There are approximately 1,650 words beyond this point. This blog will take the average adult reader approximately six minutes to read.
I grew up in a small town in northwest Washington State.
I thought racism was dead, like the history books said. Like my white teachers taught. And as far as I could tell, in my white community—there weren’t any racial issues. In the 2010 census, my town was 91% white, and 0.4% African American—and that was six years after I left the town, and they’ve been (tongue-in-cheek) trending toward a more diverse population for decades.
When I was eighteen, I graduated from high school and moved to Port-au-Prince, Haiti—where I became the minority—but not in the same way brown people are minorities in the United States. Despite being the minority, being white still often got me respect and special treatment—and a plethora of green card marriage proposals.
After spending a year growing accustomed to living with people who looked different than me—with different language, different cultural customs, different body language—I moved to the Bible-belt-south to attend university. I was nineteen at the time, and still fairly convinced racism wasn’t an issue anymore. I mean… I had never witnessed it, so it must not exist, right?
Then I moved to Savannah, GA for the summer of 2006. I was walking down River Street at night with a good friend of mine—who is a black man—and a group of white men began to shout racial slurs at him, and called me a “n***er lover”. Until that moment, I had only seen this happen in movies. I turned to respond (I don’t know that I had a planned response, but knowing me, it was probably my middle finger.), and my friend grabbed my arm and pulled me away and muttered to me, “Just ignore it.” He knew that it was wiser, and likely safer, to walk away. I was enraged that a stranger would treat my friend like that—but his reaction indicated to me that it was commonplace—he knew exactly how to respond.
I had never encountered that kind of racism before. I didn’t know it even still existed.
On November 4, 2008, Barak Obama was elected to the office of President of the United States of America. My conservative Christian university in central Virginia held an “election party” where thousands of young people gathered in the campus arena to watch the results come in. Once the election was called, and the USA had her first black president, the crowd quickly dispersed. My friend, a black man, walked me back to my dorm. On that walk, three white male students—from about ten feet behind us—yelled, “Y’all are still just n***ers.” Again, I was livid—but my friend just kept walking—he never even turned around.
Neither of the men in those stories remember those occasions. And granted, I have an extraordinary experiential memory—but it seems, through the conversations that I’ve had, that I remember these things because they were shocking and out of the ordinary. The recipients of this abuse do not—because it is just part of their lives. This is heartbreaking to me.
After the first moment, I knew racism still existed. After the second—with a few instances of hurled racial epithets in between—I was suddenly acutely aware that it was alive and well and active sitting just beneath the surface, waiting to spring forth at the presence of a brown person—a brown bearer of Imago Dei. Since then, I’ve been actively observing.
But of course, in all of this, I never considered the ways I am privileged by the color of my skin—nor have I considered myself racist at all. I mean—I’ve got black friends! I’m not afraid of strange black men—in fact, I’ve been attracted to specific ones! I love rap and hip hop!
Over the two years or so, I’ve been very intentional about seeking out and finding voices from outside of my experiences and culture to help me understand and fill in my own intellectual and experiential gaps. It has been eye-opening, heartbreaking, enlightening, thought-provoking, and life-giving, and has brought me to tears many times. It started with listening to the people of color that I know—what were they talking about? What content are they sharing? What matters to them? Many of them invited white people to shut up and listen—so I did. It grew from there into actively seeking out people of color, primarily Christians (with diverse theological backgrounds) on Twitter, and tuning in to those conversations—just listening.
In the last two weeks, my heart has been very, very heavy for my brothers and sisters with brown skin—and I have been convicted of my own sin toward my brothers and sisters with brown skin. I watched POC seethe pain and grief, and I grieved with them—but cannot imagine their pain—as Jordan Edwards was murdered—another unarmed young black man killed by the very people who are supposed to protect us—all of us. I listened to #ThingsBlackChristianWomenHear on Twitter—identifying with some of the misogynistic things my sisters have been told—and seeing how their challenges in the church are different (often greater) than mine.
The deep-seated conviction began when I saw the story of the white seminary professors who took a photo of themselves, dressed as gangsters, one of them holding a real gun. I have done the same exact thing, save the gun. I started thinking about all the times I’ve heard white people mention how black people shouldn’t dress like “thugs” if they want to be respected. Meanwhile, some of the (formerly) most respected men at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary are somehow thought humorous when they do it.
So what is a Christian to do when we know we’ve been complicit in sin? When we know we’ve been active in sin? We confess. We repent. We, by the power of the Holy Spirit, change.
This week, I’ve been praying, asking Jesus to bring to mind specific sins that I’ve committed against my brothers and sisters of color—both in the past, and right now—so I can confess and repent. And he has been faithful.
To my brothers and sisters of color:
I confess that I have silenced and discounted your voice when you’ve spoken to me of your pain and trials because I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes, or experienced them in my own life. I am sorry. I am actively listening, and looking for ways to amplify your voices.
I confess that I have mocked you through cultural appropriation. I have acted as though your culture is a joke. I acknowledge that the way the culture that I grew up is considered normative is a position of privilege. I am sorry. I will do so no longer, and I will call others out, and invite them to confession and repentance, when I see others doing the same.
With that, I confess that I have turned the pain and grief and sorrow that your communities have endured because of gang violence into a joke. I have ignored the decades—centuries—of cyclical poverty, imprisonment, and lack of equal education in your communities. I am sorry. I will no longer make the issues that bring pain to your communities—that I have never experienced—into jokes. I will question others when they make these jokes—and invite them to confess and repent. Your pain is not a joke.
I confess that I have thought less of your intelligence, and more of mine, because of your English dialect. I have not considered that it is part of your culture, borne from centuries of denial of literacy at the hands of my ancestors. I am sorry. I acknowledge my heritage of educational privilege. I will work to understand your dialect better, so I can listen to you better—I will not look down on your English because it is not the same as mine. I will not use it as the butt of jokes.
I confess that I have viewed your culture as problematic, rather than community to be cherished and celebrated—community that reflects the triune nature of God. I am sorry. I will seek to learn how to celebrate your culture with you.
I confess that I have observed, and then ignored, you being disrespected and hated because of the color of your skin. I am sorry. I will look for ways to use my privilege to point to your divinely-given honor in these situations—I will look to reiterate that you, too, are made in the image of the same God I am.
I confess that I have not wept when you wept, despite the Scriptural call to do this. I have ignored your pain. I am sorry. I am grieving with you now.
This is what the Holy Spirit has brought to my heart this week. I’m sure there’s more, but this is where I begin confession and repentance of my own sin that attempts to strip people of color of their divine worth.
To my white friends who have taken the time to read this, I encourage you to make effort and take the time to listen to people of color—just listen.
If you need a place to start, here are some people who I’ve been listening to for a while now, and have found their voices helpful and convicting:
Propaganda (Twitter | Music)
Sho Baraka (Twitter | Music)
Jackie Hill Perry (Twitter | Music)
Nicola Menzie (founder and editor at Faithfully Magazine)
Jemar Tisby (President at Reformed African American Network)
BJ Thompson (Director at Build a Better Us)
(As I mentioned, I love rap—and the artists on Humble Beast have been a huge influence in reshaping my thoughts around black culture.)
This list is only the people who I’ve been listening to for more than a few months—through them, I’ve been introduced to many other important voices to listen to.
Confess. Repent. Change. The Holy Spirit in you enables and empowers this.