I grew up in a home where my older, white brother called me a "stupid little nigger" more times than I can count, and where I countered with "ignorant, loser honky!" more times than I care to admit.
My brother had grown up in an all white neighborhood until White Flight swept through in a little under two years. He was thrust into being the only white kid among black kids who stole his bike and beat him up.
Outnumbered on the streets, he took it out on me at home.
I learned from blacks, at a very early age, that whites were manipulative, selfish, always out for "their damn selves" and NOT to be trusted. I learned from whites, at a very early age, that blacks were violent, stupid, unacceptable human beings who were less important than themselves and most of all, "not safe." I learned these things from my family, my church, my friends’ parents, and my private, Christian school. The racism was across the board. It came not only from the "poor folks of Detroit,” but from the Christians, the Muslims, the poor, the rich, the educated, even the homeless. It seemed like everyone had a bad opinion about white, blacks, or Arabs.
Branded with Racism
Eventually, the racism swirling around me became a part of what I believed to be true about the world: a few whites were great, most were tolerable, and the rest deplorable. These “truths” were seared into my brain like a brand on a baby cow. I'd been branded with racism.
Things came to a head for me on September 11, when I blamed the events of the day entirely on whites. The more whites talked, cried, formed prayer circles and sang Kumbaya, the more a war raged in my heart against them. It doesn't matter who flew the planes, they were provoked! By white people!
Then God began a slow and gentle process of healing that started with acknowledging the pain and devastation whites had caused in my life growing up. After many years of prayer, journaling, therapy and relationships, I was delivered from years of racism—my own and the racism of others against me. And yes, I came to see the events of 9-11 much differently.
But this is who I am: I am racially, culturally, spiritually, physically, ethnically black AND white. As an American Christian trying to live in the tension, I am as screwed as it gets. If there was a club for confused mixed kids, I’d be captain, head of the Department for the Racially Insane. God brought me a white husband. I'm a biracial woman who identifies as African-American. I grew up in Detroit, among urban, working-class blacks while my white mother sent me to a suburban, lily white, private Christian school and a large, white Baptist Church who denied me baptism in 1987 for being "half-black." Later that year, they passed a vote in which blacks were allowed baptism and therefore membership. The pastor who vehemently fought for me and other blacks to become members was maligned by his elder board and fired. Later, he committed suicide.
For all these reasons and more, I have been unable to disengage with the issues that plague black and white Christians in our country.* I've tried to disengage. Lord knows I've wanted to disengage. But I simply can't untangle myself from the racist web into which I was spun.. And it's for these same reasons I feel terribly sad when I watch whites disengage.
Signs of Disengaging
- To not know African-American history is to disengage.
- To attend a large white church and never ask how the church got there or why it's staying that way is to disengage.
- To never admit, let alone assess, your power and privilege as a white American is to disengage.
- To not seek to understand why blacks were (and are) so angry about cases like Trayvon Martin's is disengage.
- To decide to live in a mostly white community with no thought as to why it feels safer or mandatory for your family is to disengage.
- To not read widely about racial and ethnic issues in our country is to disengage.
- To allow yourself to be in places where everyone looks like you 90% of the time is to disengage.
- To raise your kids to be color blind is to disengage.
I don't toss that list out lightly. Nor do I present it with judgment or condemnation. I am not looking to set you on a point-of-no-return guilt trip. None of that from me. Please consider this an invitation for you to love me, your neighbor. To disengage is to fail to love.
I have been truly loved by many white people, most of whom I work with while serving in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. When I feel loved and cared for by a white person it's because they've done their homework and tried to understand my perspective. They know that they can read twenty books a day, but until they actually build a real relationship with someone who sees life differently, they are never going to get it right.
The hard days are the ones when I interact with whites that think they have the whole issue all figured out. They are quick to defend their white privileges and quick to point out their black friends. They make assumptions, and ask me to represent all blacks by answering that age old question, "what are black people so mad about?" That's not what engaging looks like. That’s what verbal self defense looks like.
Building God's Kingdom On Earth
The problem with disengaging is that it's not what God intended for us. I believe God expressly asks us to love people who are different than us. He especially desires for us to love those who would be considered our enemies. Take a look at Revelation 21; we know how this ends: We live in that not-yet-but-all-ready-here Kingdom, where God will bring together every tribe, every tongue and every nation, all of us speaking our own language, wearing our own cultural garb, eating our good cultural food. I'm talking about the day when Jesus' redemption brings total shalom to all peoples, complete peace between all people and God, all people to all people. In this partay of ALL partay's, the Hutus and Tutsis will have a glorious celebration together. That final picture includes African-Americans and white Americans together…with no funky attitude problems.
- No under-the-breath judgments.
- No wealth gap.
- No opportunities stolen.
- No lynchings.
- No death.
- No gang wars.
- No tears.
- No blame game.
- No race cards to be pulled.
- No "shit black people think(white people think) about black people" YouTube memes.
If this vision excites you, know that your engagement in pursuing peace and health between African-American and white Americans is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he told us to pray like him: Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
If this vision doesn't excite you, I might ask if you’re working toward building God's Kingdom at all.
I don't feel badly asking whites to engage on issues of racial reconciliation, because I'm asking you to be obedient. I'm asking you to play a deeper, fuller role in bringing about God's Kingdom. I'm asking you to follow me as I follow Jesus…right up to that cross. You don't need a Masters in urban planning or relocation into the heart of Detroit to have a shot at being a life-changing, Kingdom-building reconciler. Yes, those who have the power to change things systemically should. But the rest of us are regular Joes. If you find yourself paralyzed by lack of cataclysmic, life-altering options, take a deep breath. There are lots of ways
Displace Yourself and Learn
How about starting by displacing yourself? Go somewhere where you are the only white person for miles. Attend a black church or go grocery shopping in an all black neighborhood. This one small step can work wonders. Displacement allows us to identify, understand, and walk in the shoes of something African-Americans face nearly everyday in America. Facing a little fear under the tush never killed anybody.
My relationships with whites have been beautiful and ugly and everything in between. The man who caused me the most pain, my white brother, was redeemed by my husband, a white man who has become my knight in shining armor in all things racially related. I have watched him read widely and displace time and time again in order for the gospel to move forward among black college students when no one else is willing to "go there." I’ve seen this journey cause him tremendous pain, but I’ve also seen it lead him to the greatest blessings of his life. It's not just him, though. I’ve witnessed many other whites seek to understand and engage, when I know they could walk away. I have been flabbergasted by white colleagues within InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who have time and again sacrificed in little and gigantic ways to bring others to the table. I came to the Lord through InterVarsity as a college student; being a part of reconciling whites to blacks and blacks to whites is my heritage, my honor and my hope.
Trust me, I understand your desire to disengage, to worry about many other things in life. But I need you. The world needs you. African-Americans need you. And whether you like it, know it, accept it, or have yet to fully live it, you need African-Americans.
Tell me, have you ever been invited by an African-American Christian to think more deeply about these issues? What do you see as the major problems the Church needs to address regarding the division between African-American and white Christians? What are your joys and triumphs in pursuing racial reconciliation between white Americans and African-Americans?
**Note: I acknowledge there are many other racial and ethnic issues to be addressed by the Church regarding ethnic groups living in the U.S. However, I am primarily speaking to the issue I know and live while trying to respect the fact that only so many things can be discussed in one blog post. Please know I am not trying to ignore the issues that exist for our Asian-American, Latino-American, Native American, etc. brothers and sisters in Christ. I acknowledge that much more could be said on any number of issues.