For most of my life, I didn’t think very much about race.
In my neighborhoods and schools, I had friends who were black, white, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Asian. I thought of racism as something that used to exist in real life but now was confined to a chapter in our text books. With the purest of intentions, I was one of those people who’d say “I don’t see color, I just see people.” I wore the rose-tinted glasses you get to wear when you are young- when you are white.
As I got older, things started to change. I started to listen to the stories of my non-white friends and realized that they experienced day to day difficulties I never have.
I watched along with the rest of America as black men continued to be shot in the streets- some of them not men at all, but children, not much older than the ones I teach at school. Their pictures were broadcast on television, posted on social media, and held up in mourning as the nation awaited the results of each trial. There was protesting in the streets, mothers with tear stained faces, and hovering above it all, political debate about guns and laws and standing your ground.
The noise was almost enough to make you forget what we were really talking about: unarmed teenagers, whose lives mattered, were being killed over loud music, over toys guns, over “misunderstandings.” Over race.
Suddenly, colorblindness didn’t feel like the most noble response to racism, because rather than address it as a serious problem, it denied that a problem even existed. Our white silence at the dinner table did not serve to improve a situation where many people did not have the luxury of living in comfortable ignorance.
Desmond Tutu said “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” And what is “colorblindness” if not neutrality? However well intended it may be, ultimately, it is cowardly, and it’s less than we’re called to.
I came to understand that being white had afforded me the me the luxury of never having to think about race if I didn’t want to. Mine is the dominant culture, and because of that, I could to go through life without defining myself by my skin color. Being white means I can turn on TV or go to the movies and always see someone who looks like me. It means when I apply for a job, I don’t have to worry that my employer might be biased against “ethnic-sounding” names. It means I am less likely to be incarcerated or stopped by police, whether or not I am doing something illegal. It means my mom didn’t have the same fears about me riding my bike around the neighborhood as a black mother has about her child.
We call these luxuries privilege.
I have spoken to many white people who, when I mention “white privilege,” become defensive and even lash out. They reject outright the idea that there are any societal factors at play which might put them at an advantage, often citing anecdotes about their own personal hardships. These are usually the same people who claim that racism is not a significant issue in America anymore.
But maintaining the belief that we are living in a post-racial society requires a mixture of willful ignorance, historical amnesia, and arrogance.
It’s so easy to look back on history and assume you’d be on the right side of it. With hindsight, you can claim that, of course, you would have sided with Dr King, and not with the White Alabaman Clergymen who urged him to stop his demonstrations. But at the time, those Clergymen believed that telling Dr King to keep quiet and quit protesting was the best way to achieve “peace.” Dr King famously responded, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.”
From prison, Dr King wrote letters in response to the clergymen’s position which included these words: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not . . . the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
Polls show that in the mid century, the era of Jim Crow, most white Americans believed that African Americans were treated fairly in this country. Black people, of course, disagreed. Looking back, most white people today would admit that black people were right and white people were wrong back then.
Which begs the question- asked by Author Drew Hart- what changed? “Is it likely that the white dominant group and the black marginalized group instantaneously swapped roles regarding who perceived injustice more preciously? …To affirm that white people are suddenly getting it right and that black people have simultaneously lost their capacity to interpret their own experiences seems an unhelpful response not based on serious reflection of our past nor the testimonies.”
To my fellow white people who bristle against the #BlackLivesMatter movement, who hesitate to admit that our society is structured in such a way that they receive privilege, please consider this: When people of color, as a collective community, are sharing their experiences with racial injustice in America and speaking out against an unfair system, is it outrageously arrogant for us, as white people, to dismiss them by assuming we know better than they do how prejudice operates in America.
I think one of the major roadblocks to humility and reconciliation is that our colorblindness has made us ignorant of what racism actually is. We assume that just because we don’t use racial slurs or overtly downplay people’s value, we’re guilt-free. We fail to see that racism is subtle, nuanced, and evolving. Its deeply ingrained in our history and cannot be done away with by snapping our fingers. Perhaps most important, we fail to realize that racism isn’t just individualistic, its systemic.
Near the beginning of his book, Trouble I’ve Seen, Dr Drew Hart describes a conversation he had with a well meaning white pastor who wanted to “dialogue across the racial divide.” The pastor tried to extract a metaphor from the cup of sweet tea that sat between them. We’re both looking at the same thing, he figured, just from different perspectives- neither can see what the other is seeing on their side of the cup.
Drew thanked the man for this gesture, but went on to explain why this metaphor simply didn’t hold up as accurate: “In fact, I did know what was on his side of the cup. This is because I have learned Eurocentric history written from a white perspective. I have read white literature and poetry. I have learned about white musicians and artists. I have had white teachers and professors through every stage of my educational process… the truth is I wouldn’t have been on track to a PhD without becoming intimately familiar with the various ways that white people think….in contrast to me, he most likely could go through his entire life without needing to know black literature, black intellectual thought, black wisdom, black art and music, or black history.”
This clarification was important for me to hear, and I assume it will be for many others how read the books as well: “Racism isn’t first and foremost about a horizontal divide; it is a vertical and structured hierarchy. Social hierarchy and power have defined, in varying degrees, human worth, beauty, and significance in society.”
As a followers of Christ, we’re called to stand in solidarity with the marginalized, even if we can’t fully understand their experience. I want to honor and dignify the voices of those around me who experience oppression to which I have been blind to. Honestly, I’m not sure yet what exactly that is suppose to look like. I am still receiving feedback (and welcoming it from readers.) I’m continuing to read books on the subject by people of color, including The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.
I think a good place to start is with genuine humility, self-critical examination, and a willingness to learn.
We need to celebrate the voices of black artists and writers and thinkers.
We need to listen when people say they are experiencing injustice.
We have to break our silence, in our homes and from the pulpits.
We need to be unafraid to affirm the truth that Black Lives Matter in our conversations, friendships, and churches. (We need to say it without feeling the need to quality it with, “Well, ALL lives matter.” Of course they do. That’s the entire point. )
And we need to repent of the ways racism has effected us both systemically and individually.
This can be daunting for a lot of people. It’s not easy. But it’s worth it. And I have hope, because I believe in redemption and in the Resurrection and in a God who is making all things new, that there’s so much beauty and healing we’ve yet to discover here.
I want to end this post by recommending a book that I read recently by Dr Drew Hart called Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the way the Church Views Racism. It is a powerful, challenging, hope-filled read. It’s caused me to stop and reflect, to seek out further reading, and continue the process of prayerfully reconsidering what it should look like to follow Christ in a nation where racial injustice is still so prevalent. You can order it in the link provided.