Mourning with Those Who Mourn
I’ve watched the news this week with sadness and horror as the egregious police killing of a black man has erupted into protests, both peaceful and violent, across the nation. I feel sick watching, yet again, as a person of color is dehumanized, reduced to a threat, and treated as disposable by people in positions of authority.
And I feel sick watching the violence erupt, not just because of the violence but because of the pain and the rage behind the acts of destruction. This pain and rage has so often been actively dismissed or passively ignored until it causes an inconvenience — and then it is condemned. But dismissing, ignoring, and condemning those who cry out under injustice only exacerbates the pain.
And something feels different this time, for me and for many of my white friends. Maybe it’s because police violence against people of color — and particularly black men — has displaced even a global pandemic in our news cycle. Perhaps it’s because there have been so many deaths in the news in just the past few weeks, from Ahmaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor to Floyd George, plus the viral video of a woman telling the police that a black man was assaulting her when all he did was ask her to leash her dog in an area where dogs are required to be leashed.
Maybe it’s because I’m tired of the hesitation and caution that give my own cowardice a more palatable veneer.
It’s easy to find excuses for that cowardice: I’m white, I’m still learning about racism in America, I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to pick fights. I don’t want to make it all about me. Truthfully, though, these excuses often mean: I don’t want to make waves. I don’t want to invite pushback or judgement that I could avoid by just keeping my mouth shut. I want validation that I’m a Good White Person, instead of doing the work to actually be an anti-racist.
But here’s the thing: racism is everywhere. We participate in it even when we don’t actively choose to do so; it’s an evil that must be actively resisted, at least in today’s America.
And since I write as a Christian, racism is both an individual sin and a corporate evil. Racism is one of the powers and principalities that exist in opposition to the Kingdom of God. When churches and Christians fail to acknowledge their racism and their complicity in racism, they have given up in their fight against the powers of evil. They have abdicated the calling to love their neighbors. They have ignored the call to view others as better than themselves.
This is primarily a failing of white Christians in majority-white congregations, both evangelical and mainline — and given the segregation that exists in our churches, most white Christians in the U.S. worship in majority-white churches.
So, fellow white Christians, what do we do?
We must listen to people of color describe their experiences, and we must be open to believing that their experiences are vastly different from ours. Especially for those of us who are white and middle-class, it’s hard to hear that what we thought was a meritocracy is actually stacked in our favor.1
Discomfort is valid, as all feelings are valid — but it doesn’t negate the experiences our brothers and sisters of color have. Sit with that discomfort, work through it with friends who are a little further in their journey towards anti-racism, and learn to accept that discomfort is nearly inevitable when confronting the ways in which we participate in racist structures. Also, don’t burden your friends of color with these feelings of white guilt! It is not their job to reassure you that you are one of the Good Ones or to absolve you of your discomfort.
Two books I have found helpful, particularly for describing the experience of black individuals in the church: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown, and Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew G.I. Hart.
We must learn when to humble ourselves and elevate the voices of people of color. Privilege gives people the expectation that their voice will be heard if they speak, and this expectation can be so deeply ingrained that we might not notice when we’re speaking over or on behalf of those whose thoughts matter as much, or more, than our own. As a woman, I know how powerful it is (even though it’s also infuriating) when a man amplifies my voice or creates a space for me to speak; those of us who are white should create space for others to speak.
We must accept that we will make mistakes and be open to correction. This is a big one for me: I don’t like looking foolish. I don’t like making public mistakes. I’m sure I’ve made many already in this (very long) post — and I know that criticism will sting.
But the alternatives are silence and defensiveness, neither of which address my own racism or the structural racism of my world. Losing power by being humble, being open to correction, and being willing to stay silent and listen is difficult at times. I love how Rachel Held Evans used to say that loss of power isn’t persecution — but it is without doubt often uncomfortable.
We must be willing to take action. Perhaps this means that you join a march or a demonstration. Maybe it means that you write your local sheriff or chief of police to ask what they are doing to prevent police violence. It could be researching candidates' positions on racial issues when it’s time to vote — and being willing to let those positions effect how you vote.
Action definitely includes educating yourself — reading books like The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, or listening to podcasts like NPR’s Code Switch.
And action also involves a willingness to point out racism or raise uncomfortable questions, like why that candidate of color doesn’t seem to “mesh as well with the company culture” as the white candidate. We can’t be, and shouldn’t want to be, white saviors; we need to take action carefully and in ways that reflect the actual needs and concerns of people of color in our communities or organizations. But we white people built racism; we benefit from racism; we have the power to perpetuate it — and that means we also have the power to dismantle it.
And finally, for those of us with younger children, we must raise our children to see racism — and we must help them de-center whiteness. I find the second part simpler: my girls are avid readers, and I make sure that they read books by people of color and books with protagonists that don’t look like them. I’m not as good at making sure they see diversity in their shows, but I want to make sure that they don’t assume that every hero shares their skin color — or assume that they can’t identify with characters of different races. Middle grade books are, slowly, improving on this front, but we as parents need to be proactive. This website is a helpful starting point in finding more diverse books.
Making my kids aware of racism is harder. I stumble over these conversations, both because I don’t quite know how to explain police brutality to an 8-year-old and because I don’t want to crush their innocence. I don’t want them to know that the world can be such an awful place — and, because they’re unlikely to experience racism first-hand, I don’t need to open their eyes to this dark side of our society.
But the truth is, my oldest daughter has a friend who is black and 12 years old, just like Tamir Rice. He already knows how ugly people can be towards black boys; how can my daughter be a good friend if she doesn’t?
A quick google search will bring up many, many resources for talking to your kids about racism. In my experience, though, preparing for a single big conversation isn’t helpful — instead, we need to be willing to talk to our kids about racism whenever it may come up and however awkward we may feel. When everyone is talking about Trayvon Martin. When they wonder about a friend of color. When it’s Black History Month and they come home thinking that Martin Luther King Jr. ended racism. When you watch a show together and see stereotypes or damaging portrayals.
We must perform the very Christ-like action of setting aside our privilege and power for the benefit of others. This command is for every follower of Christ, but I don’t believe that we can lay down our power until we acknowledge that we have it, which is this case means acknowledging our complicity in racist structures in the U.S.
Privilege is complicated and intersectional, but 1) if you’re new or slightly resistant to the idea of privilege, I highly recommend [this essay] by John Scalzi explaining privilege through the metaphor of video games; and 2) it’s not particularly useful to play oppression olympics; every individual is different. But generally speaking, the path to success for a white person in America has significantly fewer potholes and detours that the path for a person of color.↩