be human - yes be frank - authentic. Amen to you and Sonya and Sophie's child and you are the church together, as the song says.

    And YES to your (that's all y'all) witness to being the Beloved Community.

  6. I told Michael Stanfield yesterday, as we walked, that for the first time in a long time this whole church thing at 4th United is starting to be "fun." I am enjoying it as we move forward - still with a certain amount of chaos, but now the chaos is creative and positive. Right at the center of that is the two of you (Sonya and Liz).

  7. TO Liz, funny you should say that because some of my family members thought I would marry a white guy...since I had no distinctive preference while I was dating. But my hubby is least I think so. HA! Just look for the random black guy in East Knox...that would be him. Oh that's way too funny.

    Let us serve God, serve God's people......

  8. George, it IS fun! I am pleased to be at the center of the chaos. Sonya, good thing you didn't marry a white man. They're nothing but trouble. hee hee And thanks Revmom!!