On a beautiful summer day this year, while I watched my daughter play at the playground, I started talking with a few other mothers around, as we often do. One of the moms, another white woman said, “I love that our children play together and that they don’t notice color. Why do we have to keep talking about race? We’ve moved past this.” The only black mom in the group shifted uncomfortably and became even more clear that we were strangers, connected only by the fact that our children happened to play together.
I asked, “If race is not an issue, why is that on this perfect summer day, it is almost exclusively white children playing at this free park? Our city is diverse. If race wasn't a factor, wouldn’t that be reflected here?”
The mom who had spoken said, “That’s just people’s preference and has nothing to do with race.”
That is when the black mom interjected. She said “That might be your perspective, but there are parks that we consider safer. Also, many of the black families in town don’t have the luxury of taking an afternoon off. There is a reason why most of the stay at home mom’s in town are white.” Unfortunately, the conversation ended. We didn’t push into the uncomfortable comment. We didn’t continue to learn from one another. Instead, with an uncomfortable silence, we turned back to watching our children.
The idea that we have moved past racism is popular among many in the white community. Yet, in communities of color, examples of racism, stories of white supremacy, and instances of micro-aggression are shared regularly.
Many of my white friends express how thankful they are that we have moved past racism. When I bring up the racial disparities in our city, I’m accused of being a race-baiter, stirring up trouble, or not loving white people.
The disparity we see on a local level highlights one of the most fundamental ways we a nation are still divided. Racism and white supremacy have not disappeared, they are simply expressed using different tactics. While we aren’t burning crosses in people’s front yards, black churches are still getting burned. There has been an uptick in Klan rallies. People of color are incarcerated at higher rates than white Americans and they are more likely to be in poverty.
The myth that we have moved into a post-racial America is perpetuated by our segregation. Because people do not live in integrated communities, many Americans don’t have close friends of other ethnicities, which makes it harder to hear each other’s stories.
Colorblindness is Not the Answer
I believed I was colorblind in college. Colorblind is the idea that a person doesn't see color or race. During a prayer meeting, my junior year, some of my friends bravely pointed out that my version of colorblindness was simply seeing conflating white culture with American culture, another version of racism. Sarah Shin describes how hurtful colorblindness can be in her book, Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey. She writes, “Colorblindness, though well intentioned, is inhospitable. Colorblindness assumes that we are similar enough and that we all only have good intentions, so we can avoid our differences.” Our differences are real and are made by God. Ignoring them ignores the beautiful diversity of God’s kingdom.
Colorblindness can cause us to miss instances of injustice and racial discrimination. When a friend shared with me that there was no racism in her home town. I started asking questions, like what ethnicity are the majority of the janitorial staff and what ethnicity are the majority of the people who live in the “dangerous” neighborhood of your town? As she stopped to think about the different questions, she realized that not only did her town still suffer from racism but that by ignoring people’s ethnicities, she had also chosen to ignore systematic injustices around her.
Pretending to be colorblind only perpetuates the racism that holds our country hostage.
Why We Need to Look Back
Although slavery ended in 1863, it still impacts people today. Recently while I was talking to a friend about our last names and our family histories. I was reminded that I know my family history.
On my maternal side, my grandmother can trace her roots back to the Revolutionary war. On my father’s side, there is even a book about my great grandfather. I used to spend hours listening to my paternal grandmother, as she shared stories of her family and life living in Arizona. I am blessed that I know my history, and if I wanted, I could continue to track that history back for centuries.
My friend cannot. Her last name was given to her great, great grandfather by his master. She knows the plantation where he was when he was freed by the emancipation proclamation. The stories her grandmother told her were about being terrorized by men in white hoods. They lose their family history because her family was stolen and stripped of their history by slave traders.
It is hard to ignore the differences. Her family is from South Georgia, mine from South Carolina. She is a descendant of slaves, and I am a descendant of slave owners. Our lives are impacted by our histories, and our histories were impacted by slavery.
I cringe as I write this because I have bought into the lie of individualism. My white European American culture teaches that I am an individual and am only responsible for my actions. This lie ignores how my history has provided me with privileges, while other people's histories provided disadvantages.
Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, in her book A Sojourner’s Truth: Choosing Freedom and Courage in a Divided World, shares about how when the Israelites sinned by worshiping a golden calf, Moses went to God to ask for forgiveness. Robinson writes, “Unlike some of us, Moses understood that perpetual sin doesn’t just impact individuals, but it also impacts communities for generations.” Our society's perpetual sin of racism has created a culture where two hundred years later, the descendants of slaves are fighting an unjust racial systems, while the descendants of slaveholders are ignorant of the systems they have benefitted from.
Recognizing that our collective history impacts us means acknowledging that there are consequences of collective sin. Just as confession is an invitation to repentance and reconciliation with God, confession of our corporate sin is an invitation.
How to Move Forward
As a southern woman, I crave order. I love the long list of etiquette rules that we use to maintain order and allow “niceness” to flourish. I want to ignore conversations of our countries ugly history and current racial strife because it smashes the “nice” community I desire.
In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote,
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
It is tempting to want to push the signs of racial inequality to the side to create the fantasy of a friendly society, hoping that we will eventually become united. But God desires more for us than a “nice” community. God calls us into true reconciliation.
Jesus’ reconciling work on the cross doesn’t just reconcile humanity to God, but also reconciles us to one another. Just as reconciliation to God requires repentance, so does the reconciliation of ethnicities and cultures.
Despite all of the talk of repentance in the church, it seems as though our church culture reserves repentance for those who aren’t yet Christians. We have lost the importance of regular confession, losing the act of admitting our faults, and learning to turn from those faults. With that loss, our culture has chosen a façade of niceness rather than calling out sin and leading people to repentance.
Natasha Sistrunk Robinson writes, “The healing actions of confession and repentance must be honest and complete. An honest confession acknowledges the violations against God’s standard and the harm against other people that we have caused.” God’s standard is to love all of his people. To truly be repentant, we must confess that our country has a history of injustice towards the brown and black children of God. Without that confession, we as a society cannot truly turn from the systems that have created the racial inequality we have today.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and the work of civil rights activists, it’s tempting to want to believe that we have moved past the ugliness of our nation’s history. However, we will be unable to move past the stain of slavery, racism, and segregation until we first acknowledge our corporate sin, confess, and repent.
While it is painful to look back at our history, the hope of Jesus being able to reconcile us is worth the pain.