For the past couple of months we’ve been consumed with the presidential election. Yet, we can’t let the issue of race fade into the background. The hardest part of rhetoric is keeping the conversation going. James White—popular Cru speaker, pastor, and member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission on race— joins the conversation in this first segment of Getting Up To Speed. Tim, Rick, and James discuss their different and complex upbringings and draw out the importance of the backstory for acquiring perspective. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes and assuming their point of view is difficult and often resisted. Yet, doing so can be a powerful, formative exercise to help foster understanding, empathy, and civility. This is part 1 of a 2-part conversation with James White on the issue of race.
James White: The complexity of race in America has always been difficult because we've got to do something because one, we know when you can have that kind of inhumane treatment for so long, for 200 and some years, there is no way that it's going to be rebuilt in this way that there's going to be goodness in people.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. I'm Tim Muehlhoff, the professor of communication at Biola University.
Rick Langer: And my name is Rick Langer. I'm also a professor at Biola University, and I'm also the director of the Office of Faith and Learning. And together, we're the co directors, Tim and I, of the Winsome Conviction Project.
Tim Muehlhoff: The Winsome Conviction Project has just launched, and we're already working with Christian high schools. We're working with different churches. Our goal is to return civility, compassion, kindness, perspective taking back into our public disagreements. And boy, Rick, there's been a lot of public disagreements.
Rick Langer: You'll be glad to know it's a booming economic enterprise and we'll be soon having our own IPO. So the good news is we have a mark.
Tim Muehlhoff: Rick and I have a brand new book that's coming out called Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church. And we literally had to rewrite the introduction three times because new things happened that people were talking about dividing us as a nation, a church, neighborhoods. So this book is current, and we want to talk to people who we think can add to the conversation. So it's really fun when those people just happen to be really good friends.
So today, we have a great friend, James White. I've known James for over 30 years. So let me tell you a little bit about James White. James and his wife Cynthia served with CRU for 19 years, including eight years at Howard University. James currently serves as the executive vice president of organizational relations for the Triangle Area YMCA in North Carolina and as the senior pastor of Christ Our King Community Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.
He's also been appointed by the governor of North Carolina to head up the Martin Luther King Junior Commission on Race. James is a teacher. He teaches a class on social justice and race at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he also serves as a consultant for several organizations concerning diversity and community in the marketplace.
He's been married to Cynthia for over 33 years, and they have three children. James, welcome to our podcast.
James White: It is good to be here.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let me tell you two fun facts, listeners, about James White. One, I was a wrestler in high school. I'm about 5'10" barely, and in basketball, I have blocked two shots, Rick, in my entire life as a basketball player. Both of them, Rick, against James White.
Rick Langer: And why would you bring that up?
Tim Muehlhoff: Because I've only brought it up for over 30 years. So James, you know this is true. You know...
James White: Yes.
Rick Langer: Could I suggest, Tim, that you're living in the past?
James White: Let me just say this, I still will travel and speak on college campuses, and when they find out that I know Dr. Muehlhoff, to my surprise, they will bring up the story. So that is unfortunate, and I'm only 5'7" tall. So that's very unfortunate.
Rick Langer: Wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: Wow. My work is done, and-
Rick Langer: You've really put all this in perspective, Tim. That's great. You're modeling the Winsome Conviction thing. You're getting great at letting things go. That's wonderful.
Tim Muehlhoff: I like to think of it as Winsome trash talk. Another fun fact is James, you have a black belt. If I remember this correctly when I first met you, you have a black belt in what?
James White: In Shito-Ryu, which is Japanese for karate, which is an Okinawan form of Shotokan.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. I'm very familiar with that. Shotokan. And James, I just got my black belt in Shaolin Kung Fu after seven years. Literally just got it a couple months ago.
James White: Wow. Congratulations. Congratulations.
Rick Langer: And I happen to be wearing a black belt today. So I'm feeling pretty good.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, James, this has been a crazy year.
James White: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: With conversations and issues that have been challenging. I think it's been made worse by the internet, and we are seeing our nation wrestle at a level that is not unparalleled but is shocking to see the disagreements that we have. And all three of us kind of grew up during the racial unrest of the 1960s. I remember in 1965 the Detroit Riots and my dad putting us in the family car and watching the National Guard have outposts in the streets of Detroit. Yet how did you experience this, James? Me and Rick being white, of a dominate culture, it occurs to me that we have different experiences, though roughly the same age-range. What was it like for you to grow up in the turbulent '60s? What moments have stuck out to you?
James White: One of the things as we have this conversation, what you're talking about is so true of yet our similarities and yet our differences. So yes, the three of us are probably around the same age. So I'm born in 1961. And when you begin to think about that for a moment, and this is where I've started reflecting back on our own personal narrative as we talk about and have this conversation about race. But here I am born in 1961. Now think, sometimes we lose the reality that when we say history, yesterday was history. So history is still very real and present. So when I think about that and then when I go back and reflect on my life, there's some things that's becoming clear.
So if I'm born in 1961, then that means my mother and father brought into the world a child in rural North Carolina that was in the midst of a Jim Crow reality. I was born before Dr. King's March on Washington Speech. That also means that I was born without the freedoms as a human being to even be promised to participate effectively in society. I was born before there was an assured right to vote. That means that if I'm born in 1961, Civil Rights Act is not signed until 1965.
That also makes sense because I was one of the first... There were 10 of us. My mother was one of the first people to integrate this elementary school system. She was the first Black person chosen to teach at the all-white elementary school. This is 1967. So my first grade year I went with my mother, there were probably about less than 10 of us who also was there. So I remember my first day of school. Most people probably don't remember that, but I remember because of the trauma of riding the bus and every child, except for an Asian kid, would not let me sit down. And they used the N-word.
I also remember that year when I came back home because we had mentors in first grade. I, again, had a crush on Sherry who was a sixth grader who was blonde-haired, white, and when I told my mom this riding home with her in the car, she panicked. And I remember going, "What in the world?" Well, you got to remember, so this is 1967. Well, Loving versus Virginia, the Supreme Court didn't even make it legal for interracial marriage to take place until 1967. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner comes out the same time.
And this is also important in our experienced the '60s. My parents were born in 1923. You're talking about parents who are only 60-some years pass the Emancipation Proclamation. So when I look back at my time in the '60s, I have experienced even as parents of taking the journey, I experienced the reality of Jim Crow and a community that was just beginning to legally deconstruct and take the signs down that existed only a few years before my birth, that existed all throughout the community that I was in.
Rick Langer: That is an incredible reminder, James. One of the things that hits me as you describe that is basically you have a one person handoff between your family, your mom and dad, and the Emancipation Declaration in 1860. You just realize, oh my gosh. When people talk about haven't we been dealing with the race issue for long enough. How long do we keep going back? It's actually a really good reminder to say, "Well, look, I'm actually talking about my grandpa here or my great grandpa." It isn't that long, and for you, personally, to go, "Yeah, this is what I grew up with. My mom was the first Black teacher at an integrated school." And you're sort of like, "Oh, different world. Different world."
James White: To your point, and you think about it, not just my grandfather. So if my parents are only born 60 years after Emancipation Proclamation, if my dad was born in 1923, and Tim and I talked about how our fathers have had this exterior and some of the dynamics of our fathers. I've had to go back and really do some work to make peace because my father also fought in World War II. So he fought in Germany. Now here's what's interesting, the whole trajectory of our lives were different because of race. Because when he came back home from World War II, he had to put his uniform away. I never saw what my dad's uniform... I remember my dad saying to me that, "I was treated better in Italy by whites in Italy and other places than I am coming back into this country." So you got to imagine, you got a father that defends a country that wouldn't defend him.
So here you have a father who grows up with that, and he didn't benefit from one of the wealth generators of rebuilding wealth in the 1940s, which was the GI Bill. So he didn't benefit for that because there were no universities that were going to pay his way to school because of Jim Crow. He couldn't go to NC State, couldn't go to Carolina. He only had a couple of historically Black colleges that even were in existence that generated that and many of them Black GIs, those spots were filled. So my dad spent the rest of his life working in a shipyard and didn't benefit from the wealth generation of having protected and served the country.
Yet what's amazing to me is he still said the Pledge of Allegiance. He still was patriotic. And I look at that and go, "Oh my goodness." So that alone has begin to help even the complexity of what my dad had to navigate through in that time and coming back and we lived on the land that he had four acres from because his uncle who he lived with was a sharecropper. They used to show me all the land that he worked on as a little boy and sharecropping, but only ended up owning a very small part of that land because of the injustices of sharecropping.
So this isn't as history, this is current realities for me right now.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, James, we have a concept in communication theory called Standpoint Theory, which means where you stand in culture, you can have a very different perspective. So just as a parent, going back to your story of you going to elementary school, our elementary school is right across from our house. I could throw a baseball and hit our elementary school, and when we walked our three boys to that elementary school, I never once had a concern that my kids would be neglected because of the color of their skin. It breaks my heart to think of a boy your age being treated that way. What effect does that have on the psyche of a young child? What does that create in you, self esteem wise, self image wise?
James White: Well, I think here's what's interesting is what's interesting is, as I reflect back, it wasn't just the violence that was different. It was even the intellectual psychological journey of what was being taught. So think about it for example, I was taught in books where there were no characters who looked like me. That alone when you never see yourself in literature, and the only place where I would see myself in literature would be slaves. That was it. I was never taught about George Washington Carver, never taught about the genius of even leadership, falsely taught about Africa.
And then you think about it, it's even enforced in entertainment in every place because I grew up watching Tarzan on Saturday mornings. That was one of the most damaging things when I look back because it even gave me the myths and misunderstanding of Africa because how in the world could a white guy whose parents crashed a plane end up becoming king of the jungle? Today, it's not even from Africa. Talk about colonization on steroids. So that's the image you grow up with.
I also grew up with this... And then my dad loved Westerns. Here's how ironic it is, I began to learn how Indigenous people would treated, why would I want to be a cowboy? And also what was always so unique, even before the Bruce Lee movies of one man taking out the Japanese, which is also another reversal of race. How could only John Wayne and a few other guys end up defeating whole tribes of Indigenous people? So you grow up with these things and then in the education system, you're not taught the whole story.
So when you talk about Lincoln as the great emancipator, even today we misunderstand Lincoln, and we don't give the full story. And it would take being an adult before you learn from Lincoln who was pretty silent, but you see in his speeches, seven years before the Emancipation Proclamation when he's running against Stephen Douglas, Lincoln was very clear of his racist beliefs. Lincoln could've won the Civil War without freeing the slaves. He would have, and you even see that when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, border states and those close to the north, he didn't make sure that slaves were free there.
And then it wasn't until again after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War and the death of the Civil War that Lincoln changes his position in his land speech. It was seven years earlier he had the same political racist beliefs as everyone else had, but he changes position. Then only a few days later, he's assassinated because of the changed position.
So no one would teach that it would take violence, it would take bloody Civil War to even change the president's understanding again of race.
So I say all of that to say even when I was taught in books and history, also had this thing that was just as damaging, and then my father and even people in the community would say things to me that were really racist. They would say, "Okay, James," and my middle name's Alfred. "Okay, James Alfred, you got to be 10 times better than white kids." I grew up with the perspective going through the first, second, third grade elementary school that I had to be 10 times better. That is inhuman. Why in the world would you... But that was that narrative that I digested and even to the point to where you internalize that so that you can't even be a human. You have to be super human to navigate with white people.
Tim Muehlhoff: James, talking about what we didn't get in school. Do you remember that project we did, the communications center, a long time ago? Cynthia, your wife, was part of it. [Melvida] was part of it. Where we tried to hear the perspectives of African Americans on staff with CRU, Campus Crusade For Christ, and remember I wrote my first publication was in Mars Hill Review called All Beginnings are Difficult. And I wrote about the fact that here I am a college graduate, and [Melvida] uses this powerful image of the middle passage. And I honestly, James, did not know what the middle passage was.
James White: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: I grab somebody afterwards and said, "Hey, what's the middle passage?" The first white friend I went to said, "Yeah, I was a little bit confused by that. I didn't know what she was talking about." So James, think about that. The African Holocaust. Can you imagine the psyche of a Jewish student if they mentioned the Holocaust, don't even need a qualifier. The Holocaust, and I say to that Jewish student, "I'm sorry, the what?" And that Jewish student would look at me and say, "You have got to be kidding. The Jewish Holocaust." And yet the African Holocaust, and Steven Spielberg is so powerful about this when he said people didn't want to see it as much as they wanted to see Schindler's List. So James, that has haunted me, and that was 30-some years ago, that the African Holocaust is less than the Holocaust, which is the Jewish Holocaust.
James White: Right, right. So it's interesting, and Tim, this is what I've always appreciated about you and even some of the work you did here for your PhD, it all comes back to how do you listen? This is the genius what I think the two of you are doing. How do you listen to someone else's story? But now what do you do when neurologically your brain is not able to adopt to hearing someone else's story. What do you do when you don't even have memory and images... Because so much of how the brain works, and I'm being overly simplistic here, is you have images and pictures that you draw from. You have things that you remember that you drawn from. Well, what do you do when you have no memory? What do you do when you have no memory, no images of ever being close with someone from another race, of ever engaging a Black person in authority over you? What do you do when you have no memory of even what you've studied in books? What do you do when your TV programs, the first Black family you ever saw was a Black family in the ghetto called Good Times or the Black man was a junk dealer, Fred Sanford? What do you do when you don't have those images there?
So for some people today, when we talk about this issue, sometimes I wonder does your brain even have an imagination to see things any different?
Rick Langer: So let me dive in on that for a second, James, and move it from being kind of a rhetorical question to literally describing my own situation. So you talked a little bit about where you were in the '60s, and Tim, likewise for him. Tim was in Detroit where you had a large Black population. He was not Black, but that was part of the interface. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. And Boulder's pretty much lily white. I can think of maybe one or two Black students who were in my high school of over 2000 students. We did have a Hispanic population that was a meaningful number of people, but it was a pretty white environment. And one of my memories is talking to a friend of mine, a guy in my church when I was probably close to 30 years old, and he had grown up in Georgia. And we were talking about our experiences in the '60s. Boulder's only very loosey attached to reality. It doesn't like to be reminded there's a real world or anything else out there. So Boulder's kind of a funky town. It's Berkeley with mountains.
But we had a very kind of a sense that racism wasn't a problem for us, but literally with kind of no imagination of what it would actually be like because I didn't grow up with those experiences. I'm talking to my friend from Georgia, and he's describing for me segregated swimming pools in his growing... Because we were the same age, and I'm like, "I didn't even know..." I just had to stop the conversation and say, "Wait a minute, what are you really talking... Were they like two different pools or different times?" I just realized I had literally no mental space for that, and I was aware of Jim Crow. I could've told you many things, but there was no space in my head to accommodate what he was describing for me.
So this really does become an issue. I don't know that there's a biological thing that keeps me from understanding, but boy, there's a lack of a set of experiences that made it really, really hard for me to kind of get it if I was talking to a person. As I grew up, I traveled around a lot. I had a lot of cross-cultural experiences with all kinds of different races all over the world actually over the course of my college and post-college time. But I realized on the ground floor, I had very, very little of that kind of diversity.
James White: I think it's interesting because I take a historical approach to this. Even when you go back and you study, so why was slavery so brutal and so difficult, and why in the world did after slavery we put in 90 years of Jim Crow? And one of my heroes... I mean, I love Wilberforce, but when you think about the British, they had a different reality when they were going to abolish slavery. Sure, there was an economic reality, but when you abolish slavery here in America and especially in the south where you have communities where we live right next to each other. If you asked free slaves in Mississippi where you have more slaves than you do white plantation owners or white people period, the complexity of race in America has always been difficult because we've got to do something. Because one, we know when you've had that kind of inhuman treatment for so long, for 200 and some years, there is no way that it's going to be rebuilt in this way that there's going to be goodness in people. Because we've intentionally done some things, and we're neighbors now.
So in order to even be able to exist, that's why America in and of creating frameworks that really built all of America so fascinating, but when you begin to look at westward expansion and what took place, their communities and everything that we built. That's always been interesting. My friends from South Dakota, North Dakota will say, "We don't have a race problem." Of course, you don't. We were not able to migrate to those places. Any place where we were able to go to and migrate to, there was always a challenge. So cities like Detroit and northern cities who would say, "We're north. Don't have a race problem," are you kidding me? Absolutely you did. This was the first time when we were refugees. I mean, it's interesting that if you study the pattern of refugees, Chicago, New York, Detroit became literally places that were built by ex-slaves from the south. So since those places that we never really resolved even to this day.
Rick Langer: Hey. James, this was such a great conversation, and we want to draw a close to this segment of it. But we want to continue the conversation with another whole segment of this topic. So valuable. So let me just wrap this up just briefly here and say thank you so much for joining us on this section here with James White. Thank you for joining us on the Winsome Conviction Podcast. We encourage you to subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or anywhere else where you like to get your podcasts. And also, check out the WinsomeConviction.com website we have with a bunch of resources and other things you can check out there.
So we're really grateful for joining us. And by all means, join us for part two of this conversation with James White on our next podcast.