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Baptized into Racism but Raised to Walk with Christ

I live each day, peeling off those imprints of racism, trusting Christ to invest his love of all creation in me.

Published on:
December 10, 2019
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10 min.
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Hailing from central Alabama, I’ve buckled the Bible Belt around me as long as I’ve been alive— sometimes I’ve tightened it a few notches, and other times I’ve loosened it through God’s expansive freedom. As a child, especially at church, I knew that Bible Belt as white. The Civil Rights Act was law, and the adults in my world were resigned to it with a grudging acquiescence. Most adults of my early years, the seventies and eighties, adhered to the literal letter of the law but not to the spirit. Never stated aloud, I understood that whites were good; blacks were suspicious at best. Whites lived here, blacks lived over there. White people could be trusted. Black people? We could never be sure. 

In every realm of my early life I was raised to be a racist.

Yet from a very young age I knew intuitively—I believe from the Holy Spirit’s early intervention in my soul—that these values of my parents and the adults around me actually had no value at all. Rather, they held misguided views and attitudes honed from generations of belief that black people were inferior, unclean, better designated as servants, and generally to be avoided. 

 Still, this generational hypocrisy left imprints on me. In every realm of my early life I was raised to be a racist. I still wear these imprints and like initials written in concrete, the impression can only be erased by pounding the concrete into dust. I strike at the concrete each day by pursuing my God, who loves all and hates none. And I pound at the concrete by remembering where each imprint came from—looking back at the snapshots of my life meant to be the building blocks of an ideology and abjectly declaring them sin. 

Raised to Racism by my Family

My ancestors on both sides were slave owners and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, soldiers thrown into the upheaval of saving the South from the freedom of slaves. My genealogical history threaded its way through the centuries to shape my modern southern upbringing. My parents loved and provided well for me, but they  imprinted their beliefs about segregation on me, just as racism had been imprinted on them.

Later, I realized my dad had stopped the ride until I could be moved away from the young black boy.

In the late seventies, my parents took me to the state fair. I ran to one of those rides where the train of cars roll inside and through a building. The ride worker, boarding the cars from the front to the back, picked me up and dropped me in a seat next to black boy about my age. I could see my dad gesturing, but the ride worker flipped the switch and the train rolled into the building, until it stopped and then began to roll backward. At the boarding point, I saw my dad’s dark red face, his fists beating the air with anger. The ride worker, bearing the brunt of my dad’s outburst, pulled me out of my seat and placed me in another one by myself. I sat there for a minute before my dad pulled me from the ride altogether. Later, I realized my dad had stopped the ride until I could be moved away from the young black boy. My position next to him was offensive to my dad but neutral to me. 

I wonder if the boy remembers it the way I do. Probably not. I didn’t feel like I was the reason the ride stopped, the worker intervened, and the angry white man yelled into the night air. He was.

Raised to Racism by my Church

Religious undertones shored up my parents’ values, supported by the practices of our small Southern Baptist church. At this church, I was buried with Christ in baptism, but raised to walk with him in a monochrome life that excluded half of his creation. Our church held regular deacons’ meetings to discuss what to do if a black person should unexpectedly visit. They felt we needed a strategy to refuse them quietly but with charitable, even Christian, hospitality. 

At the time, church members found “The Curse of Ham” quite plausible. This belief frames black people as descending from Noah’s son, Ham, and destined them for servitude and slavery because of Ham’s sin. In their eyes, this made it godly to self-segregate from a people they saw as cursed by God and gave biblical permission for discrimination. When I studied the story of Noah and his sons in my Bible as a twelve-year-old, I could not find any reference to the black people I saw around me, but the curse was loosely endorsed by the church and that was enough for my family. Racism and religion were indistinguishable—there was perhaps even more faith in the superior nature of white people than in the great grace of God.

The deacons’ planning was unnecessary; no black visitors ever came through the church doors during my years. Yet we stayed alert. You never knew. 

Raised to Racism by my Denomination

When I was sixteen, my pastor resigned abruptly after being caught in a sexual relationship with my Sunday School teacher (and he was abusing me at the same time, but that’s another article). In the wake of his departure the local Birmingham Baptist Association associational minister came to my church one Wednesday night for a “healing service.” He wanted to assure us that he would help us find an interim pastor. His opening prayer started with words I can still hear tumbling out of his mouth in his confident slow cadence and drawl: “Lord, thank you for letting us be born white in a prejudiced world.” 

The explicit racism of the associational minister—the representative of all Southern Baptist churches in the Birmingham area—topped off the hypocrisy of this time in my life. I remember the sting of the words despite his folksy pastoral inflection. The banality of how his prayer disappeared into white noise told me that no one cared about the racial shading in that prayer, but I did. I may have been baptism into racism by my church and denomination, yet the God I personally knew loved everyone. Abused and frightened, I knew that God himself was taken aback by that man’s prayer. 

I wonder if the associational minister remembers it the way I do. Probably not. He believed in the strict categories of “white” and “black” races, and he was speaking to a fully white audience anyway.

Raised to Racism by my School

The Birmingham busing riots occurred after I was born and my parents, reacting out of their own beliefs about blacks and whites, enrolled us in a private, unofficially segregated school near the small city  where we lived just outside of Birmingham. There I stayed from kindergarten until twelfth grade, insulated by a peer group defined mostly by the shared color of our skin.

My mother warned me not to talk to the new girl in my class with a sternness usually reserved for not touching a hot stovetop or accepting a ride from a stranger.

The private school I attended—sponsored by the Church of Christ—either had a temporary change of heart or needed more tuition revenue because when I started sixth grade, the school decided to accept the children of a black family. My mother warned me not to talk to the new girl in my class with a sternness usually reserved for not touching a hot stovetop or accepting a ride from a stranger. The girl, seated beside me in class, looked lonely and lost, so I spoke to her anyway, enough to tell her my name and hear hers. She whispered it back to me oh so softly, as though she wasn’t sure she had the right either to speak her name aloud or be heard. On the ride home from school, my mother asked if I had spoken to the girl, and I nodded in mute confession, sure of the coming punishment, which did indeed land soon after we got home. After a week the new black kids disappeared from my school. 

I wonder if the little girl remembers it like I do. Probably not. I was not the one shrinking in fear because of my skin color. I wonder if she remembers my name. I don’t remember hers.

Raised to Racism by my City

To drive into Birmingham, we had to ride past a neighborhood known as N---- Town. For years, I thought this was an actual town with its own civic structure, but later understood it was a slur for a small neighborhood within my city. Then when I worked as a lifeguard at my city swimming pool I learned that this slur reflected how Birmingham and much of central Alabama saw its own black residents.

This was a municipal pool, funded with tax dollars but operated as a members-only club. My parents paid dues each summer for me to swim and working there as a teenager was a rite of passage for white kids. Up until I was a teenager, I had not understood that the pool officially prohibited black members—in my naiveté, I thought they just did not want to come, or perhaps I did not think of them at all. When I became a lifeguard myself, I was trained to turn away any black visitors who breached the door with these neutral and diplomatic lines, “We’re not taking any more visitors or members today. We’re full.”

When I became a lifeguard myself, I was trained to turn away any black visitors who breached the door with these neutral and diplomatic lines, “We’re not taking any more visitors or members today. We’re full.”

From my perch behind the concession stand, I watched the pool manager turn black people away on many scorching hot Alabama days while simultaneously signing in white visitors, who plunked down their one dollar visitor fee and strode into the locker rooms. Young black boys would ride their bikes up to the pool and hook their fingers inside the rings of the fence, staring inside at the inviting water until the pool manager called the city police, who told them to leave. 

If they didn’t turn away fast enough, the policemen plucked the black boys from the fence, their fingers still curled around the steel coils, and sent them on their way. Once a young black boy, furtive yet bold, came inside the concession stand and asked for a Coke, sliding the correct change over the counter to me. I took his money and gave him the Coke. The pool manager chased him away and the boy ran as though he had stolen something, his paid-for Coke sloshing out of his cup. The pool manager then threatened to immediately fire me if this ever happened again. I accepted the threat, knowing I would do it again if the opportunity came. Who doesn’t deserve to be served a Coke? 

This happened in the mid 1980s, when the Civil Rights legislation was over twenty years old. The pool manager was a Methodist, his sprinkled baptism into racism having the same effect as my immersion into it.

I wonder if those black boys remember it the way I do. Probably not. I was not plucked from a fence by the police or chased away from a concession stand by an overweight white manager guarding the white visitor list.

In my twenties I was subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit regarding the city pool. A member had adopted a brown-skinned child and the pool manager had subsequently turned the family away even though they had used the pool for years. This member, an attorney, responded by suing both the pool and the city. I was asked to testify as a former employee. At the trial I swore on the Bible and told the truth: the city and the pool had a history of racist policies and had turned countless people away because of the color of their skin, and I had witnessed this and been threatened to comply. Just like I will never forget the prayer of the associational minister thanking God for being born white, I will never forget testifying and then hearing the sour victory of the all-white jury returning a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, with damages totaling a bitter one dollar.

This happened in the early 90s. I wonder if the all-white jury remembers it like I do? Probably not. They went home after their service, rendering a verdict that was all but automatic. 

A New Realm 

Although as a child and young adult every realm of my life conditioned me to think less of black people and all people of color, God graciously brought me into new realms where I began to walk out of my monochrome existence. 

When I arrived at summer orientation for college, my randomly-assigned roommate for the night was black and I was a bit shocked when I saw her walking toward me. She was nervous and excited like me, but with a skin color I had been taught to fear. She was most likely used to talking to white people, but I had never talked with a black person before, other than trading names with a lonely girl in sixth grade.

I knew I was supposed to react, but I didn’t know how. I felt only gratitude that my parents were not there to yank me out of the dorm room. She and I talked and I realized what I had always known to be true: Black people were just people, like me. I was nearly eighteen years old and though since childhood I had inherently known that racism was not black and white but instead uncorrected vision, I felt a confirmation that night that the imprints of my baptism into racism might not have left a permanent mark. They could begin to be pounded away with thoughtful consideration of Paul’s words in Galatians: “For God has no favorites.”

My Ebenezer 

One Saturday in my late twenties, now married with children, I walked past the city pool on a visit home to find it had been demolished and was in the process of being filled in and paved over. The city would later park its trucks above where I learned to swim and where black people had experienced systematic and purposeful discrimination, burying this discrimination under layers of concrete and covering it with maintenance trucks mostly driven by black city employees.

All the pool tiles that I once scrubbed weekly as a lifeguard had been stripped away and were piled outside in a towering blue stack of debris. I took one to remember the experience, and I keep it in my office today as a reminder. It has a small yellow age stain in the corner; it has an imprint. I could scrub it away, but I want to remember. I want to remember my past just as it occurred—not because much was right but because so much was wrong. The pool tile helps me to remember my baptism into racism and reminds me that I am still removing the imprints left by that time. 

My early perceptions of the systematic unfairness of my culture and my willingness to confront it or call it out now does not win me any prizes in a world still roiled by discrimination. As a fairly privileged white kid and now an adult, I’ve never experienced the actual pain, threats, and true displacement of my black friends. I haven’t paid any price, never been profiled, or had to fight discrimination to gain anything. I cannot pretend to understand what discrimination has been like, or what imprints it leaves on those discriminated against. I earn nothing by telling this story. Instead, I only confirm what is already known.

I was baptized into racism as a child, but I have since been raised to walk with Christ among all people, knit together with them by our common creator. The discrimination practiced by my home Southern Baptist church, my Church of Christ school, my city pool, and my family and friends failed to suppress my intrinsic understanding that the adults and society around me were defying the love of Christ. 

Racism is my heritage but it emphatically is not my legacy.

Shedding racism is not simply the act of learning to love people who are different from us. In that position, others still revolve around us. Diversity is not the full answer, either, for true equality is not based on the quantity or quality of the mixture of races in a group. Removing the imprints of racism requires learning that God sees no differences in us, and acting on that truth over a lifetime.

Now I live each day, peeling off those imprints of racism, trusting Christ to invest his love of all creation in me, and understanding that only when I see him face to face will I finally and freely see all people for who they are to him. Racism is my heritage but it emphatically is not my legacy. 

For God has no favorites. 

Susan Codone
During the day, Susan Codone is a professor at Mercer University. She has been married to her husband George for 30 years and they have 3 young adult children.

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