Last night I sat next to my daughter watching the figure skating competition for the Winter Olympics. We are not big figure skating fans, but she likes watching the competition, and I like making her feel nervous for the skaters as I shout “oh no don’t fall...” or “he’s going to drop her!” Not sure what that says about our relationship or me as a person, but it is so much fun. We also like to try to critique their outfits and guess their country. Most of the time, when guessing their country we are totally wrong because they are not usually wearing ethnic clothing and mostly all Europeans look....well, European. However, there was one skating pair that we both guessed correct without hesitation. It was a couple in which the man was white and the woman was black. We both at the same time shouted “France” and laughed.
Why is it that we can see a black and white figure skating couple and know that they must be French and are sure that they are not American. America is the most diverse country in the world, but the thought that a black and white mixed race couple would be representing us in the Olympics was never a thought for a 43-year-old black man and his 13-year-old daughter. What is it about France that makes us think of it as a place where a mixed race couple on an ice skating team is normal? And why is it that a mixed race skating couple from France is normal? Not one commentator mentioned their race. If it had been an American couple we surely would have heard, “This is the first black woman to skate in a mixed pair Olympic competition.”
In the early 20th century, France was a safe haven for many black people seeking equality. W.E.B. DuBois, Josephine Baker, and James Baldwin are a few famous African Americans who moved there, but there were also thousands of African American soldiers who moved there after WWII. They bought property, fell in love with French women, started businesses, and lived a normal life. Could it be that there is a subconscious thought that real equality and opportunity for black people is something only to be found in France?
I remember seeing Debi Thomas skate in the Olympics as a teenager, so I know America has had at least one African American ice skater in the Olympics. So I am not sure what the answer is, but the question intrigues me. Why do both my daughter and myself have a positive view of France in this situation and not America? Do I have similar subconscious thoughts about America and race with things other than sports? Do others think the same way or the exact opposite?
So what’s my point? I don’t know that I have one. I guess I hope that whoever is reading this blog would take the time to think about why they think the way they do about race in America. That you would wonder if some of your actions and reactions are in response to subconscious ideas that have uncertain origins, but real outcomes. Does that affect your church or ministry? Does it affect your personal relationships or your reactions to strangers? Is it possible for you to pass those ideas on to people you lead or even your children?
Something to think about.