Conversation with Rev. Dr. Frederick J. Streets

Citation Information: A Conversation with Rev. Dr. Frederick J. Streets, University Chaplain and Senior Pastor of the Church of Christ, Yale University. February 2, 1999.

A conversation with Rev. Dr. Frederick J. Streets, University Chaplain and Senior Pastor of the Church of Christ, Yale University.

Dr. Streets spoke about race in America. He discussed the resistance to thinking about shared history that black and white Americans might feel. He suggested several reasons for the resistance.

On talking about racial issues in America:

To create a better conversation among white and black Americans, white Americans need to “Look beyond my faults and see my needs”, a quote from a black gospel song. Black Americans distrust talking about race issues with white Americans because they focus on black failures. African Americans would be stronger if they believed Nelson Mandela that “We are more powerful than we want to admit.”

On learning about a shared history:

Talking about a shared history between African Americans and white Americans, for example, between African and Irish Americans, clearly confronts the reality of interracial relationships and the unspoken sub-category of sexual encounters between the races. There are more white people with black ancestors and more black people with white ancestors than either group wants to acknowledge.

On mixed racial heritage:

(Dr. Streets is an African American of mixed heritage.)

I grew up identifying with African Americans by color while learning the Polish traditions of my maternal grandmother.

I think that acknowledging one’s mixed heritage is a rebuttal to two ideas about race. One is the linking of mixed heritage to slavery. The second is the idea of racial purity.

African Americans reject their white heritage as the story of slavery. White Americans believe that their heritage carries no genes of color. The great divide between black and white Americans is mythical and destructive.

Neither groups wants to acknowledge their mixed ancestry because a mixed racial heritage furthers the destruction of separate racial identity. As blacks begin to examine their roots, they find a confusion of identity.

On the use of hyphenated racial and ethnic identity:

Identifiers like Irish-American, African-American, and Polish-American perpetuate the myth of ‘other than American’. Such naming creates a loss of shared community. The idea of ‘other than American’ is perpetuated in book titles like “How the Irish Became White” and “How the Jews became White Folks.” No book has yet been written about ” How the Blacks became White”.

On learning more about shared history:

Ethnic groups should learn more about historical examples of races sharing ordinary lives, such as the 19th century experience of Five Points, where black and Irish Americans lived in harmony.

Americans ignore history of shared lives to avoid acknowledging shared sexual connections. The unspoken fear in acknowledging mixed ancestry is the fear that this kind of loving will replicate itself in the future.

Studying about racial and ethnic history should be encouraged. Learning this history will show connections, not differences and is important to the future of democracy. The quality of our sense of community is related to freedom. Freedom is related to how we treat each other.

The interview with Dr. Streets took place at Yale University on 2/2/99. Permission to reproduce material from the interview was graciously given by Dr. Streets.