I Thought I Was Opposing Racism–It Turns Out I Was Part Of The Problem
In the sad, painful wake of more deaths of unarmed black people, I feel compelled to share about some of my own blind spots about, as well as my own unwitting contribution to, certain forms of racial injustice, inequality, ignorance, and callousness. The following words represent my own sometimes humbling, yet also continually sanctifying, journey with race.
If you are a man or woman of color, I thank you for your patience with me and others like me. We have made our share of mistakes, sometimes knowingly and other times in ignorance, that have caused you pain. We want to do and be better. We want to do right by all our friends and neighbors of color.
If you are part of the white majority like me, please consider joining me to listen carefully and empathetically to our black brothers and sisters. May we all continue learning and growing as we limp along, that we may love better. As one Nashville musician has sung, “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, and I still am.”
The humble recognition of our own blind spots is a good first step toward neighbor-love. Listening carefully to the pain of our neighbors of color, whom Jesus invites us to love as we love our own selves, is the next step after that. The final and ongoing step is to actually do the loving.
Several years ago when I was a preaching pastor at NYC’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I gave a sermon about racial diversity. At the time, Redeemer was equally Caucasian and Asian…plus a smaller percentage of other races. In my sermon, I said something that I thought would connect with my non-white brothers and sisters and maybe even cause them to stand up and cheer. I said:
“The kingdom of God is as diverse as humanity is diverse. God has called people to himself, and into his Church, from every nation, tribe and tongue. He has called us to be one body, with one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Therefore, there should be no white church and no black church and no Asian church and no Latino church…because there is only one Church.”
As I spoke these words, I had no idea how much hurt they would cause.
Afterwards, a black colleague approached me to give feedback. Looking at me with sorrow in his eyes, he said, “Brother, you don’t get it.” This felt jarring and left me wondering what I had done wrong. But sometimes, a simple and very direct statement of fact is what’s needed to get us listening.
Soon after this, an Asian colleague approached me, also with an urgency to provide me with feedback. He humbly offered the following (this is a paraphrase):
“Scott, since your sermon yesterday, I have heard from several friends who, like me, are ethnic minorities. All of them, to one degree or another, felt hurt by your words. Many of them grew up in minority-specific churches and felt that you de-legitimized those churches in your sermon. It felt like you were saying that those churches shouldn’t even exist. Scott, I really believe that you meant well, and that you sincerely value the diversity God desires for his Church. But I’m afraid your sermon moved us backward instead of forward. In a mostly white-led society, sometimes the only place that minorities can freely celebrate the beauty and uniqueness of their cultures, the only place that people of color are free to fully be themselves, is in churches where their culture is the majority. Your words about blended churches may be helpful for a white audience. But for minorities, your words reinforced the alienation that many of us feel in a white-led world and also in white-led churches. I’m afraid that your sermon added to, rather than taking away from, that feeling of alienation.”
As this colleague spoke these things, I felt thankful and sorrowful. I felt thankful because he had exposed a blind spot in me. He gave me a glimpse of my inability to understand the minority experience, and of how much growing I have to do in the area of race.
I felt sorrowful because, in an attempt to build some bridges, I had burned bridges instead.
Not long ago, I was naïve enough to believe that electing a black president would be the tipping point that solved our society’s problem with race. And yet, fifty years post-civil rights era, it is quite clear that we are not ready to call ourselves a post-racial people. I was painfully reminded of this when I came across a New York Times essay over Christmas written by George Yancy, a black philosophy professor at Emory, called “Dear White America.”
In his essay, Dr. Yancy laments the state of things for people of color in Western society. As he sees it, because the history books, the evening news, entertainment, business, education, politics, theology and church cultures are shaped predominantly by the white perspective, people of color have little choice but to live under what he calls “the yoke of whiteness.”
To white Americans, Dr. Yancey’s phrase, “the yoke of whiteness,” may seem unfair. The word “yoke” feels inflammatory, because it hearkens back to the days of slavery. And we in the modern West are against slavery and the racism that supported it, right? The public schools are racially integrated now. Lynching and mobs and deadly violence, these are all now punishable by law (most of the time). White pastors like me quote black thinkers such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bryan Stevenson, and Michelle Higgins in our sermons.
We read books and essays by John Perkins and Jemar Tisby and Soong-Chan Rah, and we speak out and tweet for racial equality. It is not uncommon for a white person to marry a person of color these days, or to adopt a child of another race. Most white people would say that they deplore racism and are sickened by the shedding of black blood by racists. Our hearts hurt over black casualties in Selma, Ferguson, Charleston, New York City, Tulsa, Charlotte, Minneapolis, and all other places where black casualties have occurred. Where there is injustice, most white Americans would say that they stand with the victims and against the perpetrators. But do people of color feel that these things are all true?
Though many of these things are true, we still have a race problem. How do we know this? We know this because the subject of race still hurts for many people of color. Dr. Yancey writes:
“Don’t tell me about how many black friends you have. Don’t tell me that you are married to someone of color. Don’t tell me that you voted for Obama. Don’t tell me that I’m the racist. Don’t tell me that you don’t see color. Don’t tell me that I’m blaming whites for everything. To do so is to hide yet again. You may have never used the N-word in your life, you may hate the KKK, but that does not mean that you don’t harbor racism and benefit from racism. After all, you are part of a system that allows you to walk into stores where you are not followed, where you get to go for a bank loan and your skin does not count against you, where you don’t need to engage in “the talk” that black people and people of color must tell their children when they are confronted by white police officers…As you reap comfort from being white, we suffer for being black and people of color.”
That’s what he said. …we suffer… Whenever these two words are uttered, the gospel demands open ears and open hearts. The gospel demands careful, humble, non-defensive listening to the history and wounds beneath the words. If we refuse to listen, then we become culpable of not loving our neighbors as we love ourselves…because we want to be heard and understood. We also become culpable of not doing unto others as we would have done unto us…because we refuse to allow our own cries to go ignored. When we are hurting, we will fight to be heard in our pain. Neighbor-love demands that we fight also for others to be heard in theirs.
Can I make a confession to you? Ten years ago, Dr. Yancy’s words would have bothered me. I might have even dismissed them as unfair and unreasonable. I would have assumed, wrongly, that his chief goal was to make white people feel guilty for being white.
But over time, and because of the courage and truthfulness of friends whose skin hue is different than mine, my perspective has changed. These days, I find myself more sympathetic toward, and not at all provoked by, words like the ones written by Dr. Yancy. Largely through friendship and a lot of personal mistakes along the way, I hope that I am growing in my understanding of the black experience in the modern West.
The love, patience, and candor offered by people of color in my life has given me a new set of ears for Dr. Yancy’s outcry. When I listen to him, I do not see a chip on the shoulder, unfounded anger, guilt mongering or some sort of “reverse racism” happening. Rather, I see a man representing the minority voice, appropriately fatigued from feeling unseen, unheard, misunderstood, misjudged, and injured by a world that is set up for some races to thrive and lead, and other races to languish and submit.
Recently, a friend who is black shared an insight with me about people who riot (which, by the way, is not something unique to people of color). He said that oftentimes, rioting comes from a place of feeling helpless in a system that dooms you, by virtue of your situation and the color of your skin, to be disadvantaged and overlooked.
“Rioting,” my friend said from a place of tenderness and concern, “is a terrible and destructive and hurtful thing. And? It is also a desperate cry. Rioting, as awful as it is, is helplessness acted out. It is trying to give a voice to wounds that have no voice.”
In describing rioting this way, my friend put his finger on a widely known truth: Hurting people hurt people. Ugly behavior can stem from a place of feeling treated as ugly. Destructive behavior can stem from a place of feeling destroyed. Dismissive behavior can stem from a place of feeling dismissed.
Pause here. Go back and re-read the statement from Dr. Yancy. Whether his words make you say “Yes!” or make you feel upset, can you hear the pain in them? Are you listening carefully to the alienation and “otherness” that he feels?
This essay is a modified excerpt from the second edition of Scott’s book, Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides. Used by permission from Tyndale House.
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