On Becoming a Racist
Blessed are those who mourn
for they will be comforted.
In 2014 I became a racist. That is, I became aware I was a racist, and that I had been for sometime. Racism has been defined as prejudice + power. There was certainly prejudice, though I wouldn’t readily admit it, and I had a certain amount of power and privilege because I was (and I guess still am) white.
I was raised in a nearly all-white environment that was chock full of white perspective. I don’t say this as an excuse but as an explanation, as background. All I ever saw and heard was whiteness. The first time I ever saw a black person was when we visited my cousins in Atlanta. I must have been 10 or 11. I remember remarking that there sure were a lot of black people.
We learn about people from different cultures by interacting with them, and I never had a chance to do that, even up through my years at college. What I did interact with was varying gradations of racism. I remember a high-school teacher joking stating that we should celebrate James Earl Ray day (Ray is the white supremacist who shot Martin Luther King, Jr.). This would’ve been in the early 90’s. In the 2000’s we were at dinner with my great-grandmother, who was born in 1908 (we called her Mouse). A black family was sitting next us, and Mouse said, “Look at the cute little N_____ boy.” During high school I was taught that rock music was evil and satanic, mostly because the drum beats came directly from the jungles of Africa. I personally have laughed at and told too many (read: more than zero) racist jokes. I have used the N-word, though never to anyone’s face.
Such instances of outright racism were relatively rare (though still destructive). It was the subtler forms of white supremacy that were pervasive. I studied history at a Christian college. We were taught that the Christians from Europe who “discovered” America were brought here by God for the good of the world. God’s explicit blessing was with America from the get go. We never talked about the many, many people these Godly Americans subjugated and exterminated in order to make America great. We were taught that the enslaved people of the antebellum South were treated mostly well. We were taught that Martin King was a pseudo-Marxist, and Nelson Mandela was an outright Marxist (and to be Marxist was to be directly opposed to the Gospel). It was America’s mission to save the world, because we had the purest form of Christianity. Our missionary’s needed to convert pagan Africans to Christianity, which looked suspiciously like white American culture.
For most of my life I was surrounded by a culture that exalted a white perspective above all else. Again, I’m not saying this as an excuse. I was fully capable of interrogating this perspective, but never did. I even promoted this perspective when I was a high school teacher, something I greatly regret. I never questioned my white perspective until 2014 slapped me in the face
In the middle of 2014 Michael Brown, young and unarmed and black, was shot to death in the middle of a street in the middle of a Middle-American town. His death took center stage in the fight for justice that had been going on for decades. This fight had intensified two years earlier when a neighborhood watch vigilante shot and killed Treyvon Martin, young and unarmed and black. I didn’t see or hear Martin’s death. But I did see Brown’s.
Shortly after Brown’s murder was that of John Crawford, and then Tamir Rice, and then Eric Garner, and then many, many others. Because Brown’s death had startled me into awareness, I was able to see these other deaths. I was able to hear the mourning of a community who had been mourning such deaths for decades (even centuries). Even though Brown’s death turned out to be far more complicated than I first realized, it was still a tragedy that shook me out of complaisance. Rice’s was another story. There’s no complication there. It was outright murder. Same with Crawford. Men, young and unarmed and black, were being killed right before my eyes. A community of brothers and sisters were in fear and pain because of it. I could no longer hand-waive these deaths away.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been writing for quite some time, but I didn’t know about him until 2014. In June of 2014 The Atlantic published his massive article “The Case for Reparations”. It details how African-Americans were kept from claiming the “American Dream” through discriminatory housing policies, such as redlining. It is a sobering read. It’s been over two years since I first read it, and I can’t remember most of the details, but I can remember the shame and sorrow of learning how terribly America has treated her black and brown citizens. I was listening to Coates when The Atlantic published another of his expansive articles, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” It was another read that shook me to the core.
I had read about injustices and racial tensions before, but Coates was different. Partly it was his writing, so clear and direct and powerful. Up to that point I hadn’t paid attention to all those wonderful writers describing the horrible injustices enacted against African-Americans in post-Civil-Rights America. I was captured by Coate’s prose. There’s a weariness to it, a type of acceptance that says what’s happened has happened. It doesn’t need any embellishment. It’s the America we live in, and you can either acknowledge it, or crawl back under your rock. There are no real polemics in his writing. I don’t have a problem with polemics, but Coates’ matter-of-factness caught me off guard, and forced me to look deeply into the reality he described.
It was Michael Brown and Ta-Nehisi Coates who “woke me up” (a fraught and complicated phrase, I know). Brown’s death pried the scales from eyes; Coates’ words yanked the plugs from my ears. Brown’s death was the bright flash and Coates’ words were the resounding horns that turned my head. They drew my attention to the all the injustices I hadn’t seen or heard before. They helped to draw the curtain back so that I could see all the violence going on behind the scenes. Once I could see and hear the only available option for me was to lament. My lament lead me to look deeper and deeper into history and the present, to learn about everything I hadn’t been taught earlier. It was (and is) harrowing and horrific. White supremacy is a hell of a ideology.
But it wasn’t just Brown and Coates. Back in 2014 I had become a part of FB made up of curious and compassionate Christians. This group awkwardly and not-always effectively dealt with issues of racism and white supremacy. By “dealt with” I mean talked about. I had never been a part of a group that talked about such things. I had never been part of a group that so honestly discussed America and all her flaws. This was incredibly revelatory for me. This group turned me on to voices that I had never heard before, voices that were crying out in pain and grief and sorrow, voices that demmanded justice. It was these voices, along with Brown’s blood and Coates’ words, that turned me around. They lit a fire in me.
I can’t stress enough how important social media played in this process. Twitter and Facebook allowed me to follow voices that I would never come across in my daily routine. I still live a very segregated existence, mostly because America is still very segregated. Social media brought all sorts of voices from all sorts of backgrounds to my phone. I allowed me to listen to stories I would have never heard before.
Because of 2014 I have a new mission in life: to point out those voices crying out for justice, and to do whatever I can to amplify those voices. I still know so little about white supremacy. I still know so little about the real American history. But there are plenty that do, and I can lead people to them. I still know so little about how what the Gospel has to say about violence and oppression and prejudice, but I know that it says a lot, and that there are so many voices who have studied it out. I can lead other to those voices. My little story here isn’t special; I’m sure it’s quite common. I don’t know how many other people are where I was, but I pray that they can go through a similar journey that I have gone through. I realize so much of this sounds like “look at me and how far I’ve come.” I don’t know how to not make it sound like that. All I can do is offer up my story and pray that it encourages someone else to review their life and their perspective.
I am still a racist. I still benefit from racist policies. I still struggle with prejudice, and have to constantly check my assumptions. I have so much to learn. I pray for the grace to continue listening. I pray for God to continue to expose my blindspots and shatter my illusions. Only by God’s grace can I grow to become less of a racist.
Here are some of the books and internet sites that have helped me:
Reformed African American Network — there are plenty of excellent articles here on the gospel and racial repentance. They also have to wonderful podcasts that have been a huge help to me. Specifically, I’d start with this episode, which is actually a sermon by President of RAAN Jemar Tisby.
The Half Has Never Been Told — comprehensive book about slavery, it’s evils, and it’s contributions to American economic expansion
The Warmth of Other Suns — powerfully written account of the Great Migration, where millions of Black Americans fled the horrors of Jim Crow south to cities in the north
The Fire Next Time — read everything James Baldwin ever wrote, but start with this
Between The World and Me — How could I leave off this deeply personal account by Ta-Nehisi Coates?
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings — the classic autobiography of Maya Angelou
Divided by Faith — essential book by two sociologists who research how black and white Christians view racism differently
The Next Evangelicalism — the subtitle says it all: “Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity”. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah has written many great books, so check those out as well.
“Slow Poison” — one of the most affecting essays describing the emotional effects of discrimination by one of my favorite writers
“‘But I didn’t mean to be racist.’” — excellent article by the aforementioned Jemar Tisby about the difference between intent and impact