From Color Blind to Color Brave
The subject of race can be very touchy. Mellody Hobson says it’s a “conversational third rail.” But, she says, that’s exactly why we need to start talking about it. (Click here for her groundbreaking TedTalk)
Marvin Wadlow Jr. and I believe that setting tables towards racial reconciliation is critically important. My faith informs me that true and complete reconciliation will most likely not occur until we march into Zion, but I believe that Jesus commands us to work towards that day, with full faith that he means what he says. We should not sit idly by. We should be brave in the face of anything that distorts the Kingdom of God into a cheap replica or even something much, much worse.
Last year, Marvin and I were speaking to a group of about 200 Christian men in a suburb of Phoenix. Part of our presentation might involve putting an audience member on the spot, and asking them to face someone who looks different than they do. In this case, that audience member was a white man, probably in his late 40s, and he was facing Marvin.
Marvin asked, “tell us what you see when you look at me.”
The man’s answer was along these lines: I see a middle-aged man wearing orange pants, no hair, a little heavier than me. “Ouch, I’m starting to work out again!” laughed Marvin, and then he asked, “but what about our skins?” And the man said, “I don’t see anything different between you and me. I’m color blind.”
Well, technically, we all knew that not to be something medically diagnosable, as he already noted Marvin’s bright orange pants. Marvin pressed, but the man refused to budge and say anything about skin tone. And its important to add that he looked very nervous. (Marvin and he would later sit down and have a heart-to-heart).
The concept of color-blindness in terms of race is a reaction to the intense discrimination that has run rampant in our country. Now I trust, and this was somewhat confirmed in the more private conversation that followed with this man, that what he was trying to say is this: I do not see you as different in value than me. Calling you black might make you think that I see you as “less than” because I’m white. And, I’m not really sure how to even say that correctly, because if I call you “black” and you like to be called “brown-skinned,” then you might call me racist in front of all of my friends right here and…..
Watching the man sit and stir when Marvin asked his pointed question demonstrated his discomfort, and one could visibly see his mind was racing through all kinds of thoughts and fears, rendering him, for lack of a better term, paralyzed.
Playing the “colorblind-card”, especially by someone with European ancestry, is a cop-out, but one that has become a very socially accepted stance. It’s a denial of reality, it’s a denial of the truth that disparity exists and causes great pain, and it’s a pledged allegiance to the status quo. It shuts a conversation down more than any African-American does by bringing up their experiences in a racially discriminating landscape. Blackfolk are often blamed for killing dialogue by playing the race-card, but the truth is that it’s the flashing of the colorblind-card that really hinders progress.
Mellody Hobson discusses moving from colorblindness into Color Bravery. I love this phrasing, because that’s truly what is needed. Courage. Now, I wouldn’t say it exactly the way she does as a business executive, but she is certainly right. She pragmatically says that we need to be brave “not because it’s the right thing to do, but the smart thing.” I agree that it’s smart, but I would say its wise because it is the right thing to do. Jesus is clear on the truth that diversity matters.
In reflection after that trip, Marvin and I realized that putting someone on the spot reveals the knee-jerk reaction of most people: don’t talk about race and you will never run the risk of being labeled a racist. But, as Christians, it may not always be the most loving and kind way to get at the systemic roots. So, we went into redraft mode. Part of our hunting and gathering involved a visit to the Message Center in Torrance. Pastor Dwight Radcliffe helped us get started with some good questions to ask around diverse tables, and then we developed some of our own.
Here are the questions that Marvin and I began to regularly ask our DOOR Hollywood Discover participants, primarily young Evangelical Christians that travel to Los Angeles to engage in serving at homeless shelters and poverty relief centers. We prime the conversations with ground rules from Romans 14: 6–9 and Galatians 5:25–26:
What are some of the ways we can determine who our neighbors are? How should service, both volunteering and public service, work into this?
What are some of the differences at these very tables? How do we demonstrate love towards each other, or at least, make space for these differences? Who are the modern day Samaritans (referring to the sense of a despised people group on the other side of the tracks)?
What questions would you ask someone of a different race if you weren’t afraid of asking the question “wrong,” weren’t worried that the question itself might offend?
Paul breaks down the concept of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, 14–15: the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.” It is still part of the body (NIRV). Drew G.I. Hart, in what has quickly become my new favorite book in this struggle, says that “people on the bottom [of a social hierarchy] are better situated to know what is real, and that what they know to be reality is closer to the real thing than the perceptions of those in a dominant social position” (Trouble I’ve Seen, page 85).
In the body of humanity, God says we are all important. What if we really believed and lived into this? What if we didn’t view service as an opportunity to help “all those poor people,” but, instead, a critical moment to listen to their perspectives? What if we realized that our perception of the Kingdom of God is limited, and that we vitally need to hear from the eyes and ears of our human body, the people who actually see and hear reality?
Because colorblindness is not reality, and as Hart explains, it’s all too common for dominant culture (white people) to have trouble locating or noticing it. When it comes to racism, which is certainly a sin and crisis in this country needing our attention, non-white people are much more likely to have a clearer understanding of what is really going on.
Can we learn to listen? Can we be bravely humble?
These questions only start the process, but without them, the process will never begin — Peace, m
Marvin and I will be facilitating “Setting Tables Towards Racial Reconciliation” near St. Louis, Missouri on April 20 and 21 at the First Presbyterian Church of Marion, Illinois. Click here to learn more about attending.