Have you ever wondered if your words or actions are racist? Are you sure they aren’t? Is claiming “I’m not racist!” enough? Can a person protect and promote systemic racism without even realizing it? Is ignorance a good excuse?
Recently, one of my friends inquired as to why I am suddenly so passionate about racism in America—she didn’t say “suddenly,” but it does feel that way. I’ve gone my entire adult life assuming I was an ally, but I’m not sure that’s true. The more I learn, the more I wonder if I’ve actually enabled and supported systems designed to hold back and oppress people of color.
I officially stepped into the conversation about white privilege in 2016 when I joined the Be the Bridge to Racial Reconciliation Facebook group. When a white person joins the group, s/he agrees to remain silent and listen for three months. Not only are you prohibited from posting in the group, you’re also prohibited from commenting on other folks’ posts. Violation of this rule gets you banned from the group. It’s a good and important rule.
Silence Forced Me to Listen and Learn
The silent rule forced me into the role of student, not teacher. It required me to keep my mouth shut (and my fingers off the keyboard) when my first inclination was to chime in and offer advice/feedback/input while unwittingly minimizing other members’ experiences.
Waking up to white privilege and systemic racism has been hard, and I would not have made it this far without the encouragement of friends and mentors who encouraged me to listen to people who are different than I am.
By expanding the circle of authors I read, speakers I listen to, and people I follow on social media, I’ve become much more aware of the ways I subconsciously participate in an inherited, stratified system which over-values whiteness, oppresses the poor, and dehumanizes the different.
Debating the existence and effects of racism in America is uncomfortable for many white folks like me, and it’s tempting to turn a blind eye to the problem. To change the channel. To click over to another page. To look away before making eye contact. To walk on the other side of the street.
But, if you’re able to ignore (or deny) the problem of racism, then—whether you realize it or not—you are exercising white privilege. People of color don’t have that option. They can’t ignore it or deny its existence. It’s in their face every day. All day.
With white privilege comes much responsibility.
So, I’m determined to learn about my own hidden biases despite how opening my eyes and looking in the mirror makes me feel. I want to be a woman who elevates the voices and lives of those who have struggled to be seen and heard for far too long. I will be a catalyst for difficult conversations between white adults who need to join me on this journey of waking up. I want to be an ally. And being an ally requires diligence and re-education..
In this compelling and insightful book, Tatum documents the experiences of people of color in public schools and many other public spaces. “People of Color” or POC is the term used to refer to African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Island Americans, and others of non-European descent.
The author shares the story of a young black student who is the target of a racist comment by one of her teachers. When the student shares her experience—the comment and how it affected her—with her best friend who is white, she is further-traumatized when her friend dismisses the comment by saying something like “Oh, he didn’t mean it that way. He’s not a racist.” THAT’S why Be the Bridge has the “3-months of silence” rule for new white members. It’s like they knew that we needed to spend some time listening without the opportunity to minimize and further traumatize brothers and sisters of color. Smart.
Learning to keep my mouth shut is probably going to be a lifelong process for me. The first month of silence was hard: I had not yet realized I was the stereotypical white girl who wanted to fix all the things. The second month of silence was a bit easier. By third month, I understood how very little I had to contribute to the conversation and how my words could easily have the opposite effect of what I was hoping to say. And I don’t post very much in that group at all. They have opened my eyes to what life is often like for people of color in this country.
I’m appalled at the ignorance and racism so many exhibit on a regular basis. I’m determined NOT to be a part of it.
How I am waking up…
Over the next few months, I’m going to detail my ongoing journey to “wokeness” (I have NOT arrived), because it’s just way too much to include in one blog post. I invite you to join me in conversation as I share my own personal experiences with people of color—both traumatic childhood experiences that shaped my view and adult friends and mentors who have helped—and are still helping—me figure out how to be an ally, not an adversary.
I will share websites, podcasts, books (and audiobooks), social media feeds, and other resources that are helping me understand white privilege in America and how that lines up (or not) with the good news of Jesus Christ.
I am not an expert on racial reconciliation, and I have no solutions to offer. All I can do is invite you to join me on the journey. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is not to evaluate my journey but to humbly examine your own. The challenge is to take a long, hard look at your words, actions, and attitudes with an open mind, and if you see something that needs to be changed, you commit to changing it.
The goal: Be more like Jesus.
Are you in? Comment below if you’re up for the challenge.
As part of my ongoing effort to educate myself about the problem of systemic racism in the U.S., I followed a number of activists on Twitter who share my faith*.
North Carolina author, activist, minister, and nonprofit founder Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is relatively new on my radar thanks to retweets from author, speaker, and activist Lisa Sharon Harper. Both of them, in conjunction with a handful of other theologians, have contributed to a book published by IVP entitled “Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning.” When I saw this book cover flutter across my Twitter feed, I knew it was a book I’d want to read and review on my blog. [Review coming soon!]
When I reached out to the generous folks at IVP, they not only agreed to send a review copy of “Still Evangelical?” but offered to send a copy of Wilson-Hargrove’s new book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion as well. Each of these books is helping me to better understand the problem of systemic racism and the moral responsibility I have as a follower of Jesus Christ advocate for essential change in our country.
Reconstructing the Gospel
I ended up reading Wilson-Hartgrove’s book first thanks to an online book club opportunity, and the book rocked my world. Reconstructing the Gospel is divided in two parts: Part One details the relatively brief history of what the author describes as “slaveholder religion”; Part Two reminds the reader what the Scripture says is good news and what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
“The gospel that was twisted to accommodate America’s original sin must also be reconstructed if we are to experience the healing that Jesus wants to bring. Otherwise, evangelism is violence and those of us who spend our time in church meetings are perpetuating a death-dealing culture without even realizing it” (p. 17).
It is the author’s conviction that we Americans inherited—and ignorantly perpetuated—a “divided gospel.” Wilson-Hartgrove is convinced that if you were to dig down to the root of our political divisions and class disparities, you would find a sick gospel that was twisted and manipulated to justify owning, using, and abusing fellow human beings created in the image of God.
Do not doubt his conviction. It is based on FACT.
When my family and I visited the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. last November, we saw first-hand a copy of a “Slave Bible.” I had never even heard of such a thing, but there it was right before my very eyes!
Around 3 minutes into this video (left) which I was live-streaming from the Museum of the Bible, you can see the display for yourself. I’m reading the description card.This was the first time I ever knew there was such a thing as an edited version of the Bible solely intended for slaves! ?
What made the slave Bible so different from that of the slave holder? Passages that talked about freedom for the captives had been cut out.
The book of Exodus? Not there.
The slave holders did not want slaves getting any ideas about freedom from the Bible.
I can’t even imagine how someone justified this bastardization of the Holy Word of God, but they did. This was a printed and bound copy. There are more. Somewhere.
In time, many men and women who had been brought to this country against their will, sold as chattel, and treated like animals regained a sense of human dignity. They learned to read and write the American language. They learned about God. And eventually, they learned the stories that had been cut out of the slave Bibles—including the story of the Hebrews being delivered out of bondage in Egypt by Moses. And these stories gave them hope and a vision for the future.
Frederick Douglass, though born into slavery, escaped his bondage and became an accomplished orator, a gifted writer, and a political activist. He became the leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York1. He embraced the true gospel of freedom and equality and grace.
He wrote, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (quoted on page 35 of Wilson-Hartrove’s book).
Slave-Holder Religion is Alive and Well
What’s crazy to me is that, although Douglass penned his observations in the mid-1800s, slave-holder religion is still alive and well in the 21st century. In fact, it has gained a second wind thanks in part to the overtly racist comments and dehumanizing tweets about people of color from the current President of the United States who not only claims to be a Christian but also garnered 80% of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election (see one tweet below; many others can be found on his Twitter feed here).
When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!
Dehumanization is often used to groom unsuspecting people to tolerate what would otherwise be unacceptable treatment of another human being. In her May 2017 article “Dehumanizing Always Starts With Language” Dr. Brené Brown warns:
We must never tolerate dehumanization—the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history. When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process.” (emphasis mine)
Wilson-Hartgrove would agree. His personal journey out of racial blindness happened over a period of time through a number of enlightening encounters with people of color. As he recounts the time he was talking to a group of teens at a youth camp about the virtues of biblical love and faithfulness only to be called out for his ignorance:
I not only assumed that the good life I imagined as a white man in America was what God wants for everyone, but I also naively suggested that these young people had the freedom to choose biblical faithfulness in all the same ways I did. Truth was, I didn’t have a clue” (p. 43).
When the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II courageously agreed to speak at his church in Klan country, Wilson-Hartgrove was no longer examining his faith alone. He had a mentor, and this man would help lead him from racial blindness to sight, from ignorance to knowledge, and from white independence to multi-racial interdependence in the “beloved community” of Christ followers.
Ignorant No More
Proximity, humility, and an open heart—each of these is necessary for a life free from the shackles of slave-holder religion and the bad theology of white supremacy which has wormed its way into the church.
As the author builds his case against slave-holder religion, he argues that when we accept without question the religious traditions handed down to us, we often through ignorance make things worse. In other words, there is a white American “Christian” culture that blinds us to what is happening in the world around us. When we are blinded by racism, we limit the gospel to changing individual hearts or the culture of families. Jesus came to change more than that. He came to change the world (p. 132).
Racial inequality is rampant, complex, and systemic. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been called to engage politically: To change our country. To change the world.
For those not blinded by racism, Jesus came to change more than individuals’ hearts or the culture of families. Jesus came to change the world. He did it by gathering together a fusion coalition of the poor and the sick, tax collectors and zealots, religious defectors like Nicodemus, and lepers who had been written off as unclean. Preaching the good news that God’s politics made room for all of them together in a new social order…the political threat of this popular movement got Jesus arrested and killed” (pp. 132-133, emphasis mine).
To say that Reconstructing the Gospel opened my eyes would be an understatement, for that implies that only my eyes and brain were affected. The truth is that my entire body was affected by this book, because for the first time in my life, I have begun to viscerally understand what it means to live in skin. “White” skin. I get it.
Living in White Skin
Now, when I am out, I try to stay mindful of the privilege automatically afforded me and the responsibility I have as a follower of Jesus Christ to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God (cf. Micah 6:8). Not to solve problems, but to observe and listen. To “see” people for who they are and affirm the imago dei in each person.
Wilson-Hartgrove calls us back to the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, touching the untouchable, embracing the marginalized, and setting the oppressed free. It’s a social gospel, for sure. “By endeavoring to live as Christ lived in the world, the church helps everyday people see and remember that another way is possible” (p. 143). This gospel message does not neglect the soul; it touches the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.
And here’s where we must slow down and take a good, hard look inside. Before we rush out to fix the problems of the world, we must first face the facts that—as much as we try to interpret and apply the Scriptures faithfully and accurately—most of us have inherited a broken gospel. Each of us needs to take a hard look at what we’ve been taught as right and good, and humbly hold the doctrines, attitudes, and practices of our faith up to the entirety of Scripture. Wilson-Hartgrove continues,
Reconstructing the gospel can never only be about the individual. This is why so many noble efforts at reconciliation fail. They pretend that broken people with the best of motives can simply opt out of hundreds of years of history through individual choices and relationships…But if we stop short of the personal work…then we carry the germ of white supremacy with us into our most noble efforts to rid this world’s systems of racism. Nothing is uglier than the inevitable explosion when white people try to participate in anti-racist work without addressing their own hidden wound. Each of us has to do our own soul work” (p. 156).
This is where I am right now: I’m doing my own soul work. It’s hard, and it’s taking way longer than I had hoped it would. The fact is, it might take the rest of my life to fully comprehend how hidden biases have affected my attitudes and actions, and how much damage I’ve unconsciously done thanks to ignorance and the slave-holder religion I inherited from my parents who inherited it from their parents who inherited it from theirs and so on.
Deconstruction is a Messy, but Necessary Process
Even though no one in my family tree ever owned a slave, we were still impacted by the false teachings and immoral compass of slave-holding theologians and leaders in our country. Thank God for grace, mercy, and enlightenment!!!
Before the reconstruction of one’s faith comes deconstruction. Teachings based on poor hermeneutics steeped in white supremacy must be torn down. Slave-holder theology enmeshed in traditions, hymns, and “Christian” books must be must be ripped out. Ignorance and arrogance must be taken to the dumpster. Deconstruction is a time-consuming, messy process, but it is absolutely necessary for anyone who hopes to become more like Christ.
This “soul work” involves more than proximity to people who are different than me. It requires humility and compassion and a willingness to listen and learn from people who I’ve never. “For healing to begin, we must learn to listen with our hearts” (p. 166). When we listen in humility and with our hearts, we are open to hearing the message as it is given, not as we think it should be.
I highly recommend Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s 2018 book: Reconstructing the Gospel. It is eye-opening, convicting, and, most of all, extremely helpful in promoting a type of racial reconciliation that could turn this nation, and the world, toward the God who sees, hears, and loves everyone.
* BTW, I rarely use the word “Christian” to describe myself any longer because it no longer means what it used to mean. When the adjectival label “Christian” is routinely applied to people who so blatantly speak and act in a manner completely opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the term can no longer be used to describe me or my faith.
For many years now, I have preferred the term “Christ follower” or “follower of Jesus Christ” to the term “Christian.” That’s the truth. I believe what the Scriptures say about Him, and I try to follow His teachings. More than anything, I want to live like He lived: Advocating for the oppressed. Embracing the marginalized. Confronting the hypocrites. When I say someone “shares my faith,” that’s what I mean. They follow the same Jesus I do, and you can tell it by what they say and what they do. You know the tree by its fruit.
1 Wikipedia contributors. “Frederick Douglass.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 Aug. 2018. Web. 22 Aug. 2018.
Photo credits: “Frederick Douglass Portrait” is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.
“Cracked Cream Walls” photo by Nolan Issac (@nolanissac) on Unsplash
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