At our first training back in January, each rider was assigned a stop to organize during the trip. What this means for me is that I had been working on our stop at Belhaven University in Jackson, MS for about 2.5 months by the time we actually got there on March 29th. Naturally, I was a little bit anxious that things would go smoothly and productively.
Mostly, they did. We had a lovely day on campus filled with conversations with students, faculty, and staff and interspersed with lots and lots of great food. Far from the hospitality for appearance’s sake it felt like we had received elsewhere, it seemed that the folks at BU really wanted us there to have conversations and talk about the issues. We – the folks at the school as well as us on the ride – learned a lot and walked away with new friends. We were also able to do a service project with a group of students the next afternoon, and had two awesome potlucks at community churches with lots of networking opportunities. Success!
Aside from the “usual” discomforts of folks pulling out the same passages of the Bible and urging us to reconsider our sinful ways, and (especially for the non-Christians among us) prayers for our souls and salvation, we also experienced a special kind of tension in Jackson – a place that in many ways is the heart of the Deep South. A city with 85% African-American population and also one of the poorest major cities in America, in a state where racism both remembered and present in a fashion unseen anywhere else. A place where the Freedom Rides made a stand and are still remembered with fear and anxiety. And, it turns out, a place where the only LGBTQ affirming spaces are largely white.
A fellow rider, a person of color, pointed this out to me and requested that I allow one of the smaller events to be optional, to give folks a break from the pressure of being so identifiably different all the time. Upset that I had failed to account for this in my planning, I responded initially by saying no and justified my response by saying it would be rude to the folks who were hosting us. My response was rooted in my ego as well as in ignorance of what it means to be a person of color anywhere, and especially being a person of color doing something like the Equality Ride. My response was racist.
When I realized this, I was crushed. I just didn’t know what to do. We worked it out eventually, on a personal level at least, but I was left with the realization that in my desire for things to run smoothly I had failed to meaningfully confront racism yet again. I had neglected to account for the experiences of folks who are different from me – a unique kind of hypocrisy when I’ve had the audacity to confront so many people at the schools we’ve visited with similar truths. The log in my eye is bigger than I thought, it would seem.
I am still satisfied with much of our experience at Belhaven. I really do believe that some folks we talked with will be allies for LGBTQ people at that school and that our message of God’s affirmation and love for all God’s children was received. But here, at the halfway point in our trip (8th of 16 schools), I am learning all over again of the inadequacy of my approach. If I could go back and repurpose those 2.5 months, I would. But I can’t.
All that’s left is tomorrow.
Next: Mississippi College in Clinton, MS.