The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Guest post by Joel Pulis
Over the past 3 weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching. As the world responds and reacts to the murder of George Floyd, my eyes have been glued to the screen and my heart has been wrenched again and again. But I have been uncertain what to say and how to wade into these deep waters.
I have the privilege of living in a multiracial house with two African-American young adults – Kalia and LaRon. A few days after Floyd’s death, Kalia passionately called me to action: “You’re a white man. Use your privilege. Speak up for me!”
Recognizing that you can’t ignore or dismiss such a plea from one you deeply love, I’ve been giving myself to her challenge. I’ve been praying. I’ve been reading. And I’ve been finding my voice. I’ve got a lot on my mind, but this is where I feel led to jump in.
So here’s my story (or at least one version of it)…
I grew up in 1970’s Oak Cliff, the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks,” across the Trinity River from downtown Dallas. I experienced the days of the Oak Cliff “Oh’s” (“I live in Oak Cliff.” And the common response, “Oh…”).
My kindergarten class was relatively diverse, made up of one-quarter people of color (black and Hispanic). My friendships with Edmundo and Miguel come to mind even after all these years. I attended church in Oak Cliff, one of the few congregations that resisted “white flight” and didn’t pack up and move further south. I attended the TAG Magnet (a court-ordered integration attempt) when it was located in a wing at Pinkston High School (a majority-black school) in West Dallas.
In 1999, I felt drawn back to Oak Cliff to live, work, and start my career. I planted a church – the Well Community – that was made up of approximately 50% African American members. Some of my most cherished leaders and Community Members at the Well – Arthur, Will, Kajuana, Charles & Connie, James, Anne – are African Americans.
I currently teach at a Title 1 charter school in southwest Oak Cliff: my principal is black and all of my students are African-American (⅓) or Hispanic (approx ⅔). A few years ago, I moved south of the popular Oak Cliff neighborhoods (Winnetka Heights, Kessler Park) and live in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood. I live with seven other adults (and Theo!), two of which – Kalia and LaRon – are black.
I could go on, but you get it – I am not a racist.
[Thanks for the pat on the back! I deserve it.]
But before I get too high and mighty, let me try again. Here’s another version of my story…
I grew up in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Kessler Park, a bubble of affluence amidst an overwhelmingly lower-income population. I only remember one Hispanic family – the Garcia’s – that lived in our immediate neighborhood. Their cinder block house stood out and was suspect; I avoided it.
I attended a private Christian academy that was founded in 1972 by an avowed segregationist. I didn’t attend the congregation connected to the school, but was a member of a commuter church in Oak Cliff. Most of my church friends drove in from DeSoto or Duncanville (Dallas’ southern white suburbs of the 1980s). Our church did not reflect the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood. I never had a black teacher until I reached 10th grade and transferred to public schools. While I had black friends in high school, I never invited them to my home and was never invited to theirs.
My college education and seminary training, and most places of employment, have all been in white-led institutions. I’ve served and helped people of color, but have undoubtedly done so in some pretty patronizing ways.
Over the last 20 years of homeownership, I’ve benefited from the powers of gentrification and seen my equity soar, allowing me to purchase a remodeled 4,000 square foot home that’s not too far out of my comfort zone.
While my current boss is a black woman, I still have my power and privilege as a white man. If I don’t like my job, I can always find another.
I could go on, but you get it. In the blessings that I have received and continued privileges that flow from being a white male, I contribute to and am complicit in persistent and deep-rooted racial inequalities.
These are the stories that I tell myself. Both are valid; both are true. But in the midst of all of the pain, anger, and fear being experienced by my black brothers and sisters (and in my home by LaRon and Kalia), a choice is required: Which story will I embrace? Which story empowers me and leads me to action in these days?
I’ve made my decision. I embrace humility, seeking to learn from those whose stories are different from mine. I want to offer myself to those that are hurting, listening deeply and desiring to empathize with their pain and rage. I acknowledge that my life and actions have negatively impacted others and commit myself to repair the things that I have broken.
And that’s what I hope to contribute to the conversation. Repentance begins with me.
I’ve made my choice. How about you?
Joel Pulis is an Oak Cliff native, born and raised in the neighborhood of Dallas. For 19 years, he served as a community pastor, planting the Well Community, a church for adults with serious mental illness, and founding Body Oak Cliff, a congregational network and spiritual formation effort. His ministry continues, currently teaching history at a Title I public school in southern Oak Cliff. Joel serves on the board of Body Oak Cliff and Visible Unity, an organization that brings diverse people together to empower the formation of cross-cultural relationships.