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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When My Life Is Good, But So Many Others’ Lives…Aren’t.

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Photo by KOREA.NET, via Flickr

Photo by KOREA.NET, via Flickr

I dreamed last night that I met Pope Francis. Well, not so much met as happened to be standing right there when he blew by, laughing and carrying, of all things, a part of a broken toilet that needed to be thrown away. I was supposed to be meeting up with a friend from grad school to attend a concert. And I was supposed to be meeting up with my family, too. But I couldn’t find either one, so I was standing at the back of a long, grand church and clerics were processing out, and suddenly there he was: the pope, wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt, covered with a black plastic hair cutting wrap and hurrying by with a big smile and a carefree laugh and an utter lack of concern about dignity.

And I woke up so happy.

Lately I haven’t felt like I could deal with the news, so I’ve been ignoring it. But I knew I couldn’t go on like that forever. All of us who thought, “At least it’ll be over after the election” were totally wrong. I’m beginning to realize we’re entering a time of ongoing struggle for identity in our country. Me and conflict don’t get on well. (Is that grammatically correct? Whatever. I’m supposed to be writing off the cuff this year.) Interpersonal conflict, internal conflict, philosophical and moral conflict—the situation in our country now involves every blessed one.

It’s hard to recognize how good my life is—despite my propensity for complaining—and how, in contrast, many people are suddenly facing situations I can’t even imagine. People who did everything right and are still being penalized for their ethnicity.

I’ve been growing more conscious in recent months of race and wrestling with how to get past the hurdles that separate us. I made a new friend last week who spent a long time talking with me about it, and who affirmed my ability to bridge those gaps, at least on a person to person level.

But since I came home from the composers’ forum last week, I have re-entered the news cycle and found my joy in the immense blessings of my life taking a beating. It feels insensitive to share my joy with my friends when so many people are suffering from upheaval and a fear I can’t begin to comprehend, because my life is so far removed from it.

How can I focus on how great my life is when Jewish community centers are getting systematic bomb threats? When so many people have to tiptoe through their days, knowing people are going to put the worst spin on everything they say or do because their skin is brown instead of white? (This is not made up, by the way, as much as the white community would like to brush it off. People I know and care about have told me about it personally. Just because we don’t have a common frame of reference to comprehend it doesn’t mean it’s not real.)

And then there’s this: at a basketball game on Saturday night, my five-year-old saw two men in uniforms and said, “Mommy, there are police officers.” “Would you like to go meet them?” I asked, and he said, “No. I’m afraid they’ll shoot me.” Of course, he’s also afraid of Truman the Tiger, so maybe I shouldn’t overreact to that comment. Still, what future are we preparing, if this is what our communal actions are teaching the next generation?

How does a Christian respond to the suffering of others? I share your sorrow, all of you out there stuck in situations dire and bleak and getting more so by the day. But I know I can’t possibly feel it as keenly as you do. Nor do I know what to do next. I have no faith at all in politics, and even at a personal level, how do we engage in productive dialogue when so many people only hurl fallacies, biases and out-of-context facts at each other across the great abyss?

Pope Francis’ presence in my dream—the joy, the humility, and above all the fact that he had clearly been fixing a toilet—a symbol of small and practical, un-flashy things—was a signal to me of hope. A reminder that my job isn’t to impact political systems but to be the hands and feet of Christ, person to person, and trust God to put me where I need to be.

No Easy Answers

Prying My Heart Open

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A week or two after 9/11, I was coming out of Aldi, trying (predictably) to carry too much to the car. The bag split, and groceries went everywhere, including a gallon jug of skim milk, which cracked open and splattered all over the asphalt. I was pretty emotional already, and I was on the verge of breaking down when someone appeared by my side, offering to help.

It was a man of Middle Eastern descent. Head covering and all. He helped me gather up the groceries and take them to my car and load them in the trunk. And now, instead of wanting to cry for embarrassment and hormones, I felt myself tearing up for joy. You remember the ugly things people were saying at that time: the suspicion that anyone of a certain skin color and style of dress must be a terrorist. This brief encounter seemed like a divine whisper reminding me that I was surrounded by goodness.

That was not the first time I experienced this.

I’ve lived my entire life in and out of the St. Louis area; my grandmother lives there, two of my aunts live there, now my sister lives there. I grew up with a certain knowledge: East St. Louis is Bad News. You just don’t go there, because you’re probably going to get mugged.

One day when I was in college, I went to St. Louis for a family gathering. Having never driven the route myself, I made a wrong turn and ended up in the heart of East St. Louis, lost and terrified, stuck in a construction zone, and remembering everything I’d ever heard about the place.

I don’t know how this African American construction worker knew I needed help. Maybe I screwed up the courage to roll down my window a crack and ask. I don’t remember. But he was so nice. So very, very nice. He helped me get turned around, and he gave me very specific, easy to follow directions. And as I got back on the highway headed toward my grandmother’s house, I had this moment of deep gratitude that I didn’t fully understand. I only knew there was more to East St. Louis than the crime-ridden hellhole I’d been led to expect.

In these days of noisy rhetoric about building a wall and of angry judgments about the intentions of those who protest peacefully, I keep returning to those two memories. Building walls—literal ones, along the southern border; those written into rules about refugees; or the far more damaging ones in our hearts—is easier than prying our hearts open.

I, and most of the people I know, spend too much of our lives within the safe confines of our own, insular little worlds, where we rarely have to interact with people whose life experiences are 180 degrees from ours. That makes the world seem deceptively black and white. And as long as a problem doesn’t cross the borders of our safe zone—my home, my neighborhood, my town–we act like it’s enough to pray from a distance and call it done. Their problem. Their responsibility.

But it’s not. It’s our responsibility, too. We owe it to ourselves, to our children and our children’s children, and most especially we owe it to the person of Christ in others, to undertake the hard work, person to person, that can bridge the gaps and break down the walls, and teach us to see goodness in others, instead of a threat.

Small Things, Great Love (Reblog)

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blogger-image--817386017The past two weeks.  It has almost been too much to bear, all the heartache.  All the hatred and the hurting and brokenness everywhere we turn.  It is too much.  I am tempted to shut it out: turn off the news, avoid the rapid-fire of social media politicking.  Sink into my own comfortable life, where my biggest inconveniences of the day revolve around the fact that we have too many clothes to wash in our HE washer in our house with electricity and running water.  Continue about my day to day life, free from stigma of skin color, free from fear of opression and violence.  

What can I do about all that is wrong in this world?  I am often paralyzed by insignificance.  I don’t work in a job where I make or carry out policy.  I know nothing about medicine.  I am not educated about how to approach issues of race in this country.  I don’t have the means to travel abroad or adopt an orphan.  I don’t know any refugees.  
When God allows our hearts to be broken, what is it for?  It can’t just be so that we feel sad for a few minutes or days until we forget. ….

Why I Hate The “Blaming The Victim” Argument

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In the midst of the online debate about Ferguson last November, someone I know posted this status update on Facebook:

Ferguson status

A little provocative, to be sure, but I found value to this point of view, and it was one I hadn’t heard anyone else acknowledging amid the screeching chorus of pointing fingers and moral outrage on both sides of the so-called conversation. What I saw in that status update was a clear-eyed recognition that the only way forward could not be imposed from outside, but had to be undertaken by the people for whom the issue mattered most–those in Ferguson.

So I shared the status.

Photo by jetheriot, via Flicker

Almost immediately, someone invoked “blaming the victim.”

I cannot tell you how much I loathe those three words. There is no other phrase I can think of that so effectively shuts down discussion. What possible response can there be to that accusation? None. Any protest simply proves the point in the mind of the accuser.

So of course, I simply fumed in silence and swore off participating in conversations on the topic.

But I thought of it again this weekend, because this story appeared in my NBC news feed: Ferguson’s Future May Lie In The Hands Of Its Voters After Shootings, Unrest.

And I thought, Look at that. He was right. Now even the national news is saying it.

This is anything but blaming the victim.  It is a search for solutions. The final quote in the video interview with candidate Wesley Bell is: “I want to be a part of that solution. I think it takes people in the community to step up and do it.”

Solutions. That’s what it’s all about.

Bad things happen to everyone. When they do, it’s natural and even productive to think, “Did something I did cause or contribute to that?” You do this, not because you think you’re to blame, but to see if there’s something in the way you handled the circumstances that you need to rethink in the future, to try to avoid it happening again. You learn from the past, or the past repeats itself.

I can sit here and tick off a dozen examples of this in practice in the last couple of years in my own life. It’s never as simple as who was right and who was wrong, who’s the aggressor and who the victim. People always do what they do for a reason. They may not be good reasons, but the reasons are a result of people’s individual experiences. When bad things happen, we have to acknowledge that reality, if we want to move toward a better future.

And that’s the key here–when we go around throwing blame, we’re not getting any closer to a solution. In fact, we’re throwing obstacles in the way. And when we go around accusing people of blaming the victim, we’re throwing up the biggest obstacle of all.

In the end, what matters most is never making sure the blame rests with the right person. What matters most is working toward a solution, toward a better future.