March 10, 2016,
Dear Friends and Family of the Diocese of Eau Claire,
On Monday, I wrote these words regarding racial blind spots: “In my late teens I worked as a construction laborer as the only white person in a black occupation. Among many lessons I learned was that I better get a good education. I didn’t want to be stuck with this job and among these people for the rest of my life.” Those were my thoughts when I was 16 years old. It was the result of years of racial imprinting beginning in childhood. I ended up staying with that construction company off and on for the next four years. All the time I was a laborer and usually worked with people of color. In reflection this experience which began as a negative at age 16 had evolved into something much more positive when I was 20. I now understand this as my first turning away from the imprint.
In time my work as a laborer moved away from being a black or white matter. The real color was green. Minimum wage at the time was $1.25 per hour. I was making, depending on the year, between $2.85 and $3.50 per hour in construction. In the mid to late 1960’s, in Atlanta, that was good money. I still hated the work because it was hard and usually boring. Digging ditches, working with brick, block, and mortar wasn’t easy. Needless to say, I was motivated to complete my college education so I could earn a living in a different way.
I now realize the best part of that job was the people. For the first time I worked as a minority. I did have privilege and knew it even at that young age. Still, I worked hard, physically could handle the jobs, and was part of a team. The people I was imprinted to fear became friends. I was grew, learned, and moved away from prejudicial perspectives. One thing that upset me was learning that none of the laborers voted. I asked them why. They said, “That’s what other people do.” As a high school junior I didn’t understand. In college I learned how the state discriminated to the point that these workers and citizens had given up on trying to vote.
How could I get such work every summer and on holidays from college? My mother was the construction company’s bookkeeper. She wanted this for me not just for the money, but so I could grow away from privilege and work with “everyday people” regardless of race. It was an experience that taught me many lessons.
One of the best ways of breaking down racial barriers is to have and cherish friends who are of other races. It is hard to hate a class of people when you care about someone in that group. Sometimes we are outside our comfort zone when we experience different people. I like to think of it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and remember that we are all made in God’s image. With my love and best wishes, I am,
Your brother in Christ,