on racism and white privilege
"What can I, as a white person...I, how can I help it and not make it worse?" I asked, stumbling over my words, that first Sunday after church.
We talked and my anger swelled at the silence of our leaders and tears welled up in my eyes.
She hugged me. Wrapped me tight in her strong, dark, beautiful arms as tears slipped down my cheeks.
"I'm so glad you're my friend," I whispered into her shoulder.
"Me too," she whispered back.
I am a white woman.
My family history contains some combination of English, Swedish, Scottish, Irish, Finnish, Dutch, German, and a few other white European "ish" nationalities I can never completely recall.
My hair is naturally blonde and my eyes are a greenish hazel turned bright green when I cry. My skin is light and if I'm not careful I look like a lobster when I've been out in the sun too long.
I dated a tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed man in college and our friend once said we made the perfect Aryan couple. I cringed when he said that, and not just because it wasn't true — because my eyes are actually hazel, not blue — but because of what that word — Aryan — brings to mind.
Division. Superiority. The "perfect" race. "Divine heritage." Millions of lives ended because they were different.
It's been a few weeks now since that awful Thursday morning, where I sat at my desk and my heart broke and tears spilled as I read the words from my daily news summary:
WHAT PEOPLE ARE HORRIFIED BY... a shooting in Charleston, SC. Last night, a gunman opened fire at a historic black church there. Nine people were killed, including the pastor, and at least one was wounded. The shooter is still at large. Police believe he's a white man in his early 20s, and that he attacked during a prayer meeting inside the church. Officials are describing this as a hate crime. The FBI is helping with the investigation.
It's been a few weeks since I cried out to the Lord from my desk and watched my Twitter feed fill with blacks and whites alike figuratively ripping clothes, donning sackcloth and ashes and begging the Lord for an answer or a reason, mourning because nine of our dear brothers and sisters were dead and gone, victims of a violent racist murder. Victims of hate and sin.
I posted what I could. Retweeted and favorited and shared and tried to find the words but didn't know where to start or how to speak about something that I, as a person born with privilege because I am white, will never truly understand.
I didn't understand why we didn't talk about it in church. Why we mentioned it in one service, prayed, and moved on, and remained silent about it in another. A dear black friend encouraged me to press in to that feeling.
"The things that burden your heart are the places where the Lord wants you to speak up and press in," she said, as I cried in the middle of our church bookstore.
I emailed our pastors and asked why. Why did we not talk about this more? Why did it feel like we did not talk about this at all? Why did we talk about things like sexuality but when nine of our own were slaughtered because our Lord created them with dark skin did we sit back and say practically nothing? Why did we not spend time declaring the truth of the Gospel — that your worth as a person and your worth as a child of God has never and will never have anything to do with the color of your skin? Why did we spend time addressing how to respond when the culture aligns with the transgender movement but stayed quiet when the systematic racism so prevalent in our country reared its ugly head? Why did we spend more time talking about gay marriage than the death of nine brothers and sisters? Why did we talk about unity in the Church and not once mention this giant rift in our country?
It didn't make sense. I didn't understand it. I still don't. I don't know that I ever will.
In February, my brother and I went to go see Selma.
We had dinner and went to the theatre, picked up a snack, and sat down.
Over the next few hours, tears rolled down my cheeks. My heart tightened in my chest. I flinched and cringed and wanted to hurt the white people being depicted on that screen.
I couldn't help but think about what it would mean if we were living in that time. How some of my dearest friends, people I'd known and loved, broken bread and grown with for more than a decade would be beaten and bloodied, thrown to the ground and killed because they were black, because of the color of their skin and for no other reason.
I think that's when it started, when my heart began to crack and the crack only got bigger. Because I couldn't get those images out of my mind. I couldn't think about it without thinking about the people I loved and was so grateful to have in my life and how that would be them — could still be them.
I've read a lot over the last few weeks.
I hated that when people talked about racism and history, I felt so ignorant. It seemed like everything I'd ever learned about the topic in school had fallen out of my brain. I so desperately wanted to think that we'd made progress as a nation, that because slavery no longer existed and your skin color wasn't what made you eligible to vote racism was no longer an issue.
But I knew that wasn't true. Racism never ceased to be an issue in this country. It's been here from the start.
And I see it in my own heart — how I've refused to make eye contact with a black man as I walk down the street by myself. How I've judged and feared a person without knowing their heart or their history or their story because their skin was darker than mine.
I've unintentionally contributed to the racism that is deep in the heart of our nation. If you asked me if I'm racists, I would immediately tell you no. But as I reflect on all of the events and acts of violence committed against the black people in our country, I realize that something as simple as looking the opposite way from someone because of their skin color contributes to this mindset.
One of my favorite movies is the 1990s chick flick, Ever After. It's a retelling of the classic fairy tale Cinderella where the heroine — Danielle de Barbarac — is a spitfire with sharp wit, deep courage, and a huge heart.
In one scene, while talking with her love interest, Prince Henry, he declares, "I used to think if I cared about anything I'd have to care about everything and I'd go stark raving mad."
There are moments when I feel like that. This has been an exhausting summer for believers in the United States filled with a lot of harsh realities about the world we live in and the evil that is rampant in our country.
Historically, I shy away from talking about controversial topics like this, because I know the tendency of my own heart. I am a passionate person and I often find the effort to discuss hot button issues exhausting because, like Prince Henry, I find it difficult to focus attention and care on one thing and not talk about all the things and I drive myself, to borrow his phrase, stark raving mad.
What I'm realizing though is I can't not talk about it.
Something cracked open in my heart in a movie theatre in February and all the events of the last few months have only made it bigger. And I have faith that many of the other hot button issues of this summer — gay marriage, abortion and Planned Parenthood, and the transgender movement — will continue to be discussed in great detail by others in my circle. And my heart does break because of those things.
It would be easy for me to not talk about this. It would be easy for me to sit in my predominantly white church and focus my attention and care on the issues being discussed by the greater congregation.
But I can't do that and look across the room and see my black friends — my brothers and sisters in Christ with a different ethnic heritage and a different skin color but the same fierce love for the same holy God.
I don't really know what to say about it beyond I'm sorry and I want to help.
I'm sorry for the ways I've unintentionally contributed to racism in the past. I'm sorry for the ways I've allowed myself to benefit from white privilege without ever considering its long-term effects. I'm sorry for my silence when Erik Garner died and riots broke out in Ferguson and Baltimore and a young girl was forced to the ground in McKinley. I'm sorry for ever consciously or subconsciously thinking that the pigment of skin could ever predispose someone to violence or rage.
I don't know what else to say, but I know we can't stop talking about it. It can't be ignored or pushed to the side in the name of other "worse" evils.
To my black friends, I'm sorry and I want to have this conversation with you. I want to hear your stories and listen to your hearts and learn how I can be a better sister and friend to you. How I can use the stupid white privilege that exists in this country to help make white privilege a thing of the past. How I can love you and serve you and work with you to do whatever I can to help make this country realize just how wonderful you are.
To my white friends, please, let's keeping talking about this. And if you haven't been talking about it, start. Start with your own heart. Start with the people you see on the street, the friends in your circle of influence, and the strangers you encounter ever day. Learn to pay attention to the racism that sits in your own heart and the ways you've profited from white privilege. Let's stand up next to our brothers and sisters and show them that we're standing behind them and beside them, supporting them in whatever way we can.
My words are inadequate, I'm sure. But in the moments I think my words might not make a difference, I am reminded of the words of Edmund Burke, "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
It might only be a little something, but it's something.