A couple of years ago, I was in charge of curating a shelf on race at a local bookstore. I was excited about the project, but wasn’t sure where to begin. I reached out to people I knew who were passionately at work in this area. One of those suggestions was Patricia Raybon’s book, My First White Friend. Although it was originally published in 1996, it has lost none of its relevance, unfortunately. In fact, we may need this book today, more than ever.
This month, as we explore topics of race and reconciliation, I spoke with Patricia Raybon about her book, about race, and about her hopes for the future.
Cara Strickland: Hi Patricia, it’s so good to talk with you today.
Patricia Raybon: It’s wonderful to talk with you today, Cara. Thanks for inviting me.
CS: Absolutely! I’m really excited to talk with you about your book. Would you tell me a little bit about the scope of it, and what it’s about, and how it works.
PR: Well, my intention was to make peace with white America. I grew up in the Jim Crow era. I experienced racial hurt and carried a lot of that pain into my adult life. And I was sick of it. I was sick of it, Cara. And I didn’t know what to do about it, and so I said, well I’m going to write a book to release the pain.
But when I started to write, I discovered that I had some unfinished business with my father, with my own family. And I realized this book that I was writing to address racial pain would start not with white people, but with my own household.
So the book takes me there, takes me into my life as a child who grew up in the church, and then allows me to look at the same time at what was happening in the bigger world, in America.
CS: That’s such a wonderful thing. It was published in 1996, so some years have passed since the initial publication. What has changed for you? What’s stayed the same?
PR: Well, I knew you were going to ask me this question, and in thinking about it, Cara, the big change, not just for me but for the country and the world, has been this resurgence of hate. A lot of it is stirred up by the presidential election, this new populism, this nationalistic bigotry that makes it okay to hate other groups of people.
And I never imagined twenty years after writing My First White Friend that we’d be going back there. It feels very much to me like, 1952 or 1962. We were supposed to leave that behind. But to see it again is not just a big change, but a disconcerting one.
And I never imagined that I’d have an answer like that all these years later after thinking about race, and writing about race. It just feels so antithetical to what we know America stands for and should be.
And then the other piece to that answer is this association that people make now, between bigotry and Christianity. So, when people hear Christian, they think hate. When they hear Christian, they think bigotry. When they hear Christian, they hear racism. What a sorrowful, rightly sad association people make now with the cross. Who imagined? But that, if we’re telling the truth about it, that’s where we are.
CS: I think you’re right. And I think that’s very sobering. Racial reconciliation is such a huge part of your book. And it’s such a big topic. For many, it’s very overwhelming. Would you offer some suggestions for those wanting to get started? Obviously, we’ve got to start somewhere. I’d love to hear where you think we should start.
PR: Well, it seems obvious, especially with people of faith, but I think the best place to start is to ask God for help. And I don’t say that to be simple minded about it. But I have a friend who says you can’t heal what you can’t feel. You can’t know where you didn’t go. And so I think about those disciples who asked Jesus to teach them to pray. I think it’s reasonable to do the same thing with regard to race. I’d ask the Lord, teach me about race. Teach me about bigotry, about racism, because I’m struggling to learn.
I think that’s a viable prayer and that God being faithful, would answer it by showing people where they can go to read. There are classes on implicit bias, there are classes a person can take on what prejudice is. And now with the internet, there are all these quizzes you can find, ‘am I a racist?’ and so on.
I’m answering it this way because addressing racial reconciliation shouldn’t feel any harder to any of us than it would if we wanted to learn about some other social justice problems. If we wanted to learn about domestic abuse, or sex trafficking, or anything else, we’d just sit down and get some information on it.
I think that’s a smart way to approach racial reconciliation as well. Ask God for help, for information; point me in the right place, show me the people I need to know, help me find the best information, lead me to a class. And then the answers start to come.
CS: At one point in your book, you talk about your library of books on race, that you have hundreds of books on race. Do you have a recommended reading list for those hoping to engage with race in America and beyond?
PR: One of my absolute favorite books is Cry, the Beloved Country. It’s set in Apartheid in South Africa. I like recommending that book because, for Americans, it takes us out of our crucible and sets us down in another place. And with that distance, we can look at prejudice and pain in the eyes of this book, through the eyes of a pastor whose son is caught up in the pressure of Apartheid.
And then if we come back to America, there’s always Cornel West’s book called Race Matters, which you know, the title has that double meaning.
And then a history book that’s interesting is A Different Mirror and it’s a history of all of us in America. The author, Ronald Takaki, is a Japanese American.
A book everybody talks about, but maybe a lot of people haven’t read; Maya Angelou’s book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a good book to have in a personal library.
A fictional book by a Latina, The House on Mango Street. Her name is Sandra Cisneros and it’s still on reading lists in high schools. It helps round out the race conversation so it’s not just about white and black.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is an autobiography. Douglass was a slave who escaped and then became an abolitionist and a national leader. It gives readers a grounding in what actually happened in that sad time in our history.
And then I would add a book called A Class Divided. It’s William Peters’ book on the brown eyes/blue eyes experiment that Jane Elliott did in Riceville, Iowa. She was a third-grade teacher in Iowa. The morning after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, she wanted her students to know what it felt like to walk in another person’s shoes. And so she divided the class by eye color. The first day, the children with blue eyes were the favored group, and they got to sit in the front of the class and they had more time at lunch and recess. And then they targeted the brown eyed children, said they’re not as smart as you, are they? And very quickly, the children picked up prejudicial behaviors and the children with brown eyes could feel what it feels like; what discrimination feels like.
And the next day, she switched and the brown eyed were favored and the children with blue eyes were on the low list. They had to sit in the back of the class and didn’t have as much time for recess and lunch or to go to the bathroom.
Well, when the article about it appeared in the paper, she ended up on national TV. It became very controversial for many reasons. But, it’s an interesting study on the feeling of bias, and so I put that on the list for people who might be interested in how little third grade white children learned what discrimination can feel like.
CS: Thank you for that. This feels like a very divided moment in our country and world, which you’ve already touched on. And race is a big part of that, along with other things. I’d love to know, what are the ways that you see people rising to the challenges of this time and what are the ways you’re hoping people will respond?
PR: Well, my answer has to do with what I had to do in my own family. My youngest daughter left the faith and converted to Islam. And she and I wrote a book together about that, that was released a couple of years ago. It’s called Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace.
And it describes this ten-year period where we were at odds with one another. We could not talk, resolve, or come to terms. Finally, I reached out to her and asked if we could write a book together so we could talk about what was dividing us.
And so my answer to your question about how I’m hoping people will respond is what my daughter Alana and I discovered, and that is that first, we had to commit to do the work.
We argued, Cara, for a long time. And, you know, I shook my Bible at her and she shook her Koran at me. And my kitchen table, when she would come to visit, just became this place of dissent, pain, and unkindness. But things didn’t change until we committed to do the work. And that made all the difference. When we ran into walls, when it would’ve been easy to say forget this, instead we said, we committed to this, so let’s get back on the path and do our work.
And I want to suggest that’s what we and this country, as individuals and nationally, what I’d like to see people do, is commit to work. I’ve been married 41 years and a couple times I could’ve chosen to leave. My husband would probably say the same. But we committed to stay, to stick with it even when it gets hard, even when we have to back up and do some self-examination, change our behaviors, or rethink how we speak to one another, or all the things that good relationships require. And racial reconciliation requires no less.