I was seventeen years old when I came face to face with my own racist tendencies. As a new college freshman and an eager overachiever, I marched into my first classes with an enthusiastic fervor. Even core classes warranted my devoted attention, and I entered each classroom with my pen and pencil at the ready and my spirit intent on academic success. Which is why I found myself with my hand in the air one early fall morning, ready and willing to answer the question posed by our professor: “Do you think people of different races should marry each other?”
I wish I remembered the context of this question. Whether it was a book or a movie or an article that prompted the discussion that ensued. But I don’t. In fact, the entire memory is relegated to a thirty-second snippet during which I was called on and pridefully answered that no, I did not believe that biracial marriage was a good idea. My argumentation was based on the theory that life would be hard for people in mixed families. (As if the greatest indicator of a good life is ease.)
With my hand once again poised above my notebook and the calm self-assurance that I had just answered thoughtfully and well, I watched as a girl, a few rows ahead of me, raised her hand. “My mom is white and my dad is black,” she said without an ounce of malice. “And I couldn’t disagree more.” She turned and gave me a smile, one that I didn’t deserve and that contained the sort of grace that instantly leveled me. The professor enthusiastically encouraged her to share more, and I listened with a growing sense of my own foolishness.
It may sound melodramatic, but that one small exchange hit my soul with the magnitude of an earthquake. This girl was no stranger to me. She was a beautiful young woman who lived in my dorm; we had shared a table in the cafeteria and enjoyed a few conversations. In my heart and mind, we were “could be” friends, and I was instantly, profoundly ashamed that I had insulted her family, her very existence, with my smug, half-baked, and completely ignorant theory.
The fissures that extended from this one experience carved deep into my family history, my personal beliefs, and even my sense of identity. Over the course of the next several years and to this very day, I continue to excavate moments like artifacts, poring over their significance and their influence, the way that they shaped me into the person that I was at seventeen and the woman I am (over twenty years later) today. Nothing is discarded. Everything has meaning. And it grieves me to my bones that I am the lily-white face of privilege.
Ideas like the one that I espoused in my general education course are the direct result of growing up in a slowly simmering pot of what I sometimes call “subtle racism.” Sure, there are overt racists, the ones who carry torches and shout ugly slurs and tattoo swastikas on their necks. But it is this overtness that makes their voices conveniently easy to dismiss. We feel dangerously free to give ourselves a pass from believing we could be like that. Our brand of softer, more subtle racism is not just more palatable, it’s considered normal. Just a part of who we are. This sort of racism is comprised of the jokes that my uncles told, the kind of jokes that leaned heavily on racial or ethnic stereotypes and that elicited sudden bursts of “oh, that’s terrible” giggles. It’s made up of ethnic pride that borders on hegemony (“if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much”), paternalistic overtones in missions and outreach, and also the tacit understanding that if I brought home a boyfriend of a different ethnicity many eyebrows would have been raised. But let’s get something clear right now: there is no such thing as “subtle racism.”
Even seemingly insignificant attitudes and beliefs slowly erode our capacity to understand and respect one another, and destroy our ability to say with integrity that we believe all are created equal. This is especially true in Christian circles where we give lip service to passages like Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”) and Revelation 7:9 (“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”). Either we believe what we say we believe—that we are better together, that we are one body, that we are all a part of the Body of Christ—or we don’t. And when it comes to the white, evangelical church in America, I fear that we are making it increasingly obvious that we don’t.
By way of explanation, not excuse, I think white Christians are blind to their own ignorance. We don’t know what other races experience, we can’t begin to put ourselves in the shoes of the marginalized, and frankly, sadly, we’d rather not try. We shy away from hard things, far preferring an easy existence that ignores the fact that Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) We often believe our “crosses” are minor inconveniences and we don’t much want to hear about issues that require us to wrestle and possibly even feel shame. To face our own shortcomings and failures and repent. This is exactly what hurts so much right now, the willful ignorance of everything that is happening around us. The quiet, arrogant assurance that racism doesn’t really exist anymore and that none of this would be happening if “they” could just “get over it.”
Like so many others, my husband and I spent our weekend glued to the news as events unfolded in Charlottesville. We wept over the images and feared once again for our multiracial family. Yes, in a gorgeous twist of God’s perfect plan for our lives, I haven’t just learned to accept the mixing of different races and ethnicities, I have repented of my sinful thinking and live and love diversity every single day. My babies—black and white, from four different countries—are the light of my life and the reason the racial tension in our country is a source of deep, abiding heartache and anxiety for me. I readily and humbly admit that I don’t have it figured out. I don’t know how to fix what is broken. I defer to our African-American, Latino, and other brothers and sisters in Christ for more wisdom, patience, and grace than I have. They know. And what keeps me up late at night is the understanding that many of us are refusing to listen.
We went to church on Sunday and sat in the pew as the pastor preached from I Corinthians 12 & 13 on unity and diversity in the body and how love is indispensable. And in a service that stretched on for longer than an hour, not a single word was breathed of the conflict that is tearing apart Christians in America. We spoke of the Body of Christ but never once mentioned the part of the American Christian body that is deeply wounded and bleeding profusely, even though the scripture we read (arguably the most classical Biblical text used to encourage and even compel/validate diversity and interdependence) began with the line: “I don’t want you to be ignorant.” It is easier for us to simply ignore the trauma because we would like to believe it’s not our problem.
But it is our problem. It has always been our problem because silence in the face of evil is cowardice at best, complicity at worst. And so, whether we have participated in the division of the Body of Christ by sins of commission or omission, we need to accept that we have been woefully inadequate at suffering with those who suffer. For “God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (I Corinthians 12:24b-26)
Some friends and acquaintances don’t understand why it matters so much to me that they denounce racism in all its forms. Why I long for them to speak up and say something, to let everyone know where they stand. But it does matter to me. A lot. Why? Because words matter. They create worlds and start wars and tear people apart. Our words matter. Our lives matter and our stories matter and until we take the time to listen to one another, to look each other in the eye and say “I see you,” our so-called love is a resounding gong and a clanging cymbal. More so, the words that we do say, the ones that quietly denounce those who mourn, that strip their grief of legitimacy and meaning by pretending that there is nothing to be upset about (or worse, words that victim-shame, that flip the blame), are intensely powerful. They are shaping a new generation of people who will grow up to believe that maybe it is better (or at least, easier) if we don’t have to actually love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. If the races don’t mix. If refugees are left to their own devices and those who cry out for mercy are silenced or ignored. That the Body of Christ is limited to those who look like us and live like us and act like us. I worry that we’re only fostering a greater degree of selfishness, an inability to fulfill the greatest commandment as we learn to fall in line with the mantra: “me first.” And the philosophy of me and mine first—and even America first—is nothing less than idolatry.
I am ashamed of the girl that I was and know that the woman I am has far to go. But I pray that I can humble myself enough to be soft and teachable. To seek peace even if—especially if—it requires my repentance. To say words that are true, even if they alienate people I love or make me lose the respect of my peers. And saying those words is just the first step. From word to action to cultural transformation, may we be the incarnation of the incarnation, the universal Body of Christ in each and every corner of the world.
Maybe the in-breaking of the kingdom of God begins with a simple, heartfelt “I’m sorry.”
Oh, friends. I am so, so sorry.