Who is Claude Armstrong?
Claude Armstrong has lived in the Richmond area for twelve years. As a black man living in the South, he is familiar with talking about race, but became more engaged around conversations about whiteness through a multi-racial church group. Armstrong has raised his kids in the Richmond area and hopes to arm them with the tools to adequately deal with the racism and racial divides that pervade “post-racial” America today.
Excerpt from interview with Claude Armstrong by Whitney Dow, 2018
Q: Now, what was your interest in participating in the project?
Armstrong: [17:23:34] A friend of mine sent a link to it some time ago. We’re currently in a conversation about race in our church. So, I was very interested in the subject. It’s kind of fresh with where we are. I thought, well, any opportunity to advance the discussion, I wanted to be a part of it.
Q: Well, it’s funny, because most of the people we’ve been speaking to are white, or have some sort of relationship—are you—what’s your relationship to whiteness?
Armstrong: [17:24:06] Well, that’s interesting. Because I actually did not realize it until I saw the interview paperwork I was filling out, I got to thinking about it and realized that, actually, I do have a relationship. My father had a very fair complexion along with his sister. I expect that that there is a lot of white in my family history on my father’s side. I’ve been researching genealogy on my mother’s side and there’s at least one white ancestor., I was wondering if I’m the right person for this, then I though a bit and decided, maybe I am. [laughs]
Armstrong: [17:25:15] If I can say one other thing. I guess one other thing may be more germane is that all of my adult married life, I have been largely n white culture, particularly Christian white culture in the church. So in one respect, I’ve spent a large majority of my life interacting with whites. That experience has been a benefit for me because I feel like I better understand, as much as I can, white culture. It’s helped me to really think through issues of blackness, to be honest, at a much deeper level and in an inverse way, become more empathetic.
I found myself going into our church discussions, initially, more concerned about the white males and how they’re going to react and interact [phonetic], because there’s so much, I guess, defensiveness in our country around race. A lot of that empathy is coming from spending so much of my adult life around white males. And that has created some interesting conflicts within me as we discuss issues of awareness concerning race, particularly when we focused on the years of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights for blacks.
But it’s been a good conflict that I’ve had, because it’s not just one-sided, where I’m trying to understand whites. I am also exploring more deeply my own “blackness”. When you live that long associated with one race, you get to know a little more about that race. It has really helped me to explore the intersection of these two cultures. I think I’m asking deeper questions of myself. It forces [phonetic] me to ask deeper questions of my white friends and my black friends. I feel much more confident in asking whites to enter into the discussion. Because I believe I can try to assuage their reservations. Because I, to some degree, understand what the reservations might be.
I can talk to my white friends and say that, yes, it may be difficult, but there is a way you approach this. I encourage them to keep an open mind and try to understand who is being “spoken to”. Is the system being spoken to? Or is it an individual? And I don’t think this always articulated our conversations. I’ve seen where this approach allayed some concerns and opened people up. So twenty-five years of interaction has really helped me to comfortably and confidently talk to whites as well as engage blacks. For instance, if in our conversations something comes up about the 2016 election, I can speak to the group and say, well, there’s another side to this. Not everybody is as you’ve portrayed them.
And so, like with President [Donald J.] Trump. Some people—many “conservative” people would agree that there are concerns about him. But there are some key issues driving them and it’s not hatred of race! They’re not Nazis. Yet, they do have these legitimate concerns and they had to wrestle with themselves. It wasn’t an easy vote for them. I know. I’ve been around them. I’ve talked with them about it. So, it’s helped me to navigate that intersection in a much more comfortable way.
Q: Sitting here, 2018, knowing this history, knowing the things you talked about, about the structure and the—the structure, the water of white culture, and the shameful history of our past, do whites owe black people something?
Armstrong: [18:02:23] I think respect, as we owe everybody. We’ve been discussing race at our church for a semester and we’re continuing this discussion for another semester. For me, it was a wrestle. Because I didn’t want to just talk about race and get one group riled and the other group feel shame, and guilt, and condemnation with no hope. I wrestled with this greatly and what it came to is that we have to look at the issues of race from a perspective of respect. There’s a principle in Christian faith called the imago dei, the image of God. It’s at the heart of respect for me, the fact that you were made in the image of God, I was made in the image of God, we all reflect the image of God. Imperfectly and not completely, not comprehensively, but reflexively, like facets, little facets of a diamond.
And so, I think if anything would be owed, it is the respect of that dignity – that whether I understand you, whether I like what you’re saying, I respect you enough to believe that you’re feeling something. One of the big things I appeal to is, whether you agree with Black Lives Matter or not, try to see the cry that it represents. It’s a basic element of relationship that, though feelings don’t establish facts of themselves, they are a fact. So if somebody is feeling pain, and they articulate that they’re feeling pain, even though you may not agree with or understand the source of their pain or why they feel pain, acknowledge the fact that they’re feeling something. Maybe they don’t understand what it is to articulate it, but show enough respect to say, okay, you’re obviously going through something that’s really devastating. I don’t understand it. I don’t know that I see it. Help me understand your pain.