I’m a recovering racist. I know I don’t fit the typical stereotype – I’m not a bigot, racial slurs make me very uncomfortable, and I am far from a white supremacist. However, as I’ve reflected on a lifetime (albeit short) of interaction with ethnicities other than my own, I have been forced to acknowledge and repent of the many ways in which I have perpetuated the narrative that people should be treated differently because of their cultural heritage or skin color. Though this realization has been equally painful and embarrassing, it’s a journey for which I am tremendously thankful. Walking this path has brought me face-to-face with the brokenness of my own heart and has sanctified me through the process of revelation, repentance, and renewal.
This process is something akin to the Apostle Paul’s urging in his epistle to the Romans: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, New Living Translation) As it relates to race, I have been guilty of copying the behavior and customs of this world. Throughout the years, I’ve cycled through three different stages of racism. In each scenario though, God, in His grace, has challenged my thinking and confronted my biases. The transformation process that continues today is one that makes me dream about what God’s will for race relations might look like, both in the Church and the world.
The first manifestation of racism in my life, color blindness, occurred quite early, as one of my best friends from childhood was adopted from South Korea. Though we had known each other since infancy, it took me until the 1st or 2nd grade to wonder why she and her brother, who was also adopted, didn’t resemble their parents as I resembled mine. I remember the day that I cautiously questioned my mom about the disparity. Her answer included an explanation of the concept of adoption, a quick lesson on Asian geography, and instruction to not bring up the subject with my friend. Though I’m certain that my mother was simply trying to prevent all of the indiscretion my 7-year-old self could muster with this new-found knowledge, what I believed to be true based on her answer is that racial differences aren’t important or valuable. My reasoning led me to the conclusion that my friend’s ethnicity wasn’t something to be celebrated, but rather, a potential cause for embarrassment, even shame. And so, I never brought up the issue of ethnicity with this dearest of friends. My failure to honor this critical component of who she was, and more importantly, who God made her to be, was the first time I practiced racism. I wish I could say it was also the last, but it was a practice I continued to repeat as I engaged others who didn’t share my skin color. Race was the elephant in the room and I truly believed that I was doing right by not looking it in the eye. I believed that pointing out our differences would make me a racist, when in reality, my refusal to acknowledge them defined my culpability. However, the more people of color I met, I more I realized the error of my thinking. As I repeated “We’re the same. We’re the same. We’re the same” over and over in my head, they would draw attention to the differences, fully embracing them. While I avoided the elephant of race at all costs, they called him by name, even made a few jokes at his expense. After a few uncomfortable interactions with the elephant named Race, my anxiety and fear began to dissipate and I began to see the beauty of culture. I began to get small glimpses of the Kingdom as I saw friends of all ethnicities reflect their Creator in their own unique ways. And while these glimpses brought great joy, I also felt a sense of regret when I realized the disservice I had done to those whose race I’d failed to even acknowledge, let alone celebrate. My mind was beginning to be renewed in this regard, but my attempts at transformation were misguided at best, and so my racism didn’t go away – it merely changed.
My newfound cultural awareness, combined with my determination to correct previous missteps, led to the second manifestation of racism, what I’ve taken to calling “attempted assimilation.” As I engaged with more and more people of varying cultural identities, I began to question my own. Up until this point in my life, I had never thought about what it meant to be white. But now, as I learned the different aspects of being African-American, or Latino/a, or even Haitian, I felt a veritable disconnect from my Caucasian “heritage.” Like many white Americans, my heritage is a blend of many Western European ethnicities, and despite my bright red hair, I’m not particularly connected to any one of them. This discovery led to a sense of loss and as I viewed my friends of various minority groups engage with their cultural heritage, what I felt was something like jealousy. And so began my assimilation attempt. As I spent more and more time with those of other ethnicities (particularly the African-American culture), I began to pattern my cultural identity after theirs. I imitated everything, from speech patterns, to musical tastes, to fashion choices. The joy of connecting to a cultural identity, even though it wasn’t mine, was overwhelming and I pursued that feeling of connection whenever possible. Though my desire to connect culturally was well-intentioned, I now look back with shame at the way that I once again devalued the ethnicity of another. In my eagerness to connect, I latched onto every cultural manifestation I could observe, but what I came away with and ended up imitating, was just a caricature. As much as I wanted to “act black,” as was the case in this particular time in my life, I couldn’t possibly understand all of the elements of what it means to “be black.” And so, as a result, my imitation was merely another form of racism. While I lauded the outward manifestations of the African-American culture, I failed to recognize the historical, social, or emotional implications of the black psyche. I once again failed in honoring the Imago Dei, the image of God, in both my brothers and sisters of color, as well as myself.
My continued immersion in minority cultures introduced me to a narrative previously unknown to me. As I distanced myself from the white cultural context, I began to gain an awareness of those things that I’ve taken advantage of for a life time, yet didn’t know existed. I began to see myself through the eyes of other ethnicities and frankly, I didn’t like what I saw. For the first time, I was able to see all of my privilege, and by contrast, the injustice suffered by those who didn’t share my skin tone and the realization of both realities grieved me. A whole range of emotions followed. First, I felt apologetic. I felt implicit in the oppression of non-white peoples both in the past and present, and needed to exonerate myself from what I (we) had done. Then I felt anger, for white people in general, and white Christians, specifically. When I looked at the white Christian culture, I saw an entire group that was either: 1) committed to the idea that the very real injustices born by people of color were completely contrived (by the liberal media, of course) or 2) perpetuating the injustice in both corporate and individual practices. My anger then turned to resentment. I despised my whiteness and wanted nothing to do with what I perceived to be a culture of oppression, nor the privilege that came with it. And now for a third time, I was again, practicing racism. Instead of hating another culture or race, I hated my own.
And so, I near the end of my rather uncomfortable confessional and acknowledge that it is one marked by brokenness and the curse of sin. It’s certainly not pretty and if this is where it ended, it would be just another reason in the world to despair. I wrote earlier of the concept of transformation, and it is that idea that gives me a continual cause for hope. The idea that God is restoring all things to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19), even me, is one that encourages my faith and motivates my life.
I think that race relations generally, and specifically in the Church, are an area in deep need of restoration. My story is just one small evidence of that belief, but it’s not enough for me to spit words, throw down the mike, and walk off the stage. My confession does not exonerate me, nor give me license to give up. Instead, it motivates me to continue to follow Jesus. As I come to know Him more, I see more of His heart for the nations, and I long to be a part of it. Though I still am unsure of just what my role in God’s grand tale of restoration will be, and still have so much more to learn about race, my journey so far has taught me a few things.
1) God made me in His image, part of which is being white. Just as each other ethnicity reflects God’s creativity and character, so does my whiteness. I am certainly in no position to look at my Creator and demand, “Why have you made me thus?” My culture is part of my story, and my story, by God’s grace is one that gives the glory back to Him. I simply cannot resent something that brings God glory.
2) My privilege is not a curse, but rather an instrument of restoration. Though I am a person of little importance, I cannot deny the privilege that is built into my existence as a white American. And while I spent much time and energy trying to rid myself of this privilege in the past, I am beginning the discover its redemptive value. This identity, which had long caused me shame, can be a platform upon which to stand and a voice with which to be heard. When used to benefit those who have neither, privilege can be a valuable element in the restoration process.
3) The road to racial reconciliation is arduous to be sure, but the destination will be so very worth the journey. In his book, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, theologian and pastor John Piper eloquently calls us to perseverance on the road to racial harmony. He says, “No lesson in the pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity and harmony has been more forceful than the lesson that it is easy to get so wounded and so tired that you decide to quit. This is true of every race and every ethnicity in whatever struggle they face. The most hopeless temptation is to give up—to say that there are other important things to work on (which is true), and I will let someone else worry about racial issues. The main reason for the temptation to quit pursuing is that whatever strategy you try, you will be criticized by somebody. You didn’t say the right thing, or you didn’t say it in the right way, or you should have said it a long time ago, or you shouldn’t say anything but get off your backside and do something, or, or, or. Just when you think you have made your best effort to do something healing, someone will point out the flaw in it. And when you try to talk about doing better, there are few things more maddening than to be told, “You just don’t get it.” Oh, how our back gets up, and we feel the power of self-pity rising in our hearts and want to say, “Okay, I’ve tried. I’ve done my best. See you later.” And there ends our foray into racial harmony. My plea is: never quit. Change. Step back. Get another strategy. Start over. But never quit.”
As a recovering racist, I can only echo and amen Piper’s admonition. Don’t quit. Allow God to transform your vision, embrace the image in which God has made you (and others), and use whatever position He has given you to proclaim His greatness in and through racial reconciliation as we walk this road together.