Culture is full of man’s sinfulness – sins against God, sins against man. Figuring out where sinful trends come from and pointing out the causes is definitely satisfying (at least for me) and helpful to understanding them. But more important is to ask what do we DO, today, next week, day by day, to change a sinful trend. How do I change the racist heart in ME? And how do I work towards a community and nation without racism? So here I’m going to trace out my path on these questions since moving back to the US last summer, which brings me to ask those questions, and then my brief reflections on what I can do.
I’ve been processing the racial issues in our country a lot this year. At first I asked “Why do we have these problems? I thought we were all equal, and Martin Luther King Jr. and the others of his era ended all this!” It’s still boggling my mind that there is so much left of that hatred and distrust. There were people of many backgrounds in my public school and we seemed to get along OK, though I suppose I only knew one or two black people personally (perhaps a few more Asians, and not sure I knew any other minority students).
When there were unfortunate deaths, I found myself annoyed and dismayed that “they” would riot and destroy things instead of using peaceful methods like Dr. King. (Look out for the label “they” cropping up in your thoughts – that’s one thing I learned from living overseas.) I figured out that my simple idea from childhood, that all Americans are more or less the same, was overlooking lots of differences. It seems like the white Europeans started up this culture, made the rules about what it takes to get ahead, and then when people from other backgrounds were allowed into society, they had to learn to fit in, but without the support that many of the white kids had growing up in families that already knew the ins and outs, and with plenty of things deliberately holding them back. It started to make sense to me that there were and have continued to be cultural differences between people with different family histories. (I don’t know why that was so hard to figure out given that I’d already realized that it’s true on a small scale between ANY two people from two different families, even if they’re of the same color and from the same neighborhood. Perhaps because that realization was initially related to marriage rather than racism!)
I started to realize how people, white people, still come to think of others, black people, as “less” and then treat them accordingly – less likely to be honest, less worthy of care and respect, less responsible, less human. If only the empathy gun from the Hitchhiker’s movie was real. Why do some parents have to teach their children to behave super-carefully around police? Why is one race over-represented in prison and under-represented in many positive areas? Lots of causes, but a lot of them come back to pure sinful racism.
It’s like our country has made steps, but each stopped short of a solution – from Civil War to Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era, but it still wasn’t enough, many hearts and minds still hadn’t changed despite new laws and practices, society was not integrated and people’s hearts were closed to it. (As a side note, I cannot understand how ANYONE can fly a rebel flag in the South, both from a legal standpoint – seriously, I’m sure it was illegal right after the war, when did it transition back? why don’t federal troops remove it from southern government buildings? – and also from the association that it has with a way of life that accepted and depended on slavery. Surely there is more to be proud of in your state’s, city’s, family’s heritage than the flag of a country like that! But again I am slipping into a “they” state of mind. Darn, life is complex.)
Where was I? Oh yes, realizing that there is still a major problem. Which brings me to this latest atrocity. A terrorist attack by one American against others because of their race. Not, as a priest who spoke at this evening’s memorial pointed out, a “tragedy.” It was not the accidental result of something morally neutral or initially minor. It was terrorism, hatred poured out on purpose, even in the face of the victims being “so nice.” At this point just saying “Go in peace, be warm and well-fed,” is not enough. Saying “Our prayers are with you, Charleston,” is not enough. Prayer, said the Father who spoke, should have an effect on us too when we get off our knees.
The first thing that needs to change is inside of me. I’ve been wandering here and there with this post but I’m finally getting to my big point: There is a root of racism in our culture and in our hearts, and we – I – must do something about it. I’m going to quote directly from Austin Channing though she’s not the only one to say it this weekend:
Every time I write about race, someone white says “just know it isn’t all of us,” believing this will bring me comfort. It is offered as balm, but fails miserably. I would much rather people say, “I see this sin in my own heart, my own life, my own church and I am working to uproot it. I don’t want to be this way, and I will do the work to submit this ugliness before Christ.” That’s what I want to hear. Creating distance from it doesn’t serve me, doesn’t bring me comfort. Because it is in all of us. White supremacy has infected all of us who know America. If I have to deal with the white supremacist notions within myself, than I don’t want to hear about how “it’s not all of us”. It is. It is all of us who must learn to love blackness as an equal and authentic image of God.
Some of us are doing that work. Naming that work. Wrestling through that work.
And others are content to let it grow. And I need you to know those are the only two choices. There is no such thing as neutrality. You are either nurturing love or hate. There is no middle ground, no third way, no alternative.
There is this pervasive belief that Christians can simply choose to be tolerant, or polite, or even kind. There is this sense that as long as certain lines aren’t crossed, that you’re okay. As long as you don’t tell the racist joke, as long as you had a really good reason for moving into an all white community, as long as you never say nigger, as long as you do charity work, as long as you go on the mission trip, as long as you never do anything mean- then you’re alright. Not so.
I have indeed been proud of not telling racial jokes and of thinking everyone’s equal (at least everyone who knows how to act like me), but I caught myself this fall reacting differently to people on my street who are of different colors. The danger sense I developed growing up here in the States to be more aware of my surroundings would kick in when I saw one of the young black men on my street coming past me. There were other factors – I have also been adjusting to living among people of a lower income level than where I grew up, which really just adds a layer of shame over social-status snobbery rather than excuse the first issue – but in any case those young men seem to fit with the other various-colored people on my street in regard to their income level, so it was pretty clearly racism that was triggering my reaction to them. Oh, what shame I felt to see that flower of the root of racism in my heart! Still feel, really, since every time I chop off the flower it seems another grows when I’m not looking. Perhaps they’re getting a little smaller, but I’ve also had time to adjust to being here, so I’m not sure there’s been any meaningful progress.
So I need to change. I need to pray, and reflect, and search for ways to dig out and replace this root of racism. Maybe introduce myself to the neighbors from a few houses down the block, though my mind boggles a little trying to imagine how. But why should I fear looking like a fool if I get it wrong? Surely that’s the only thing I actually have to be afraid of. As a friend told me today, “Sometimes you’ll make mistakes and do something stupid, and [your black friends] will let you know.” Somewhat encouraging! I was telling him how at least when I went to China, if I chose to step out of the “foreigners bubble,” I could have a teacher to help with the culture, but here in America I feel equally unprepared by my upbringing to interact with many of the people. So I can put myself out more, meet people, that’s one thing. Reading is another thing I can work at, putting aside the fiction I enjoy and pushing through one book at a time on this topic, getting to see another side of life in America. What else? I suppose God will show me as I keep asking and take the steps he’s shown me.
“Silence is violence. It is silence that kills the world. Speak as if you had a million voices.” (Catherine of Sienna). This blog post is me speaking. It will take more than an act of God to bring racial harmony in America – it will take millions and millions of them, changing hearts and minds. But whether or not we expect to reach that goal this side of heaven, we must – I must – make that a part of what we pray for and work towards day by day.