To The World Inc.
by Linda Parkinson ~ January 2006
Confessions from a Segregated White Woman Is about my journey on the color line, where I started, where I ended up, and what the church’s role has been along the way.
Race has been so hard to write about. Maybe it’s because it is so hard to talk about. Even when we were planning this service with dedicated people—all who deeply care about the color line—there were painful miscommunications, sticky wickets, and hurt feeling lying hidden and tricky ready to trigger shame and blame and pain at a drop of the hat–even in the face of honest disagreements.
Only fools rush in . . . only fools.
Little wonder as I started writing I found myself struggling to avoid creating hard feelings while not sidestepping hard truths.
If I have learned anything in the last four years, it is that each of us must find our way--not by ourselves—but on our own.
I want Kate to know the truth—even the hard truth will set us free. How good it is to be doing this in community. Because when it comes to race it maybe personal but it’s never private. On this issue we all take a stand deliberately or by default.
Someone once said to live is to battle with trolls in the vaults of heart and brain.
To write, that is to sit in judgment over one’s self—so it is with this testimony.
And so it goes.
With the exception of a few black guest speakers I have always disliked the church’s attempt to talk about race. Our talks often seem dated. I didn’t know how to listen in such a way as to find relevance. And maybe because of my defensiveness the talks just seemed moralizing and lacking in coherence and cogency.
Maybe I walked away confused or angry because I missed the point. Or maybe me being irritated was the point. You know—afflicting the comfortable—that sort of thing.
Whatever the dynamic really was, I disagreed with what was being said and I disliked how I felt. Which was guilty—guilty for being white, guilty for my ancestors, guilty for a time far way and long ago, guilty for something I could do nothing about. I didn’t know what was wanted of me. I didn’t know what I should change or how or even why. The church, as far as I was concerned, might be sincere but off the mark.
This is what I thought I knew about race when it came to my life: that you could ask anyone in Kansas City where black people lived and where the white people lived and they will know the answer.
I knew I lived in a white world and that I had only white friends. I knew no one talked about race and that no one used the "n" word. I knew around this topic some of my family had rough edges. Not awful ones, but nothing I would want to pass on to my girl.
I also knew that when push came to shove and race did cross our path my husband and I acted with integrity.
Now, in hindsight, the way in which I was living my life almost guaranteed that my Chinese girl would have grown up being a "have" in a mostly white world, pleasant to any other person of color who managed to cross her path. I would have by default been grooming her to take her place in society as a member of the next nice segregated generation.
But life throws us curves and the world has a way of changing on us.
Those of you have heard me speak know I am a runner, of sorts. I can run the perimeters of my world. I live by the Country Club Plaza. So I start out down 47th. I turn north at Main passing the church I continue down Main passing Katie’s school, I turn on Westport road; I pass my mother’s shop, and turn onto State Line south I go to 50th street, zizzag a little, and I am home. Maybe five miles total. Not a very long run. Not a very big world.
For all kinds of reasons, some I understand and some I do not, I made a change in those perimeters. It was a small modification really—not more than a few city blocks. So that now when I am running down Westport I turn on Wyoming go two blocks, circle, and go back down Westport and on home.
With that little detour Gordon Parks Elementary School becomes a part of my run. With that slight alteration my life got put on its ear.
For me it wasn’t "what a difference a day makes" but "what a difference a block makes."
When I walked into Gordon Parks to volunteer I knew it was a charter school and that the kids were from the inner city and mostly poor, some desperately so. I knew the school had a reputation of excellence. And it was a few blocks from Katherine’s private school, St Paul’s. I knew these facts but I knew them as abstractions.
When you walk in to St Paul’s you see a school almost entirely white.
Less than a mile down the road when you walk into Gordon Parks you see a school almost entirely black. In the year 2006 in a world where legal segregation is against the law Gordon Parks is with in 1% of being as segregated as when Jim Crow was the law of the land.
What a detour for me to make. Maybe church gets credit in ways I didn’t know then and can’t understand now. Maybe it was some intuitive need . . . maybe just blind luck.
Whatever the reason it became quickly apparent I had thrown a wrench in my world. My world was going to change and my place in it.
If I had volunteered to do administrative work at the school and not spend time with the children, the story would have been different
But I was there because of the children whether I knew it or not.
I was afraid the first day I set in the classroom. I don’t know what my anxiety was about. I am not sure why I went back.
I started reading and working with the kids one afternoon a week.
I added another afternoon a week. I went with them on their first train trip. I went with them on their first airplane trip. I learned their names and their stories. I learned they were sometimes hungry. I learned they were cold sometimes when they shouldn’t be. I learned most of their parents made less than 10,000 a year. I learned I couldn’t really get my brain around that level of deprivation. But why should I be able to? I pay almost $7000 a year for Katie’s school. I learned that kids I grew to love sometimes lived in cars. I learned what it felt like to have a beautiful kindergartner ask me if I lived in a house. I learned what it felt like when a child told me his mom forgot his birthday and my knowing that if my life was as hard as his mothers I would forget too.
I learned that when it comes to race you really do have to go there to know there. I learned that for children white guilt and white privilege aren’t the most important words when you live on the color line. Love is. I learned not to be afraid of little kids who need me. I learned they are only asking from me what any child has a right to ask from any adult, white, black, yellow, brown, rich or poor.
"Will you help me read?"
"Can I hold your hand?"
"Do you know my name?"
"Will you come back?"
"Will you come back?"
I learned what an honor it is to be loved by a whole classroom of bright children. I learned where I can find joy whenever I want it.
I learned that loving needy children breaks a heart. And that I can’t bear to imagine it being Kate.
I learned to see Katie in my children’s eyes.
I learned how quick you can be overwhelmed when you are in the middle of a sea of beautiful children that need society to do better by them than it currently is.
I learned how easy it is to start to feel I can’t save the world because I really can’t save the world
And then I learned to call my church for help. The same church that made me cranky and irritated and I was sure was missing the mark.
And for another day I get to do the best I can, where I am at, with what I have.
"Yes honey I’ll be back." "I’ll be back."