This is a time in our history when many voices need to speak out and be heard. Not to point fingers or to blame. Not with demoralizing moralizations. We need to hear voices that will openly and honestly share their stories and invite us in, come what may. History shows that such endeavors come with risks. Voices who speak out with openness and frank honesty have often been misunderstood or feared and silenced, especially when it comes to injustice and inequality within our country.
How can we truly know someone until we have walked in their shoes and have seen through their eyes. How can we understand unless we have experienced life in their world? The heartbeat of racism is the assumption of “knowing the other”. It is looking at someone and assuming, based on what we see or hear, that they justify our attitudes and actions.
I am reminded of an incident that took place in high school in the early 80’s. I was in the locker room. Several boys were conversing about current events involving African-Americans. One of the boys responded with a comment about those n_ _ _ _ _s. Suddenly realizing I was in the room, he turned and said, “But you are one of the good ones.” Reflecting back now, I think sarcastically, “Oh, thanks.” But what is a teenager to do with that comment? A comment that implies if you act like me and talk like me you’re ok, but anyone else who looks like you is not ok.
I have no ill feelings towards the one who said that though I realize now just how deeply those words cut me. His words came out of an unspoken yet underlying assumption that white is good and right. Anything else is bad and wrong. That assumption holds power. Accepting it divides life from death. No one told me that, but as a black child living in a pretty much white world, I learned it before anything I can remember. To survive meant making myself as white as possible. I refused to be like the blacks of 70’s television. They were feared, hated, misunderstood and ridiculed. I did not want that for myself, so I blended in and assimilated as best I could. Even pulling in my lips became subconscious. I rejected everything that made me different, the sole pathway to gaining value in a society that judges and undervalues “the different”. Think about it for a moment, George Floyd died because in the eyes of his killer, he held no value. In the words of Amy Cooper, we hear the same assumption, “white, at least in the eyes of authority, holds more value.” That message continues to reverberate.
Only a few years ago did I begin to realize the truth of this and the incredible pain and brokenness that it had caused in my life. But, with that realization, I also embarked upon a journey into God’s healing and restoration. A significant moment came when a white classmate responded to an assignment that I posted for a seminary course. She wrote:
You speak of your journey toward forgiveness. And certainly much of that is work personal to you and the Lord. But just as there was an evil system of concentration camps in Europe, there have been systems of oppression in the United States that white people like me have benefited from even if we didn’t create or condone them. This country was built on irreconcilable differences–on freedom to worship God and ‘all’ men created equal on the one hand and on genocide and slavery and theft on the other. Do you have some insights into what needs to happen in the church that has often turned a blind eye to the latter? What can people like me do to seek peace and righteousness and truth?
In her words, I found validation of the thoughts and feelings I had never before had the courage to express. Her word’s communicated that I was seen and that I had value for who I was and what I had to say. And, her words expressed humility in a willingness to look inward and to accept complicity in a system that she did not create but from which she inadvertently derived benefit.
Several people have reached out to me in these last days to ask what they can do and how they can express support. Here are some suggestions:
- Take a long, hard look inward. Those who lead must be willing to accept responsibility for the way things are. Daniel confessed the sins of his people and included himself in the mix. (Daniel 9)
- Open your eyes and hearts to those who have been hurt and be willing to listen to their stories without judging or taking offense.
- When you speak, be open and honest about what you don’t know and don’t understand.
- As you wrestle with these issues, share your journey of struggle and growth with those around you who are like you. It won’t be easy. Some may try to silence you. But everyone needs to be invited in and challenged. Transformed individuals will pave the road to freedom from this seemingly endless cycle.
A Brief Reflection on the Riots
From a Christian perspective, we know that violence against others and the indiscriminate destruction of property is wrong. But think about the messages that have been fed to young people for the past twenty or thirty years: “There is no God.” “Life is cheap.” “It’s ok to do what you want as long as you don’t get caught.” How many times have you heard those messages through the media, in music, through the lives of public figures, even in policies our government has adopted over the years?
Now, consider the looters. Most of them, like most of the peaceful demonstrators, harbor a persistent and deep anger. The same anger that I, as a young black teen, buried inside. It had no place in the world in which I lived. To be angry and black was to be hated, feared, and devalued. But, anger with no moral guidance system erupts like a bomb in the city, killing and maiming indiscriminately. Does that make it right? No. Can we understand it? Yes.
King Solomon said, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” Brute force and violence may bring peace as it pushes anger back underground, but it will never, ever solve the problems that we face. And when this is over, we all have a moral obligation to come together and pick up the pieces. All lives, black, white, Asian, Hispanic…, must be mended, property rebuilt, and dignity restored.