The first time I noticed my own racism, I didn’t know what to call it. It was near the end of my 8th grade year, when a good friend of mine asked me to be his girlfriend. Stevie (not his real name) was funny, kind, and smart. He was a member of the student council as well as the basketball team, and did a pretty good Eddie Murphy impression. Stevie was not that tall, but he was muscular and had a great smile—was cute even—if you could get past his nerdy glasses. But Stevie was Black. And in Sherwood, Arkansas, back in 1989, White people didn’t date Black people. At least not that I knew about, and even if I did, you wouldn’t have been able to convince me that that meant I could date a Black boy.
This was three years before Kevin Costner came along to protect the famous Whitney Houston from her mad stalker, and just so happened to fall in love with her. I remember watching that movie, as well as some of the conversations my friends and I had about interracial dating after we saw it. While some of us admitted we thought Michael Jordan was cute, none of us were ready to date any of the Black guys we actually knew.
Yet more than the cultural bias I was steeped in was the fact that I came from a family who never discussed this kind of thing. We weren’t members of any white-hooded organizations mind you, but I had a grandmother who used all manner of racial slurs without hesitation, as well as a mom who thought substituting the really bad words with more genteel slights was enough of an adjustment to ensure her own children saw all people as “precious in His sight.” And even though we watched The Cosby Show together, we were still guilty of repeating jokes and stories that emphasized the lack of intelligence or hygiene of non-white people. We would never have said out loud that our White family was superior to our Black neighbors,’ but our overall attitudes definitely reflected that belief.
Please hear me that I’m not blaming my family or my culture for my own sin, but I hope that painting a picture of my own history might help others to recognize racism in their hearts as well. Because it’s not enough anymore to say that slavery is sinful and segregation is unjust. God calls Christians to share our lives and our faith with all people, even if (especially if?) we see them as a threat. But it’s also important to understand why some people are seen as more threatening than others, and how systemic racism can be so ingrained that many of us don’t even realize we’re guilty of it. When I was in junior high, I didn’t know many Black people, so I feared what I did not know. Because I hadn’t been taught to see the image of God in my Black brothers and sisters. Because my family carried on the habits of the generations before us, where we kept to ourselves and let inequity abound. Because it didn’t affect us, so it was easier to ignore, than try and change it.
When I told Stevie I didn’t want to be his girlfriend, I knew in my heart that it was simply because he was Black, but I was embarrassed by the situation, so I never talked to anyone else about it. The guilt I felt when I saw him at a public pool later that summer whispered to me that I had sinned against Stevie, but no one in my life was talking about that kind of sin so I never made an attempt to reconcile it. However I came across it again when I was in high school, when my friends talked about our Black classmates behind their backs, and I never stood up for them. I recognized it in the way I was more likely to be friends with the White girls on my basketball team than the Black ones. I sensed it in the pity I felt when I drove across the railroad tracks and saw the shanty houses of “Black Town,” but I did not fully grasp its evil roots until I was in college, when I watched a documentary about gang violence.
When I heard a young Black woman say she’d found love and protection from the men who’d raped her in order to initiate her into their gang, I knew she’d never experienced real love before, and I began to wonder why. Why would a girl my own age, from a city I knew, who spoke the very same language as me, not understand that being beaten, sexually violated, and sold for drug money was not love? Why was her life so different from mine, and why did I have so little comprehension as to how she could come to this faulty conclusion?
The answers my sociology professor provided were not sufficient. He talked about poverty, drugs, and the lack of proper education; but the wound felt deeper than that to me, so I began to search for the weapon behind it. I began reading Toni Morrison novels. I signed up for a mission trip to South Africa. I worked at an athletic camp that hosted more Black kids than White kids, and after graduation I worked for a non-profit where I served families from some of those same neighborhoods featured in that documentary.
It’s been twenty-five years since I began dismantling my own racism, but I’ve yet to cure it. I’ve read more books and watched more movies. I’ve made many Black and Brown friends and have learned about many more stories of injustice, inequality, and heartache. In fact for the last two years I’ve been part of a church plant that calls itself a ministry of reconciliation, where my husband is the co-pastor. But I still have moments where I’m tempted to define an entire people group one the basis of one person. I still tend to worry about the social standing of my own family more than the welfare of others, and I’m still tempted to view myself as superior to someone else, based solely on physical characteristics. Why? Because I’m still a sinner, which means the weapon of racism is still in my hands.
As are the weapons of sexism, ageism, classism, and any other ism you can think of. Because -isms are the secular world’s reticent vocabulary for the unrelenting existence of evil in the hearts and minds of the human race, of which I am a too-proud member. And when I live from that prideful state, I hurt others. Even as I write about my experience here, I’m tempted to do so in a way that makes me look like I’ve got it all figured out, that it’s just the rest of those white people who need to listen up, and stop being so closed-minded and ignorant.
But thanks be to God, I am not only a product of my past. I am so much more than just a broken person ruled by fear and self-protection. Because I’ve experienced Christ’s unconditional love, I can live from a place of humility rather than pride. Because I’m forgiven by Jesus, I can confess the sin in my heart that stems from long held support of white supremacy, without fear of condemnation. And because the Holy Spirit lives inside me, I can learn how to put all those degrading weapons down.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come!” -- 2 Corinthians 5:17
So whether I’m interacting with people at church, from my neighborhood, or on social media, I can choose to treat them with love instead of fear.
“So from now on we regard no one according to the flesh.” -- 2 Corinthians 5:16
I’m not saying this way of living is easy. It took awhile for me to go from being a person who recognized her hurtful actions to being someone who sought to feel the weight of those transgressions and began to make them right. I’m also not saying that because I'm a sinner I get to throw my hands up and say there's no hope that things will ever get better. The body of Christ is one that’s marked by forgiveness and mercy; and we are to be known by our love for one another. Love that seeks to understand the hurt we cause, and longs to make it right.
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
-- 1 Peter 2:9
Last week I went to a Juneteenth party at our pastor’s house and it was the first time I’d ever celebrated that holiday. My husband, son, and I were the only white people there, and it was one of only a handful of times I’ve experienced being a minority. Not that anyone there was unkind, in fact, everyone was friendly and welcoming. My point is that even under the best circumstances, it can feel a little weird to not be like everyone else, and when I stop to amplify that one little experience by hundreds of years of cruelty and injustice, it takes my breath away. I can’t comprehend the resilience and vulnerability it must take for Black Americans to extend a hand of reconciliation to White America, after centuries of abuse. But that is the moment we find ourselves in today, and I can’t look away any longer. It’s time for me to respond by extending my own hands, in confession and lament, for the part I’ve played in our collective history.
So today I share my story, with sorrow and humility, asking forgiveness for my own racist tendencies. Too many times, I’ve been fearful instead of loving. I’ve been selfish and self-centered, when I should have been gracious and giving. And I’ve been apathetic when I should have cared. May today be a day when Christ moves in my heart to make me more like him. May he root out any thoughts or attitudes that seek to separate me from my non-white Brothers and Sisters. May he use these words to reconcile more people to himself and to each other. And may he use my life to bring about his kingdom here on earth. Because of his grace, and for his glory, forever and ever. Amen.