Rev. Tess Baumberger of the UU church in Medford invited me to take part in this year’s MLK church service. As part of it, we presented an interweaving dialogue “unpacking” racial identities and backgrounds. It made for a very powerful part of the service. I posted my side of the dialogue on my own blog, but it doesn’t do it justice until you have both together. The Reverend and I have been in contact and we are publishing our words together, although on different sites. Here on this blog is the interwoven version.
original words by Rev. Tess Baumberger and David Concepcion
Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, MA
Service presented on Sunday January 18th, 2015
Dialogue on Racial Identity by David Concepcion and Rev. Tess Baumberger
I am adopted and claim all the nationalities of all my parents.
I am Colombian, African, some South American Indian,
Puerto Rican, and Jewish of Russian/Polish descent.
Some of these are known and sure,
others are best assessments from forms I can gather.
Like many people of color, I can only trace my ancestry so far
before the trail runs cold.
I am European-American.
I have lived my whole life on land wrested from American Indians.
My ancestors came from Switzerland, Germany,
Ireland, France, England, and Bohemia.
My love of order may come from my German and Swiss roots,
along with sauerkraut and sausage my grandpa Lahr made.
My dad loved to tell stories about his childhood –
that, his love of singing, and his sense of humor I think comes from the Irish.
I’m not sure where French and English come in
but my Bohemian grandmother loved to tease, play games and make kolatches.
If I want to I can trace all these lines back several generations.
I am a Native New Yorker born and bred
from 25 years in three of the five boroughs of the city.
My parents—my father a Catholic and my mother a Jew—
married in a Unitarian Church and I was raised in the religion all my life,
a rarity in this denomination.
I went to a private Quaker school for grade school and a public art school for
I grew up on a a family farm in eastern South Dakota.
I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools through high school.
One of my father’s brothers was a Benedictine priest,
and one of this sisters was a Benedictine nun.
I discovered Unitarian Universalism when I was 32 years old.
My parents were both highly educated people.
My father had a Doctorate in Romance Languages
and was tenured at Queens College where he taught
in the Romance Languages department,
mainly Portuguese, for most of his adult life.
My mother got her Masters of Divinity in Religious Philosophy
from Union Theological Seminary,
but never used her degree in her career.
She worked in rape crisis centers in the 1970s,
for the New York Board of Health in the 1980s
and eventually municipal union District 37 from where she retired.
My younger sister, also adopted,
is the only sibling I have
and the only one of the nuclear family without a college degree.
I myself have two degrees—a Bachelor’s and a Masters—
and have taught adult education ed at colleges.
But you would never know this by my appearance.
My father was a farmer with an eighth grade education,
who worked as a share-cropper before finally buying his own land
and who loved classical music.
My mother was a legal secretary who kept the books for our farm
and who loved opera and literature.
My older sisters were the first in my family to go to college,
one majoring in art (she introduced me to public television)
and the other in English history and literature
(she introduced me to George Elliot and Virginia Woolf).
The artist now works at Home Depot, the historian at Walmart.
My brothers did not go to college – one drives truck
and the other works in construction. They are both adopted.
My youngest brother is a quarter Oglala Sioux, now we say Lakota.
My niece’s father was from the Crow Creek tribe of the Lakota nation.
There is some racial diversity in my family
you cannot see by looking at my face.
I left my homeland to go to college and now have four degrees –
a bachelor’s, masters and doctorate in research psychology,
and a masters of divinity.
I am a product of 1970s and 80s New York culture and politics,
of latch key kids, of divorced parents, of too much TV,
of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,
of the changeover from comic books to Graphic Novels,
of AIDS marches and homeless protests,
of worn down Beatles albums and Broadway soundtracks.
My upbringing was middle class and somewhat fortunate,
but because of my skin color it can never be called privileged.
I know this because when I look at the records of my birth parents—
both Colombian—they listed themselves as “White”;
yet when I look at my hands, I know they were not.
They considered themselves white because in that society,
you are “less than” if you are colored.
But when my mother came here to put me up for adoption,
she was noted as Hispanic.
I am a product of a 1960s and 70s family farm culture
that has faded from the Northern Great Plains.
We had a close network of neighbors who helped each other through crises.
Both of my parents worked, my siblings and I did from a very young age.
Even so, we squeezed in lots of television time.
There I saw the first man walk on the moon, Nixon resign from office.
I was born towards the end of the Civil Rights era,
during the time of Vietnam, Women’s Lib, and the Cold War.
My parents taught us we are all God’s children, equal in God’s sight.
Growing up female and working class,
I have a mix of privilege and unprivilege
but I realize now that any privilege I lost
by being born female is tiny compared to
the privilege I have because of being born white.
(Note: the following was inspired and partly adapted from Peggy McIntosh’s
wonderful paper White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack)
David: Because I am a person of color: While I know I’ve always been hired based on my ability, I can never be 100% sure ethnicity was a consideration.
Tess: Because I am white: if I want to rent or purchase a home in a neighborhood I can afford, I can do that without any problem and assume the neighbors will be friendly or neutral
David: While I know I’ve never not been chosen for a job because of my race, I can never be 100% sure.
Tess: When I turn on television or watch a movie I can be fairly sure that a) my race will be represented and b) portrayed fairly
David: When asked to speak publicly, I know it will be based on my ability and knowledge, but I can never be 100% sure if it’s not to speak on behalf of my entire race.
Tess: I can see people of my race upheld in ads, greeting cards, toys, makeup and nylons, in school curricula and standardized tests, in movies, television, and art
David: I have been followed around by security in store in a neighborhood I lived in for years.
Tess: A variety of career paths are open to me. I don’t have to worry about
whether my race will prevent me from following my dreams
David: People automatically assume I speak Spanish (I don’t and know very
little of it)
Tess: People won’t assume I’m a janitor (happened to an African American
friend of mine while she was at a professional conference)
David: I still struggle to find quality representations of my life in TV, movies,
Tess: If my kid acts up in school it won’t be attributed to his race.
David: When talking one-on-one about influences on my art, people are
surprised when not every person mentioned is of color.
Tess: If my child should ever be arrested and found guilty of a crime, he is likely to find legal representation, and receive a fair trial and fair sentence.
David: When talking in a group about influences on my art, I have to include
artists of color because they will otherwise not be represented or recognized.
Tess: I most likely will never be asked to speak on behalf of my entire race.
David: I have to teach my daughter to be aware of how systemic racism can
affect her in addition to how gender inequality can affect her, both for her own
Tess: I won’t be harassed if I try to vote, no matter where I live.
David: I do not always feel “normal” in the usual walks of public life,
institutional and social.
Tess: Nothing less than desirable in the way I dress or act will be ascribed to my race.
There are great things about my heritage and culture to show,
but not given the privilege to accept or reject all the negative aspects of them—deserved or undeserved.
I am multi-racial and multi-ethnic, and racism affects my spirit.
There are things I love about my heritage,
I have privileges that have more to do with this history of race in America
than they have to do with who I am or how I want to be in the world,
privileges I would reject if I could but can’t because
they are built into the system and have infiltrated our culture.
I am white. I am European American, and racism affects my spirit.