A White Christian Wrestles With Race

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In my Catholic elementary school, there were three minorities, all Hispanic.

I lived in the country, and my neighbors were white. All of them.

My teachers emphasized repeatedly and strongly that skin color was irrelevant in the eyes of God. I remember singing “What Color is God’s Skin?” (this version) in music class. But as I’ve said before, it’s a different thing to believe something in the abstract than it is to put it into practice. I always believed in equality. But for a long time, I failed to admit that inequality is still a real thing.

This summer while I was in Cincinnati for the pastoral music convention, my roommate and I took a couple hours off to walk down to the riverfront and visit the National Underground Railroad museum. What I hadn’t realized before that trip was that when you’re on the riverbank in Cincinnati, you are standing in free country looking at slave country. It gave an entirely new significance to those beautiful old homes across the river.

I said in that last post that I have been wrestling with race my entire adolescence and especially in adulthood. What does that mean, exactly? It means wrestling with unacknowledged attitudes, the essential segregation of my life, the knowledge that I should be trying to bridge those barriers, the introvert’s dread of doing so, the assumptions I don’t even know I’ve made, the “here’s how the world works” factors I take for granted that I assume must be the same for everyone, and especially, the slowly-dawning, horrifying realization that that last is not true at all.

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This structure is the center of the museum. It’s a building where slaves were held between legs of their journey or before sale. We were watching videos and reading signs alongside an African American family, and both my friend and I felt the same need to apologize. We didn’t do it. But we felt the compulsion. I know many people don’t buy into the “reparations” idea, but it’s hard not to feel the weight of your own privileged skin color, hard not to wonder if you would have had the courage to stand up for justice, when you’re face to face with this building.

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In the past few years I have had the incredible privilege of getting to know a handful of families who immigrated from Africa. I love these people. They constantly amaze me with the strength of their faith and their community, their generosity and openness. They have enriched my life and opened my heart in so many ways.

And all the questions of race, profiling, neo-Nazis, violence, police brutality–everything in the news seems so much more frightening to me now that I have entered into relationship with people who are really impacted by these issues.

Because let’s face it: it’s not going to impact me or my kids. Not directly, anyway. And it would be all too easy to sit back and say, “It’s sad, but what am I supposed to do about it? I don’t support neo-Nazis, so none of this is really my problem.”

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This painting, representing lives lost on the crossing from Africa to America, still brings tears to my eyes.

But it is our problem. Because even those of us who don’t want to believe or admit it have spent our entire lives benefiting from being white in a white-controlled world. None of us like to be challenged to examine our assumptions and the biases we don’t even recognize in our attitudes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

And if there are still enough white supremacists in our midst to populate a rally that can turn violent, then we as whites have failed in our responsibility as Christian parents to form our children. We have settled into our mostly-segregated, comfortable worlds and not forged relationships across racial lines for ourselves and our children. We have turned a blind eye to Christ in the face of people whose skin color is different than our own—not for any malicious reason, but because it’s awkward and hard.

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Smart phone camera. What can I say? But I didn’t delete the photo, and I include it here because even for me, a white woman, walking into the room and facing this costume felt like a sucker punch. It’s not okay for us to pretend we have no role and no responsibility in improving the world. Too much evil has been done in the name of preserving “white supremacy.” If we don’t stand up against what is being done in our name, we’re enabling the problem.

But wrestling with things that are awkward and hard is the way of the Cross. It’s the only way we become better—as individuals, as a Church, as a world. Pretending racism doesn’t exist—in the world, yes, but even in ourselves—is simply unacceptable. This is part of our duty as Christian disciples. And frankly, given the state of our country, I think it ought to be considered among the most important duties we have right now.

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