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Still anxious to talk about racism?
“From guilt and shame to healthy white identity, Helsel has brought us a muchneeded guide to white self-awareness on the switchback-ridden journey to becoming anti-racist.” —Sharon E. Watkins, Director, National Council of Churches Truth and Racial Justice Initiative
“‘I’m not a racist,’ you may be thinking. ‘I’m not in the KKK and I don’t carry a Nazi flag. Why should I read a book about race?’ Carolyn Helsel’s new book will answer that question, and in the process, you’ll become not just a better white person, but a better, more mature, more caring human being.” — Brian D. McLaren, author of Faith after Doubt
“Anxious to Talk about It invites white people to recognize and relinquish racist ways, however subconscious, subtle, or insidious.” —Gerald C. Liu, Princeton Theological Seminary
“An honest, courageous, and thoughtful approach in engaging whites who are anxious to talk about race and racism. Beware (white) readers: you will meet the truth and the truth will set you free! If you dare to be free, ‘take up and read.’” —Luke A. Powery, Duke Divinity School “Helsel wades right into the thicket of emotions that accompany white fragility. This volume is packed with stories that need to be heard if America is ever going to live out a new story concerning race.” —Donyelle McCray, Yale Divinity School
Carolyn B. Helsel is Associate Professor in the Blair Monie Distinguished Chair in Homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). For nearly 15 years, she has helped white people talk about racism, working successfully with churches, non-profits, small groups, retreats, and within academic guilds and conferences. ISBN 978-0-827200-99-9
chalice press You Want to Change the World. So Do We.
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“Anxious To Talk About It is challenging, encouraging and always faithful. A must-read for anyone desiring to discover how to live a spiritual life of self-discovery in the 21st century.” —Jimmie Hawkins, Director of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Public Witness & United Nations
ANXIOUS TO TALK ABOUT IT
While we know the time to talk about racism is long overdue, many white people are still anxious to talk about it. Guilt, shame, discomfort, and the fear of saying the wrong thing are just some of the feelings white people perceive as holding them back from the critical conversations around dismantling racism. In this updated and expanded second edition of Anxious to Talk About It, professor and anti-racism teacher Carolyn Helsel offers fresh new ideas and tools for moving beyond the anxiety, engaging the hard conversations, and joining the work for a more equitable world with courage, grace, and conviction.
Praise for the First Edition of Anxious to Talk about It
“We white Christians engage in conversation about a number of important issues. But there is one conversation we are loathe to have: talk about race. We get edgy and nervous when talk turns to ‘America’s original sin.’ Carolyn Helsel gives us the background, the context, and the history we need in order to engage in this painful but so very important conversation. Helsel also gives us specific, practical guidance in how to instigate conversations about race in our churches. Thanks to God for this useful, important book!” — Will Willimon, Duke Divinity School, United Methodist bishop, retired, and author of Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism “Helsel wades right into the thicket of emotions that accompany white fragility. This book is a tender journey through the forest of avoidance, defensiveness, and obliviousness and a tool for building one’s tolerance for truth. She pierces myths that undergird white supremacy and offers preachers and teachers a resource for sparking some conversations that desperately need to start. This volume is packed with stories that need to be heard if America is ever going to live out a new story concerning race.” — Donyelle McCray, Yale Divinity School “‘I’m not a racist,’ you may be thinking. ‘I’m not in the KKK and I don’t carry a Nazi flag. Why should I read a book about race?’ Carolyn Helsel’s new book will answer that question, and in the process, you’ll become … not just a better white person, but a better, more mature, more caring Christian and human being.” — Brian D. McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration “This book is spot-on for the kinds of conversations we need to be having. Carolyn Helsel offers ready access to approach the hard issues of race without being adversarial. Her writing is deeply personal, reflecting her own path of growth. At the same time, it is acutely informed by developmental theory and is pervaded by a generous pastoral sensibility.” — Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary, author of Sabbath As Resistance and The Prophetic Imagination
“The author has engaged a critical step in dismantling racism: moving beyond the anxiety and hesitancy that many whites have about discussing the subject. Hard conversations must be had, and this book will be an important tool in facilitating them. The reader will be grateful for Carolyn’s honest courage.” — Teresa Hord Owens, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada “Anxious to Talk about It builds a bridge for white Christians who don’t want to be racist, but who don’t have the tools or language to build an anti-racist identity. Rooted in both a Christian religious practice as well as a rigorous commitment to racial justice, Helsel addresses common barriers to racial awareness, including colorblindness, guilt, and resentment about PC culture. Direct, clear, and replete with illustrative stories, the book offers both invitation and inspiration to white Christians to grow and change in liberatory anti-racist ways, as well as the tools to do so.” — Ali Michael, author of Raising Race Questions: Whiteness, Inquiry and Education “Anxious to Talk about It is rooted in scholarly knowledge that branches into pastoral wisdom. White people usually do not want to talk about race, and when they do, often discover that they do not know how. Helsel takes seriously white anxiety about racism and provides keys to understanding the cultural, personal, and spiritual issues that it entails. This book is full of faith, and it gives people of faith an accessible strategy to move beyond anxiety and guilt toward grace and gratitude. This is a book to be used, not just read.” — Daniel Aleshire, retired Executive Director, the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada “Carolyn B. Helsel has placed her finger on a most anxious place in our society: racism and the awkward silence on this issue in many pulpits. With a scholar’s insight and a pastor’s wisdom, she provides counsel about how preachers in white contexts can speak about race with courage, thoughtfulness, and practical impact. This is an urgent, timely, and welcome book.” — Thomas G. Long, Candler School of Theology “From guilt and shame to healthy white identity, Helsel has brought us a much-needed guide to white self-awareness on the switchback-ridden journey to becoming anti-racist.” — Sharon E. Watkins, Director, National Council of Churches Truth and Racial Justice Initiative
“Anxious is a much-needed resource to demystify the R-word (racism) for white people. This book is an inviting and accessible read for individuals and small groups. Helsel adeptly employs the art of storytelling to disarm those plagued by feelings of anger, confusion, and guilt when participating in anti-racism discussions. She impressively escorts the reader through an introduction to critical race theory as an invitation to help participants embrace their discomfort and own their ‘response-ability’ toward becoming an ally in the movement for racial justice.” — April G. Johnson, Minister of Reconciliation, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) “In Anxious to Talk about It, a welter of stories that are real and get real invite ‘white Christians’ to recognize and relinquish racist ways, however subconscious, subtle, or insidious. Using narrative finesse, Helsel gently convicts readers to rely upon gratitude for the grace of God as an entrée into ‘response-able listening’ that fearlessly and attentively loves all neighbors, especially ones devastated by the sin of white racism. Churches and communities beyond her targeted audience will also feel the warmth and promise of her witness.” — Gerald C. Liu, Princeton Theological Seminary, author of Music and the Generosity of God “Carolyn Helsel’s book is ‘for such a time as this.’ It is an honest, courageous, thoughtful, and pastoral approach in engaging whites who are anxious to talk about race and racism. Helsel is brave enough to speak truth to power in these anxious and angry times. Reading this should move one prayerfully from anxiety to gratitude because the truth dances all over these pages. Beware (white) readers: you will meet the truth and the truth will set you free! If you dare to be free, ‘take up and read.’” — Luke A. Powery, Dean, Duke University Chapel “Carolyn Helsel’s book is full of stories, including moving stories about her own attempts to understand the power of racism and the need for faithful action to resist it. But she does not pretend to be perfect. She does not claim to have it all figured out. Her modesty opens up space for some frank conversations about race. And these are conversations that the church very much needs to be having.” — Ted A. Smith, Candler School of Theology
HELPING WHITE PEOPLE TALK FAITHFULLY ABOUT RACISM SECOND EDITION
CAROLYN B. HELSEL
Copyright ©2017, 2021 by Carolyn Helsel. All rights reserved. For permission to reuse content, please contact Copyright Clearance Center, 222 Rosewood Drive, Danvers, MA 01923, (978) 750-8400, www.copyright.com. Scripture quotations are directly quoted or adapted from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Cover design: design:Jennifer Jesse Turri Cover Pavlovitz ChalicePress.com ChalicePress.com Print Print ISBN: ISBN:9780827200999 9780827200722 EPUB: 9780827201002 EPUB: 9780827200739 EPDF: 9780827201019 EPDF: 9780827200746
Preface to the Second Edition
Introduction: Naming Our Anxiety
Chapter 1: The Way We Talk about Racism
Chapter 2: How Did We Get Here?
Chapter 3: Feeling White
Chapter 4: Mapping Racial Identity Development
Chapter 5: Listening to Different Stories about Race
Chapter 6: Expressing Gratitude
Chapter 7: Spiritual Practices for Race Talk
Conclusion: The Anxious Bench
Preface to the Second Edition
In the spring of 2017, when I first wrote Anxious to Talk about It, I was seriously stressed out. I was “anxious” in the sense of being fearful and terrified, worried that I would say the wrong thing or hurt people with my words. Even after almost a decade of studying ways to talk about racism with white people and speaking in churches and workshops, I still had waves of white guilt and shame that would blast me out of nowhere, shouting over my writing voice with a roaring “Who are you, as a white privileged woman, to talk about racism?!” I had to keep coming back to the idea of gratitude and the gift exchange (see chapter six), convinced that I was doing this out of gratitude for the opportunity, and firmly believing that I had some small contribution to make by trying to get more white people to talk about racism. In writing this second edition, I am truly “anxious to talk about it” in the sense of being positively eager to be having these conversations. I am in awe of the many brilliant authors and speakers who have published books in the past few years, and I am thrilled to see the leaders who have risen up around the world to do this important work. And yet, the need is still so immense. There are so many who still need to hear this message that racism is something we can and need to unlearn. I was shaken, like many others, by the video of George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day, 2020. Soon thereafter, the responses that came from all corners of the globe were deeply inspiring. There are so many people— particularly white people and people of color who are not Black—who were showing up to Black Lives Matter protests, declaring, “Enough is enough!” to police departments that refused to hold officers accountable when they abused their power by using lethal force. There are many examples of white men armed with guns who have been taken into police custody alive after shooting and killing others. To attribute the deaths of unarmed Black men and women shot by the police to “fearing for their lives” or “justifiable cause” is deeply wrong and unfair. I hope you can feel
that unfairness deep within you; if you don’t yet, and if you are still trying to make excuses for these deaths, I hope this book will help you reconsider your feelings about these events. I am “anxious to talk about it” at this moment, because the need has never been clearer: We have to change our ways and acknowledge the power of racism over our lives, and at the same time to affirm with all our moral conviction that we have the power to change! We don’t have to allow racism to mock our ideals of justice and fairness, and we don’t have to let it keep showing our inadequacies as people united under the principle that all people are created equal. We can come together as one human family to see how our differences are our strengths, and how we need one another to survive on this planet. In July 2020, Chalice Press president Brad Lyons contacted me to see if I would be interested in writing a second edition to Anxious. So much has happened in the two years since it was published, and people who are reading this book to start the conversation in their own communities may need to better understand the rapidly changing vocabulary around race talk. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” has gone from a slogan to a movement, to being labeled by some as belonging to a terrorist organization. Recent books have popularized phrases such as “white privilege” and “white fragility,” which may have deepened white anxiety when it comes to talking about racism. And what is all this talk about “critical race theory”? These are some of the phrases I want to address in the first chapter to put them into the larger story of how the conversation around race and racism continues to change with time, and how our stories around these phrases also impact how we respond to conversations about racism. My goal is to help you as a reader better understand your own story around racism, and to get you comfortable entering uncomfortable conversations. We cannot work against racism if we remain silent or stay in our places of comfort. So, paradoxically, I want to provide you with tools for selfcomfort: soothing your own anxious responses so you can stay engaged for the long haul. There are plenty of opportunities for emotions to run high in these conversations; we need as many people as possible to be able to sit with emotions—their own and others’—without shutting down or leaving the table. We all need to be in this together. I also wanted to say a word about why a white person is writing this book. I have a limited perspective because I have grown up white and have not
experienced society’s racialization as a person of color. But I have come to see the way my own liberation is tied to becoming an anti-racist white person, someone who is committed to challenging racism in its many forms. I am a professor of preaching with more than twelve years of experience talking about racism in churches and community spaces around the country. I have seen and heard the kind of liberation that deepening relationships and challenging racist structures can lead to when we engage in this work together. I also have heard people of color say, “We didn’t make racism, white people did—so it should be the work of white people to end it!” White people have a responsibility to unlearn racism so they can work among other white people in this process. So many spaces continue to be predominantly white: It’s going to take a lot of white people in those spaces to challenge those demographics, working alongside and supporting the people of color who are working for change throughout society. Let me suggest some ideas as to how Anxious to Talk about It can help us continue this conversation today: 1) Focus on gratitude when we begin to burn out on the struggle, looking to the many gifts this process has given us, and reminding ourselves that there are more gifts to be received 2) Look for ways to highlight the gifts of people still overlooked because of racism—making sure our list of authors, movies, TV shows, news outlets, etc., are not filled with people who look like us, and that our circle of friends becomes more and more diverse 3) Diversify intentionally and strategically when we are in positions to make hires, so that we look intentionally to diversify our workplaces because differences bring us new perspectives and enrich our work life together 4) Continue to learn ways to manage our own emotional reactions to the process of learning, talking, and acting in response to racism, so that we do not project our negative feelings onto others. I hope the additional materials and resources available in this revision will be helpful for you as you continue this work, and as you invite others into the process with you. Blessings, Carolyn Helsel Spring, 2021
Naming Our Anxiety
We need to talk about racism. But before we do, I want you to notice something: the anxiety that arises at the first mention of the word racism. That part of your brain that deals with fight-or-flight responses activates, your hands start sweating, your heart begins to beat faster, and the room seems to get warmer all of a sudden. Your whole body says to you: This is not safe! This is not a topic I can talk about! How does your anxiety around this topic manifest? Do you feel your body tense? Do you pick at your nails or furrow your eyebrows? Do you feel your stomach turning? Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed by an urge to put this book down, to label it as “fake news” or “liberal propaganda.” How do these labels work to diffuse your anxiety? Let’s sit together for a minute a see if we can work to better understand one another. Maybe you’ve had an experience in the past that makes you uncomfortable— maybe you said something that someone else pointed out was offensive. Maybe you see protests with Black Lives Matter signs and you’re not sure whether talking about race means you will be asked to join a march—or, if you are white, whether you will be called out as a racist if you don’t. Perhaps you’ve been to anti-racism workshops and diversity trainings, and nearly every time someone breaks down in tears, usually a white woman, and you don’t have time for any of this. Aren’t there other things the group should be talking about? What are the sources of your anxiety as you think about race? What are the memories that this subject stirs up for you?
The divisions in society today may suggest that a conversation as politically charged as racism is not going to go down without a fight or at least hurt feelings and strained relationships. If you are a perfectionist, perhaps the anxiety comes from past experiences of not knowing the right answer, of trying to do something good only to have someone else misinterpret your actions. If you get defensive when this subject is raised, perhaps it comes out of an anxiety that you will be wrongly accused of being racist. If you generally think of yourself as a good person, perhaps this subject creates anxiety that you will never be “good enough” when it comes to race … because you are a white person. If you are a person of color, you recognize the different ways other people of color respond to racism, and maybe you’ve been charged with being not “Black enough” or still dealing with your “internalized oppression,” and dismissed as not being “woke enough.” Perhaps you have immigrated here from another country, where your people have witnessed violence and political conflict unknown to most Americans, and you are wondering why talking about racism is so important when you have witnessed attempted genocide in your lifetime or have heard the stories from your parents’ generation. This book is written by a white person, originally conceived with other white people in mind, but people of color who have read this book or heard me speak have said it helped them to better understand talking about racism with white people. I also speak as a United States citizen in the context of US history, knowing that other countries have their unique histories of trauma related to colonialism, sectarianism, and ethnic conflict. Because racism in the United States is a part of our history as well as our ongoing reality, it is important for those of us living in this context to understand it. I originally wrote this book out of my own anxiety, stemming from my own experiences of learning about racism and trying to find a way as a white person to join a larger movement of people working for racial justice. It came after years of pursuing graduate education in the field of religious studies to help me in my context of teaching white preachers to preach about racism. At first, I wasn’t very good at it. But I have to tell you, while the conversations haven’t gotten easier, I have experienced less anxiety around them.
I’ve spoken at churches across the country, in college settings and denominational meetings, to students, at public school parent meetings, and on public radio and podcasts. Since the first edition of this book, I have published two more books: Preaching about Racism, which goes deeper into how racism impacts our faith, and The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (and Ourselves!) Embrace Our Differences, a book I cowrote with a Black mom and professor of speech communication at Princeton Seminary. She and I wrote about our experiences of talking about our differences—including race, but also gender and religion—with our kids, as well as how to better manage our grown-up anxiety in conversations about our differences. My goal throughout these books and in my work as a professor of preaching is to help people have hard conversations—to move beyond our anxiety and to experience the good news that we can build relationships with one another across our differences. I want to encourage you, no matter what your level of anxiety is around talking about racism, that the movement toward greater racial justice needs people like you and me—people who may not consider ourselves radical or perfectly trained as experts—to speak out when we see racism operative in our society and in our lives, and to make a difference in the areas we can. Not everyone can drop everything and become a full-time activist. Not everyone can work full-time doing anti-racism work. However, everyone can learn how to talk about race, and to stay in the conversation long enough that when the opportunity to act comes, we will know what to do. This is a book about helping us stay in this conversation, even amid the anxiety we may feel when talking about race. This is a book to help us talk about it with other people—whites and people of color. If we are to develop better relationships with one another across our divisions, we need to be able to talk about the racist experiences people of color have endured. We also need to recognize that sharing these experiences often comes at a great cost. It feels vulnerable and risky to share one’s story, because the other person may try to minimize the experience or say, “It’s all in your head.” If your personal anxiety is too great when someone shares experiences of racial discrimination with you, you may be tempted to defend the action or give another interpretation of the event rather than simply listen. Because of this, it is really important that you learn about your own anxiety and deepen your capacity to listen to the difficult stories people of color have to share. Becoming more comfortable with personal anxiety can also help
us become more comfortable with the feelings of others. Connecting with one another through the sharing and “bearing with one another” in the midst of these feelings can go a long way in building trust. Because these conversations bring up so many feelings, it is tempting to avoid them: both the conversations and the feelings. And unfortunately, many of us still try to avoid the conversation, or at least deny that it is important to talk about racism. For those of us who are white, if our communities are mostly white, we can get away with not talking about how race impacts our lives or the lives of others. We may say to ourselves that we have too many problems of our own to worry about the problems others experience because of racial discrimination. We may tell ourselves racism is not an essential conversation and avoid talking about race until someone at our work or place of worship brings in somebody else to talk about it. Some of us may deny the very existence of racism in the twentyfirst century. But I hope this time will be different. I hope you will read this book, and by reading it experience a change in yourself, becoming more aware of your unique journey, and not feel shamed for getting it wrong. I want you to feel as though I understand what you are going through, and that we are going through it together. I want to walk with you so you can feel encouraged to continue on this journey wherever it may take you. If you have been part of this journey already and are worried about whether talking about the feelings of white people is against the principles of anti-racism, I explore this deeper toward the end of chapter one. I also offer this writing as a Christian, and my faith is one of the reasons why I feel compelled to write about race. When Jesus Christ came and lived among humanity, he was said to have “broken down the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14). Two thousand years later, we are still trying to live into that world of greater unity. But the moments when I have experienced unity with others—when I have felt blessed by the gift of someone else sharing with me a bit of who they are—have been moments of grace unfolding. When I have heard people share their experiences of suffering, and they feel I am listening and honoring their truth, there is a sense of communion present in these spaces. I believe God is working in the midst of these challenging conversations, and it is a gift in which we have been invited to participate. So, I write out of a deep sense of gratitude for what I believe God in Christ is already doing, and what I feel we have been allowed to join. I hope you will accompany me on this journey.
For people who are not Christian, particularly people whose religious identity has made them a target of racism and bigotry, I hope you will feel welcomed in this conversation. Several of the spiritual practices I speak about in the seventh chapter draw from traditions outside Christianity or share similarities with values held in common by multiple religions. For this work to be effective, it has to be ecumenical, drawing people from different religious backgrounds and no faith backgrounds to work together for justice. And to those who have experienced hate and bigotry from Christians because of your faith, I share in your justified skepticism of people who call themselves Christian yet perpetuate racism, and I recognize that you possibly are skeptical toward me as well. That is totally fair. I can only hope to live in ways that demonstrate my values and work to regain the trust that Christians like me have broken time and again. The title of the book includes the word faithfully because to talk about racism in the way I’m proposing requires a degree of faith. For people who are Christian, to talk faithfully means to do so in line with the ideals of our faith—to talk in a way that brings honor to God. It also refers to the way that faith requires a leap of trust. To talk about racism by first acknowledging our own feelings requires that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in tending to our emotions. I’m not even talking about sharing our feelings aloud with others: The experience of letting ourselves feel our own feelings requires vulnerability, breaking our habit of keeping it “cool” or looking professional, or the pressure to “have it all together.” It takes trust and faith to feel our feelings about race and racism and to see them for what they are, which may also make us uncomfortable. That discomfort makes us feel vulnerable and may make us want to halt the process. My hope is that this book will give you strength to sit with your discomfort more and more, and that you will see over time what I mean by “talking faithfully” about racism.
What to Expect This book includes stories others have shared with me. Sharing these stories is a way I bear witness to what is going on in their lives, both the pain and the joy. I will share stories from people of color and from white people, and for the most part I have kept their real names because they
have expressed their willingness to have these stories shared with others. In cases where I have not directly received someone’s permission to share their story, then the experience I relate will have identifying markers removed so that they may remain anonymous. In addition to stories, this book contains questions for reflection and discussion. Because this is a book about talking and not simply reading, I ask that you find a way to read it in conversation with someone else. At moments when I ask questions of you the reader, I hope you will position yourself to answer them with someone else. Perhaps as part of a book club, a small group, or a leadership training event you may read this book and have conversations as a group. Let others know you are reading this book and invite them to join you. The more people joining in these conversations, the greater the possibility for understanding and change. Finally, expect to feel emotions while you read and talk. That is the whole point of this book: to notice the emotional toll of having these conversations so the emotions do not derail the conversation or cause you to avoid it altogether. Expect to feel your feelings. Acknowledge them, respect them, and if you can, attend to them. If you can keep a journal while reading this book, write journal entries that name the feelings you are experiencing. Ask yourself questions about where the feelings come from and write down your answers. As you do this, keep in mind that no feeling is “bad” or “wrong.” Feelings just are. If we ignore our feelings or try to deny them, they eventually have a way of sabotaging our efforts. So, as you are reading this book, take a moment—as you need it—to check in with what you are feeling, writing down your thoughts and feelings if you can, and trust that this is part of the process. Remember, it is difficult to talk about race and racism. This is a long journey, so be prepared to extend yourself some grace. The chapters invite you to consider your own emotions and stories about race, and how those stories impact how you interpret the world around you. The first chapter will talk about how these three things—emotions, stories, and interpretation—are linked. The next chapter focuses on the history of how we got to this place, looking at the role of both religion and politics in bringing us to our current situation. Chapter three looks at the feeling of “being white” and how white people are racialized in this country in different ways. Chapter four looks at racial identity development theory, a way of understanding the story of how white people come to see themselves as white in a positive and anti-racist
way. Chapter five presents different stories about race that people have shared with me; these stories present challenging emotions. Chapter six moves into the work of interpretation, and I suggest that gratitude is the lens through which we can best interpret these difficult conversations. Finally, in chapter seven, I present several spiritual practices for ongoing engagement in difficult conversations about race. This book was several years in the making. As I prepare to “give birth” to this book of ideas for a second time, I pray that it will meet you where you are, encouraging you to embrace hard conversations. I continue to write out of a heart full of gratitude, a sense that God has called me to talk about the difficult topic of race among other white people, and it is a gift I want to share with you. If you choose to receive this gift, I believe you will be led into deeper opportunities of sharing and gratitude with the people in your community and within your circles of influence. As you engage in these conversations, know that I am praying in advance that they may be fruitful. Carolyn B. Helsel March 15, 2017, revised March 22, 2021
The Way We Talk about Racism
Anti-racist. Melting pot. White privilege. Post-racial. White supremacy. Reverse racism. White fragility. Colorblind. Police brutality. Black Lives Matter. Critical race theory. Reparations for American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS). Which words do you associate with racism? Which words are new to you? Which words make you cringe? Depending on when you read this book, what has been on the news recently, and what the people closest to you are saying about racism, you will talk about racism using the words that you know and are most comfortable using. The way we talk about racism is impacted by how we hear other people talking about racism, and we may or may not know the same words or the same “language.” Words have a history. They have an origin and a story. Words communicate with a purpose. Let me be clear: The words I am using to write this book convey a distinct purpose or goal. I want to motivate you to talk about racism with others so that you can build better relationships with people who look different from yourself. To do this, I will be using words I assume you already know, explaining other words that may be new to you, and helping you see the larger stories and histories behind these words. When I wrote this book in the spring of 2017, I had been speaking frequently with churches about racism, and in those conversations, I heard the phrases “melting pot,” “reverse racism,” “post-racial,” and “colorblind” as
ways some people explained to me why we no longer needed to talk about racism. So, I tried to understand what was behind these words. When I would ask people about their rationale, I would often hear a story. Our stories about the words we use have a powerful staying effect. So, rather than simply telling people to use different words, I realized I needed to understand their stories behind their words. The words we use often connect with our personal stories, but they also connect to our larger social and political stories as well—the stories we tell about our country’s history. In preparing a second edition of this book in 2020, I recognize that more white people are aware of other word associations: phrases that accompany discussions of race such as “white supremacy,” “white privilege,” or “white fragility.” Because of the political environment, critics of anti-racism have charged that these terms flow from an antiAmerican ideology called “critical race theory,” another term that may be new to you. During the summer of 2020, in response to the number of protests around the country and the world in the name of Black Lives Matter, opponents blamed this movement for riots and destruction of property. Black Lives Matter supporters, on the other hand, have highlighted the infiltration by far-right groups, who join these protests to sow chaos and incite violence. While some organizations have posted large signs on their buildings or on social media indicating their support for Black Lives Matter, people who believe Black Lives Matter is an extremist anti-government group see these signs as problematic. In the midst of our challenging times, emotions run high, and the way we talk about events and the words we use seem to be charged with controversy. The words themselves become a part of the battleground. Because more of our communication is posted online with more potential viewers than our intended audience, the words we use become ways other people judge us, interpreting whether we are liberal or conservative, whether we are “woke” or “racist.” How do we begin to have conversations around such an important topic when we do not know whether our words will be taken out of context or used against us? Take a deep breath. Listen to your body. As I stressed in the introduction, from the get-go we need to name our anxiety and the way it impacts our conversation. So, start now by taking deep, slow breaths and asking yourself, “What is my goal in this conversation?”
Naming Our Goal Try to answer this question for yourself: What is the goal in talking about racism? Is it to make us feel better? Is it to make us look better to others? Is it because the conversation is trendy and we need to be kept up-to-date? Or is it because we are being forced to have these conversations by our school, employer, or organization? If our goal is to make ourselves feel better by trying to get all the answers right, then the way we talk about racism will fail. There are other ways we can feel good about ourselves. There are other trendy topics and other matters on which we need to stay up-to-date culturally. And if we are reluctantly taking a class or training required by someone in power over us, we will show up already irritated that we have lost control over our time. How we talk about racism matters as well as why we talk about racism. So I want to encourage you to consider a different starting point, with a different goal in mind: What if we made love our goal? What if we saw in these conversations a way to better love others and even to love ourselves? What if these conversations about racism were aimed at helping us love one another better in our society and helping our country mend its deep divisions? What if we saw these conversations as giving us chances to share in relationships with people across racial lines? What if the learning opportunity our workspace or school is giving us to have these conversations will mean that we are more successful in engaging with our colleagues and coworkers? At the same time, even if our goal is love, our strategies still may fail. We still may be at a loss for words or unable to understand where another person is coming from. Conversations about racism change over time, but our goal of love should stay the same. Motivated by our goal, we look to new strategies and ways to talk about racism in order to reach more people about how to heal from our racist history. The goal we set for ourselves in having these conversations impacts what words we use to describe racism. If we think about our goal consciously as we engage in these conversations, we may reconsider our strategy for which words to use when. I use the word strategy intentionally. Because our words do things. As human beings, we are strategic in how we use our words. We have goals, and our strategies are the ways we work toward those goals.
Strategies for Talking about Racism Past and Present How we talk about race and racism changes over time, and it changes because of events that take place in time. How we speak about racism also changes because our realities, goals, and strategies change. For example, during the so-called “separate but equal” era of “whites only” and “colored” signs above bathrooms and water fountains, refusing to use racial identifiers seemed to be a positive strategy to whites who wanted to challenge the racism they witnessed. To be “colorblind” meant that a person refused to acknowledge the relevance of race. If we didn’t use race to describe people, and we tried to be “colorblind,” then the idea was that people no longer would discriminate based on race. But decades since those signs were removed and segregation became illegal, people of color are still discriminated against, even if race is never named. The words we use to talk about racism matter because they are used strategically to declare that racism is a problem and to define what kind of problem it is exactly. It is important to acknowledge that people who do not have love as their goal also have strategies. For instance, people who believe nonwhites to be inferior to whites have strategies for making sure society stays segregated. These strategies have included fear, such as used in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate people—both Black and white—so that people would not try to change the social order. Fear and intimidation continue to be a strategy used by people who do not want to address the long-term and ongoing harm that racism has inflicted upon our society. There continue to be people who say that talking about racism is divisive. The country already is divided on a number of different issues, and there are still large segments of our population segregated by race. People who feel talking about racism is divisive want to avoid talking about race issues, hoping that avoiding these complex, controversial conversations will enable us to get along with one another. My experience with talking about racism has been the opposite of divisive. Although it has not been easy, I found that talking about racism enables me to have conversations with people who do not look like me and get to know them in deeper and more meaningful ways than if I had avoided talking about race. You may think this is easy for me; it is not. I’m an introvert who prefers spending time alone. I feel socially awkward in spaces where I do not know people, or when I know people only by acquaintance. Talking about
racism has given me the opportunity to get to know people on a deeper level, to hear their struggles and challenges as well as their hopes for a better future. It truly feels like a gift to have these conversations. So if you hear someone say talking about racism is divisive, ask them about their experience. Do they say that it is divisive based on their experiences when talking about racism? Or does it stem from a desire to avoid difficult conversations? There have been a number of strategies for talking about—or not talking about—racism in this country. Phrases such as “melting pot,” “colorblind,” or “post-racial” have been ways to target either the problem or the solution to racism. Melting pot implies that all the ethnic differences among immigrants to the United States have “melted” into one citizenry, and it conveys the expectation that this is how things should be in order to end racial and ethnic bigotry. The word colorblind refers to the ideal of not seeing color as it relates to racial difference, as in, seeing everyone “just as people.” Post-racial refers to an era when talking about race is no longer necessary or useful, a term evoked often to describe America shortly after Barack Obama was elected the forty-fourth president of the United States. Reverse racism is what white people say they have experienced when being white seems to put them at a disadvantage, naming what they see as the primary example of ongoing racism. Each of these phrases represents a world of meaning: a way of interpreting race and racism that connects to our way of seeing the world. These phrases are also part of our history; they are related to how people are talking about race and racism in particular moments in society.1
Melting Pot In an online course I teach on worship and preaching, a textbook I use focuses on diversity within one of its chapters, and a student took issue 1 For more information on how race language changes over time, see Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s book Racial Formation in the United States, third edition (New York, New York: Routledge, 2015). It also helps to know that as race changes, we have the power to change it. They write: “To recognize that race is historically and politically constructed is not only to see it as a ‘moving image,’ as something we make and remake over time, it is also to acknowledge our power, both collective and individual, to transform the meaning of race. We created this meaning-system and the social order it supports. We can change it as well” (p. 16).
with the concept. The student felt the chapter lifted up positive elements from nonwhite worshiping traditions but disparaged the contributions of so-called “white” churches. I asked him to write out his concerns, since I had not experienced the reading the same way he had. His response included a story about race: a narrative that explained his own frustration with the current conversations around race and diversity. He said that the United States used to be a country of immigrants, where each person came and contributed the best of his or her culture and then joined the melting pot of America. Now, he believed, people want to come and receive the best our country has to offer, to enjoy its benefits but not become “American.” They want to retain their “otherness,” using a hyphenated descriptor before the word American. My student said he could not understand why people would immigrate here and not want to learn our language, instead insisting that we speak their language and learn about their cultures. He agreed that we could learn something from other cultures but argued that other cultures have something to learn from whites as well. In this student’s conversation with me, he was lifting up the model of the melting pot of cultures, a way of saying that talking about race maintains divisions and prevents unity. The student believed that talking about race negatively impacted what, in his mind, was a positive experience of American cultures melting into one larger nation. His story about race was that we needed to ignore it in order to maintain the melting pot of our country. Wanting everyone to “melt” into a single culture is understandable—it can feel challenging to build relationships with people who are different. And yet, we continue to be successful at bridging those gaps when we put forth the effort. We also need to understand why this country has made the “melting pot” ideal so difficult for some to achieve. I recommend watching the episode “The House We Live In” from the California Newsreel documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion (available online). The episode talks about the origin of this phrase and how it applied to people who immigrated from European countries, but not to immigrants from Asian countries or the descendants of enslaved Africans.2 Christine Herbes-Sommers, Tracy Heather Strain, and Llewellyn M. Smith, Race: The Power of an Illusion, directed by Christine Herbes-Sommers (California Newsreel, 2003), DVD or available on Vimeo. See newsreel.org. 2
Another question to ask ourselves is what was the cost for those from European countries to melt their cultures into a single American culture? People who came from other countries may have felt they needed to avoid celebrating their heritage or passing on their cultural traditions to their families in order to appear more “white.” These “wages of whiteness,” or the benefits of becoming a “white” American, came at a cost: People who previously identified with a home culture had to strip themselves of their “otherness” in order to gain admission to the category of white.3
Reverse Racism In a church I served, after I had preached several sermons that focused on recent high-profile cases of police shootings of African-American men, one parishioner walked out in the middle of my sermon. I later learned more about the man’s frustrations: They had to do with his current work environment and colleagues. As a person in the tech industry, he often worked with people over the Internet and phone who were a world away. The few colleagues who actually shared a brick-and-mortar office space with him were immigrants from other parts of the world, primarily India. He was the only white person in his office and often felt excluded by his colleagues, who would sometimes speak to one another in languages other than English. He saw them doing well financially and professionally, while he was struggling to succeed in the company and overlooked for promotions. He experienced my sermons as lifting up the plight of people of color at the hands of oppressive white society as a contradiction to his own experiences, and he expected I would view him as a racist for disagreeing with me. He believed reverse racism took place and felt he had experienced it himself. In anti-racist trainings, I hear the leaders state that racism against white people does not exist, even though there are white people who say they have experienced it. What anti-racist trainers explain is that racism is more than feelings of being discriminated against; it is the systemic exclusion of certain groups of people from having access to opportunities based on their group membership. They highlight the history of laws that have unfairly benefited whites and how laws and patterns of discrimination become invisible social structures that perpetuate inequality. A recent book, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, offers a compelling look at 3
David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness (New York, New York: Verso Books, 1991).
the history of these laws, particularly as they relate to ongoing housing segregation.4 The challenge for me as this man’s pastor was to recognize the reality of his struggles while inviting him to look at the larger picture of a history that has benefited him as a white person. By preaching about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I was not minimizing his frustrations at work with his colleagues; rather, I was trying to help him see that what he saw as reverse racism could more accurately be described in words that related to cross-cultural communication. When I preached about racism, I was speaking about a larger and longer pattern of Black people being treated like criminals and murdered with impunity. My goal was to help him build empathy and compassion for people who do not look like him, and to help him consider how he might be able to use his gifts to make a difference where he has influence. Maybe he does not feel he can do that in his workspace, but maybe there are other avenues for him to be an agent for change.
Post-racial or Colorblind While leading a workshop on race for a predominantly white church in 2015, I sat at a table of women during one of the small group discussions. One woman, in her forties, spoke about her daughter, whom she had adopted from China. She expressed concern that we are still talking about race, when it seemed to her that her daughter just wanted to be seen as part of her (white) adoptive family. The woman shared that her daughter never showed interest in learning about Chinese culture or finding her birth parents, and the woman saw talking about race as negatively impacting her daughter’s ability to feel she truly belonged within her adoptive family.5 Another woman at the table, in her seventies, still remembered signs for “whites only” above bathrooms and water fountains, and she had believed that “not seeing color” was an improvement to that former way of life. Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017). 4
5 The organization Be the Bridge has resources for transracial adoptive families to learn more more about why talking about racism is important. “Transracial Adoption,” Be the Bridge. Accessed: March 1, 2021. https://bethebridge.com/ transracial-adoption/
Both of the women were describing a post-racial America, an ideal that values colorblindness as a way of moving beyond our ugly racist past. In order to talk about race among people who carry a number of different stories about this subject, we need to understand the power of stories and the connection of our stories to our understanding. Cognition—how we think—is not solely responsible for how we interpret the world in which we live. Our emotions are influenced by our interpretation of events, and emotions actively influence our interpretation of events. Additionally, our interpretation of events is most often shared in story form, conveying the attached emotion that we associate with our personal perspectives. This is why some therapists engage their clients in cognitive behavioral therapies to help clients deal with serious emotional concerns: How we think about the world influences our emotions, and likewise, our emotions impact how we think about the world.
Talking about Racism by Naming Whiteness: White Privilege, White Fragility, and White Supremacy Just as the word racism can be associated in our minds with different stories, so too can the more recent terms that people use in talking about racism: white privilege, white fragility, and white supremacy. Knowing the stories behind these phrases can be a helpful way to understand their purposes, their benefits, and their shortcomings. They also can produce a number of emotions in people because of the way they point directly to white people. While people of color continue to experience being called on as the “race experts,” as if only people of color should work to fix the problem of racism, these terms lead with the group name white in order to put pressure on white people to do more of their own work to address racism.6 As someone whose goal is to get white people to engage in conversations about racism, I have hesitated in the past to use these phrases, assuming that white privilege or white supremacy may turn some people off to the. For white people who have grown up unconscious of their whiteness, to have themselves labeled white and grouped with all other white people can feel disorienting. Jennifer Miller, “Their Bosses Asked Them to Lead Diversity Reviews. Guess Why.” The New York Times (October 12, 2020). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/12/business/corporate-diversity-Black-employees.html. 6
At the same time, it is good to remember that people of color are indoctrinated in issues of race at a much younger age than white people, since society groups these individuals together as “Black” or “Latinx” or “Asian” or “people of color” and assigns meaning to these identities at a very early point in life. A child with brown skin learns early on that she is “Black,” which may be confusing in the literal mind of a child since this does not correspond to her skin tone. And many times, when people of color bring up their experiences of racism and whites try to explain away those experiences as not having to do with race, the people of color have been labeled “racist” for forthrightly naming race. So, let us begin by acknowledging that naming race does not make someone racist. Talking about race helps us notice the sometimes subtle ways racism has permeated our society and way of life. But if you have not grown up naming whiteness as a racial category, then this may take some getting used to. This is why I think it is important to talk about whiteness, and why I think white people need to spend time understanding their own history through the lens of how society has racialized them as white. I also try to balance this with my goal of introducing white people to the conversation, and so I try not to lead with words that suggest I see them as the problem.
White Privilege I was invited to speak on a panel for a community group, and the host asked me to define white privilege. I described it by telling its story, explaining the ways it came about as a phrase, and how it has been used strategically in the conversation about racism. A woman named Peggy McIntosh, a white professor in the Boston area in the 1980s, was writing about her experiences as a woman in predominantly male spaces. When she would walk into a room, she would be the only woman among her male colleagues, and she would notice things that her male colleagues would take for granted. So, she began writing about what she termed male privilege, advantages such as going out to play golf together where they could talk about work in other spaces where she wasn’t invited, and so on. When she shared this concept with other female faculty members, the women of color approached her and said, “What you’re writing about has a lot to do with what we experience around white faculty members. When white women faculty get together to talk about
‘feminism,’ it often feels like we are being left out and our experiences ignored.” And so Peggy McIntosh began writing about what she began noticing as white privileges, which she had taken for granted, and she published an article titled, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”7 It includes things like “When I go in and get a bandage, I can be pretty sure it will match my skin color”—pretty benign—, but it extends to matters that are more serious, such as when I am stopped by the police, I don’t worry whether I will make it home alive. Now, that’s not in her original “backpack,” but as we have these conversations, we discover how white privilege extends to the many ways that whites are advantaged in our society because of this history of racism, of anti-Blackness, and the ways that whiteness as this invisible category of race has formed to build white advantages across this country’s history. It is helpful to hear Peggy McIntosh’s phrase within her original context — recognizing first that the experiences of her male colleagues were different from her own, and later recognizing that her experiences were different from her female colleagues who were African American. She tries to help people use the phrase white privilege to take notice of the unearned advantages many whites experience because of race. But she is also clear that she writes from her own experience and is not trying to generalize to all white people, acknowledging that many whites have experienced unearned disadvantages. In leading discussions with other co-presenters, Dr. McIntosh will invite participants to consider and share the unearned disadvantages they have experienced, then later describe what unearned advantages they have benefited from, and finally conclude by answering a question: “What is it like for you to sit here and talk and hear about these experiences of unearned advantage and disadvantage?”8 Those of us who have grown up white do not see these advantages and do not realize the implications of being white. And there are plenty of white people who grow up in adverse circumstances who ask, “What Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Seed, the National SEED Project, 1989. https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/ white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack. 7
Peggy McIntosh, “Some Notes for Facilitators on Presenting My White Privilege Papers,” Wellesley Centers for Women, 2010. https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEEDTexts/white-privilege-and-male-privilege. 8
advantages?” when we speak of white privilege. The history of our country and its laws that have benefited some and discriminated against others is connected to—but different from—our own personal histories. We need to consider both—the larger social stories that have impacted the context in which we live and grew up, as well as the more intimate stories of our own backgrounds and struggles to succeed. To unequivocally call all white people “privileged” may not help people who are underprivileged in one way or another to see why the conversation about racism is still important.
White Fragility Racial justice educator Robin DiAngelo asserts that white people suffer from “white fragility” when it comes to encountering conversations about race.9 She argues that the emotions of white people often get in the way of learning about the realities of racism because white people often live segregated from “racial stress,” noting that when whites first experience it, they often react defensively, expressing outward anger, arguing, or withdrawing completely. DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, is full of ways that white people continue to say racist things, despite their intentions, and names in great detail the privileges whites hold as a group in society. It challenges all the ways white people try to defend themselves against allegations of racism, and helps whites see their own good/white and bad/Black binary that continues to lead to the implicit bias of associating Black people with crime.10 It is a book intended to push people further when they have already committed to being anti-racist. But DiAngelo’s challenges can also make white people feel really guilty. If you, as a white person, ever show your emotion at hearing about racism, you are guilty of “white tears,” which according to DiAngelo re-center your feelings rather than the feelings of people of color who experience racism. But how does a white person transition from being ignorant of racism to becoming more aware of its daily manifestations without feeling some serious feelings? 9 Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3, no. 3 (2011): 54–70. 10
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).
The story of DiAngelo’s book comes from her experience as an anti-racist trainer, having experienced a lot of negative reactions from the white people she has tried to educate about racism. I can understand her desire to label those reactions in an attempt to stop them from happening so frequently. But white fragility can serve as a form of name calling, whereby we call out white emotions to shame or insult. Remembering our goal, we cannot call people names and expect them to change. We may actually do more to push them away than help bring them closer to working for racial justice. I’ve seen people on discussion boards trying to debate an issue related to racism, and if the white person responds negatively in any way, the other person (typically a white person, but at times a person of color) charges that their response is “steeped in white fragility.” That’s what is called a “diss” or a “comeback,” an insult meant to offend or belittle the other person by labeling them as part of the uneducated white masses who cannot handle “racial stress.” Calling people names does not protect the men and women who are more impacted by racism. Calling people names and fighting over words does not keep safe the Black and brown people of all genders who have been targeted in hate crimes and in police shootings. Terms like systemic racism and institutional racism have been used to try and explain the depth and breadth of the problem of racism, pointing out that the issue is not just offensive remarks or individual acts, but rather a complex web of larger social systems and policies that over time have led to differences in the experiences of people based on race. One way people have tried to designate what that larger system is called is through the term white supremacy.
White Supremacy White supremacy is a way some have described the long-term history of racial discrimination that still impacts people today, indicting large institutions and patriotic celebrations as legacies of white people’s unearned advantages that continue to dismiss or take advantage of people of color.11 Actor Mark Ruffalo accused Hollywood of displaying a hundred Michael Powell, “‘White Supremacy’ Once Meant David Duke and the Klan. Now It Refers to Much More.” The New York Times (October 17, 2020). https://www.nytimes. com/2020/10/17/us/white-supremacy.html.
years of white supremacy.12 Former NFL player Colin Kaepernick posted to Instagram a declaration on July 4, 2020, that he was rejecting celebrations of the Fourth of July because of America’s history and continued practice of dehumanizing, brutalizing, and criminalizing Black people, echoing the words of Frederick Douglass’ speech titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”13 The New York Times published an article in October of 2020 describing how the term white supremacy has taken on new meanings over time, citing the public figures mentioned above as well as Black scholars who use it today, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi. The term white supremacy has been part of the conversation about racism for at least the past fifty years, used at some points to talk about far-right racist organizations that believe the white race is superior to all others, and at other points to talk about racism as a whole complicated system. While the article describes how Black scholars like Coates and Kendi use the term white supremacy, it also features Black scholars who do not think the phrase is helpful as a strategy. Harvard University sociologist Orlando Patterson expressed his concern that the term “comes from anger and hopelessness and alienates rather than converts.”14 Patterson’s comments echo the sentiments of white people who may experience the phrase white supremacy as a judgment against all white people. The article also cites Wesley Yang, essayist and author of The Souls of Yellow Folk, who writes, “The phrase is destructive of discourse,” he said. “Once you define it as something that has a ghostly essence, it’s nowhere and
Patrick Smith, “Mark Ruffalo: ‘Hollywood has been white supremacist for 100 years’.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media (February 22, 2020). https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/mark-ruffalo-interview-dark-waters-avengers-marvel-trump-kevin-feige-boris-johnson-a9351101. html.
Brooke Seipel, “Kaepernick on July Fourth: ‘We reject your celebration of white supremacy’,” The Hill, Capitol Hill Publishing Corp (July 4, 2020). https://thehill.com/ blogs/in-the-know/in-the-know/505886-kaepernick-on-july-fourth-we-reject-yourcelebration-of-white.
Michael Powell, “‘White Supremacy’ Once Meant David Duke and the Klan. Now It Refers to Much More.” The New York Times (October 17, 2020). https://www.nytimes. com/2020/10/17/us/white-supremacy.html.
everywhere.”15 If these two words are used to describe the white nationalist groups that marched in Charlottesville in 2017, as well as institutions like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the term may seem to overreach and stretch too far to make it a helpful tool for talking about racism. Critics of the terms white supremacy and white fragility, such as Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, suggest that the use of such words aims to be fiercer and sharper than previous terms. Like crocodile teeth, words’ “rhetorical strength” gets worn down, and they need to be replaced with new ones.16 But in our attempts to do so, sometimes we can overstate our case and inadvertently paint people of color as powerless victims and whites as incorrigible sinners, never able to change or be redeemed.17 As challenging as it is to speak about the complex and changing dynamics of racism, I still find the word racism to be the most useful in bringing people into the conversation. For one, it is direct: it names that race itself is the focus—not one particular race such as whiteness—and it has been used long enough that there is some continuity in people’s minds that enables them to know what we are talking about. We may not agree on all the ways racism continues to operate in society, but at least we can begin to learn from one another’s experiences. We can begin to have a conversation that allows us to hear one another’s stories about racism. I also try to avoid giving simple definitions of what racism means. When anti-racist trainers introduce the statement “Racism is prejudice plus power,” they are trying to give a definition that shows that racism is about more than individual words or actions—it’s about the larger systems of power that make it harder for people of color to achieve levels of success similar to white people in the United States. But white listeners who do not see themselves as powerful have a hard time connecting the dots between their race and power. They do not see Powell, “‘White Supremacy.’” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/17/us/white-supremacy.html.
Powell, “‘White Supremacy.’” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/17/us/whitesupremacy.html. See also McWhorter’s critical review of White Fragility in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/dehumanizingcondescension-white-fragility/614146/.
John McWhorter, “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility.” The Atlantic (July 15, 2020).
their whiteness as contributing to their own success, and they may even feel it has prevented them from being successful if they blame affirmative action for a lack of job opportunities or promotions. This feeling prevents them from viewing racism against people of color as a problem because they do not see themselves as benefitting from being white. They also may be in the room with people of color who serve as their supervisors, people who hold more power than they do in the institution for which they work. How does this definition help the white secretary better understand the racism her Black boss experiences? Definitions may try to get everyone on the same level, so to speak, using the same language, but when our experiences of race intersect in such varying ways with other aspects of our identity, these definitions may not lead to greater understanding or to even beginning to speak the same language.
Stories, Emotions, and Our Interpretations of Racism Many white people (myself included) who grew up after the 1960s believed that after the civil rights movement racism was no longer a major problem. We believed that there were still racists in extreme cases—skinheads and KKK members—but that most white people knew better than to be racist. It was socially unacceptable to be racist. Racism was only the result of ignorance. So, if you were not ignorant and you seemed to be relatively socially astute, then your self-perception was that you were not one of “them,” the racists “out there.” But to hear a different story—to learn that we ourselves most likely have said or done something that was perceived as racist by another person, or that we contribute to the system of racism—makes us feel bad. We are disoriented. We’re not sure who we are anymore. We’re not sure whether we can talk about race for fear of saying something stupid. We’re not sure we can mention that we are white without sounding like we are a white supremacist. We fear being accused of racism, and we berate ourselves when we realize we have harbored racist attitudes. There has been an increase in diversity trainings across the country— more organizations and businesses are bringing in professional antiracism trainers or diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultants. The information shared and made available through these trainings is critical to our unlearning of racism. Before we can undo racism, we first have to realize how we learned it in the first place.
But to truly change, not only to know about anti-racism but to truly become a person who is anti-racist, we have to grapple with our own emotions and personal stories around race. To change the emotional reactions we have surrounding conversations about racism, we have to unpack the stories that we told ourselves about racism and discover new ways of telling the story of racism in our country and in our own lives. If we are white, we also have to deal with the emotional impact of recognizing ourselves within a story that does not paint us as the hero but instead shows us to be the villain. If we are accustomed to all-or-nothing thinking, if we assume that we are either all-good or else we must be allbad, then it will be extremely hard for us to adjust to a new story in which we have been painfully unaware of how our actions have hurt others. One of our predictable emotions may be to turn any negative emotions away from ourselves and onto others, blaming some other group for the pain we are feeling inside as a result of these conversations. An example of this quick deflection is when whites try to detach from the history racism by saying “My ancestors never owned any slaves” or “I grew up poor and had to work for everything I have—so where are these ‘benefits’ or ‘privileges’ you’re talking about for all white people?” And they are right—when people use terms like white privilege, it can be confusing and insulting to people who feel they have lived a hardscrabble life. This is why I use the word racism when I lead conversations. I want people to see how the idea of “race” has been created and deployed harmfully in our history. I also recognize the emotional impact on people—both white people and people of color—of having these conversations. I want to help all of us better understand how we have been racialized by society, as well as to see how we can be contributors to a more just society. We need everyone to be part of a movement for greater fairness and equality for all, and I want to encourage people to stay engaged in this process, even when we feel uncomfortable or frustrated, because we all have gifts to bring to the table. I also want people to understand their own associations with the word racism, which may be connected in their minds to other stories that impact their emotional reaction to talking about it. Stories that come from the person’s history, from their education or schooling, from media sources, from friends and family—all influence their emotional reactions and their
interpretation of the word racism. When talking about race and racism, we need to tell these stories and sit with the emotions they bring up for us. We also need to hear the stories of others who have had experiences different from our own. To join the conversation and engage meaningfully with racial injustice, we also must expand our understandings of what racism means. Culture has changed, society’s racial stratification has evolved, and demographics in the United States have changed. Yet, racism continues to be experienced in real and life-threatening ways for people of color. For white people who want to understand the phenomenon of contemporary racism, we need to recognize it, not only by recalling our previous understandings of racism but by reevaluating those understandings. We need to broaden our own collection of stories that inform our understanding of racism and rethink our assumptions about what racism looks like today. In having conversations about race with other people, our interpretations about race may be different from theirs. Our friends and neighbors’ interpretations of race in the world may be different from our own because of their personal experiences, early learnings, or struggles. If we have attended a workshop or anti-racist training, we may have a certain idea of which words and phrases people should be using. We may be convinced we have the right answers, and we may use our knowledge to correct others who are just entering the conversation. The emotions behind this tendency include the anxiety of wanting to be right, wanting to show that we are among the “good” white people, that we are on the right side. But these emotions of wanting to get it right, to get others to agree with us on the level of definitions and word choices, may hinder our ability to listen to one another. Our own emotional reactions to talking about racism may become an obstacle, for ourselves and for others. A better self-understanding of our emotions will not only help us talk with others, but also give us patience with one another and help us honor each other’s emotions as we engage in the conversation. But what kind of emotions are we talking about here? So far, it may seem like the only emotions I’m concerned with are anxiety or frustration, emotions that we may feel are mild compared to anger and rage. But there are moments in the life of our society when the anger of injustice overflows onto the streets—when another Black man, woman, child,
or trans person is killed and there is no justice for the loved ones they leave behind. How do we deal with our feelings then? And what does our interpretation of racism have to do with protecting the lives of Black people? Racism manifests in its most deadly form in how Black bodies have been criminalized: Black men and women are not seen as individuals or citizens but automatically viewed as criminals.
The Power of Interpretation: Trayvon Martin and #BlacksLivesMatter In 2012, a Black teenager named Trayvon Martin was walking home in the rain wearing a hoodie in Stanford, Florida, having just walked to a gas station to buy a drink and a bag of Skittles. On his way home, a person driving around purportedly doing neighborhood watch caught sight of him and thought he looked “suspicious.” That split-second interpretation sentenced Trayvon to death. His shooter, George Zimmerman, interpreted Trayvon’s presence as a threat, an interpretation that led to the confrontation that ended in Zimmerman shooting and killing Trayvon. Zimmerman had in his mind a story of assumptions about a Black man wearing a hoodie sweatshirt, beginning with seeing this teenager already as a dangerous man rather than a child, someone to fear and to suspect, and that interpretation brought on an aggressive encounter that ended with a gunshot that killed Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted for Trayvon’s murder. The jury consisted of six women, five of them white. Their interpretation of the events as the defense attorney presented them was that Zimmerman was not guilty of any wrongdoing, and that Trayvon’s response to Zimmerman may have made him partially responsible for his own death. One juror later told Anderson Cooper, “Oh, I believe [Trayvon] played a huge role in his death… He could have walked away and gone home.”18 The news of Zimmerman’s acquittal created outrage and despair for many across the country who saw this verdict as another sign that Black bodies Anderson Cooper, Anderson Cooper 360°, “Interview with Zimmerman Juror B-37.” Aired July 16, 2013. https://www.cnn.com/videos/bestoftv/2013/07/17/exp-earlyjuror-speaks-ac360pkg.cnn.
were disposable. In response, a young Black woman named Alicia Garza posted a “Love Letter to Black People,” in which she expressed her sadness at “how little Black lives matter.” Her friend, Patrisse Cullors, created the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The hashtag began as a rallying cry to tell those who look like Trayvon—who perpetually risk losing their lives because they automatically are regarded as “suspicious”—that their lives matter.19 In response to the “Black Lives Matter” phrase gaining support, some white people took offense. People began posting “ALL lives matter.” These reactions missed the point: the original writers were expressing that “Black lives matter too” because of how often Black people have been shot without repercussions for the shooter. The people who lifted up Black Lives Matter did so as a protest, as a cry against the injustice they witnessed on a regular basis. A year after the Zimmerman acquittal, in the summer of 2014, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed unarmed resident Michael Brown. The eighteen-year-old’s body lay in the middle of the street for four hours. As a result, three young adults began coordinating protests and rides for people to come from all over to protest what they saw as the racism exhibited in Michael Brown’s death. DeRay Mckesson, Brittany Packnett, and Johnetta Elzie were among the recognized leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson.20 The Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow, bringing together groups of people across the country who view racism as being still at work in society and who are trying to change the systems that enabled the deaths of Trayvon, Michael, and others who look like them, calling for greater accountability. In the summer of 2016, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer during what started as a routine traffic stop. Castile informed the officer that he was carrying a firearm, for which he had a license. When Castile reached for his identification, the police officer drew his gun and fired seven times. All of this transpired in less than sixty seconds. Philando’s Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele tell the story of this beginning in their book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
Jelani Cobb, “The Matter of Black Lives.” The New Yorker (March 14, 2016). http:// www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/14/where-is-Black-lives-matter-headed.
girlfriend, from the front passenger’s seat, took a video to bear witness to this horrific event and to call for justice. Protests erupted across the country. Later that week, as Dallas police officers stood by a group of Black Lives Matter protestors, a madman shot and killed five officers. While critics blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for the violence, investigators found no connection between the shooter and BLM. Later that summer, a white man shot and killed two Iowa police officers as they sat in their vehicles. Friends and family of police officers around the country proclaimed that “Blue Lives Matter,” emphasizing the dangerous job that officers take on every day to protect the lives of citizens. Meanwhile, BLM leaders expressed their sadness and outrage at the deaths of these officers, condemning violence against the police. On Memorial Day of 2020, when the world was already racked by a global pandemic, people sat at home and watched the video that came across the Internet: eight minutes and forty-six seconds of an officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, whose body was pressed against the ground as he gasped for breath and called for his mother. The world watched George Floyd die for no reason, and the video sent sparks that lit fires around the globe. People began marching in cities around the world, demanding justice for George Floyd and citing his last words, which are common of so many Black and brown men and women in police custody: “I can’t breathe.” There is no question that police officers have a dangerous job, and I grieve for the families of those who lose their loved ones in the line of fire. At the same time, it is unfair to compare the deaths of police officers to the deaths of unarmed brown and Black men and women. Officers choose to put on their uniforms in the task of protecting people. The Black and brown people who have died at the hands of police did not choose to put their lives in danger. As I edited the first edition of this manuscript for publication, the verdict for the officer who shot Philando Castile came back: acquittal. An Internet search for people of color killed by police officers or while in police custody will show that the vast number of killings result in no conviction. Few such deaths actually result in some kind of justice. If you as a white person were seeing this happen to people who look like you, people who look like your brother, sister, parent, or child, how would these stories impact you emotionally? What would it feel like to see so
many people who look like you killed by the police, and to see court case after court case end with no conviction for the officers? Would you be enraged? And terrified?
Recognizing Our Feelings in This Moment How do you feel in this moment? What do these stories evoke for you in your own body? Do you feel anxious? Sad? Furious? Or are you in “rational mode,” a way we distance ourselves from a subject and try to avoid experiencing feelings? How you feel is related to the other stories you have heard, how you responded to the events described above when they happened, and how you view those events now. We may avoid talking about the events above. We may worry that talking about them will be controversial, that talking about racism will take the conversation in a political direction and get us labeled as insensitive or racist. Or we avoid talking about these deaths because they are too terrible to mention: The shootings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others killed by police and citizen profilers are too complicated—we would rather avert our eyes and shake our heads than say something stupid or offensive. Our emotions play a role in our interpretations of events, as well as in whether we choose to share our understandings with others. Our emotions may prevent us from saying anything about the deaths of these and many other young men and women. Fear, anxiety, guilt, shame—these and other emotions conspire against us, urging us not to take any kind of stand. Or we can become bold and talk about these events and ask what we can do in response. We can reach out to members of the Black community in our cities and ask how we can show our support and solidarity. But having such conversations and showing solidarity are the kinds of actions that require us to be comfortable using the words race and racism, so that we can be supportive of people who are systemically victimized because of the color of their skin. But part of the challenge is the intensity of the complex emotions that emanate from us and from others when we begin naming the injustice of racism. We may find ourselves feeling intensely sad, or we may experience the emotions of others such as anger or frustration, and we are not always good at knowing what to do with other people’s feelings, especially anger.
We may take it personally. We may fear being overwhelmed by another person’s sorrow and grief. Perhaps we would prefer to inoculate ourselves against the deep suffering of another. We may not know what to do with our own anger or sadness; the problem of racism may seem too great, too overwhelming, too unfixable. When I first saw the video of the Philando Castile killing, I had pulled over by the side of the road for a pit stop on a return trip from a speaking engagement. I was at a loss for words. I was so angry and upset. I don’t remember where I had been, but I remember being in that parking lot watching that video and sitting in shock and horror. How could this happen? On Memorial Day 2020, after reading about Amy Cooper’s racially charged telephone call to the police about a Black birdwatcher in Central Park who had asked her to leash her dog, I rolled my eyes in disbelief at the way this white woman deliberately used her white identity to gain power. She used Christian Cooper’s racial identity as a threat against his life, aware of the many cases of police officers responding with lethal force to Black men. I was so grateful the event had gone peacefully and Christian Cooper was alive. Memorial Day afternoon rolled around, and the video of George Floyd’s murder went viral on social media. I heard about his death long before I watched the video. I could not bear to watch it because I knew what it contained. I did not need to witness the violence to understand the horrific nature of the event. But after I did watch, what stayed with me were the eyes of the officer: He was looking up at the camera, knowing he was being filmed, unconcerned that he was committing a crime. The officer showed no remorse or feeling for the man he restrained facedown on the pavement. In those nearly nine minutes, Floyd asked for water and repeatedly cried, “I can’t breathe,” and in his final moments he called for his mother. The officer was unmoved by the pleas of witnesses or the appeals of his fellow officers. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, people took to the streets, many with masks, some without. I watched the live television broadcast of fellow citizens demonstrating their outrage at a society that seemed unfeeling and indifferent to the plight of Black people. “Black Lives Matter!” they proclaimed in chants and on posters, declaring in the face of this seeming indifference that they see the value and the worth and dignity of Black lives, despite of the messages they receive to the contrary.
As I watched these events from the safety of my home, I felt guilty for not being among them. I blamed my poor health at the time, and I blamed my sense of duty to my children to stay safe in the midst of the pandemic. But my sense of safety is part of this bigger problem—whites wanting to feel safe by putting our fears on the dark “other,” and shrugging our shoulders when another woman’s baby, now a fully grown man, is dead. How do we talk about racism? When we connect the word racism with events like these, what emotions do we bring to the conversation? In this moment, I am so angry. I feel it in the flushing of my cheeks. And I feel despair—the sense that my whiteness is this stain of guilt that will not go away. And yet, I also feel love. I feel love toward those who mourn for their babies, those who mourn another experience of being betrayed by their country. I feel love toward those who work so hard to train their children on what to do if they ever get stopped by the police, as if these incidents would stop happening if only Black people were perfectly calm and still at every second. I feel a hot mess of anger and despair and love. And the love has to win. With the fierceness of determination, that love has to be what keeps us having these conversations. Anger can exhaust us and can lead to righteous indignation and sometimes morph into selfrighteousness. Despair leads only to inaction and passivity in the face of injustice. But love has teeth. Love is a mother tiger holding tightly to her baby’s neck in her jaws, holding back her full strength in order to keep her baby safe and to take it where it needs to go. Love is a mother tiger fiercely protecting her remaining cubs, even after the predators have already stolen another one away. Love is the tenacity to not let go, to protect and defend, even in the face of death and mourning. The way we talk about racism has to have love as its goal and as its strategy. Because lives are at stake, we need all our inner mother tigers to bring their love and concern to this conversation.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion What feelings emerge when you hear the topic of race raised? Do you feel nervous or frustrated? Perhaps irritated or angry? Perhaps you feel sadness or guilt? Where do those feelings come from, and where do you experience them in your body? Sometimes I experience feelings in my gut, like they are sitting right on my stomach. At other times, I’m not even aware of my feelings. When that happens, I can be stuck in my head, unaware of what my body is going through, whether it’s getting sweaty palms or experiencing a faster heart rate. As you begin these conversations about race and racism, think about the stories that come to mind for you and name the feelings that they bring up. Pay attention to your body in this moment. Take deep breaths. Share with someone else some of your experiences talking about race and racism, and name one thing you hope you will gain from this encounter. Pray for one another and pray also for those who experience racial discrimination. Lift up in prayer the families of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and the police officers shot in Dallas and Iowa. Pray for the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Pray for all the people whose stories we’ve never heard. Pray for God to bring the healing and reconciliation that only God can bring.
How Did We Get Here?
How Christianity and Politics Worked Together to Build Racism Racism is never partisan, but it is always political. Racism is never identified with only one political party. Over the history of the United States, racist policies have been supported and passed through whichever political party has been in power at the moment. But racism is always political—the fact that the racist acts and practices have been made possible through legal means shows that it is policies that support and enable the racialization of our society. Racism is never partisan, but it is always political. I say this in response to the people who may protest that talking about racism is divisive or too political. I also say this to argue for the importance of engaging our politics in order to make a difference in the realities of racism today. If we believe racism begins and ends with our own feelings about it, we miss out on the larger picture. Racism is an injustice that must be addressed by political means, since it has been established and sustained by the policies and practices that lead to a racist society and culture. In March 2020, during my last trip before the pandemic became a reality for most of our country, I was traveling to Prairie Village, Kansas, to speak at a large predominantly white church on the subject of “Impolite Dinner Conversations: The Politics of Christians.” My colleague from Austin Seminary, the Reverend Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget, and I had been invited to be that year’s Meneilly Visiting Scholars. We each were to deliver an address
and serve on a panel the following day. Dr. Aymer spoke first on the “Politics of Jesus,” drawing from her work in New Testament. My lecture followed with the “Politics of Christians,” focusing particularly on how Christians have responded to one particular question of politics in our nation’s history: the abolition of slavery. Below is what I shared in my lecture.
The Politics of Christians I would like to begin by naming one of the most divisive political moments in our nation’s history: when Americans were distrustful of one another, when discourse was less than civil, and when it seemed like the center would not hold. And no, I’m not talking about 2020 or our current political climate, which some have claimed is indeed one of the most divisive times in our nation’s history. I’m talking about our nation prior to the Civil War, when the US literally was torn apart, with American taking up arms against American. Violence and death ensued. What political climate made such a conflict within a nation possible? And what were Christians doing and saying politically in the lead-up to the Civil War? For Christians, what counts as “political” and how they perceive such politics is often dependent on factors other than their faith. People who count themselves Christian might hold very different political opinions, and they often justify those positions by making reference to their faith. This is true today, just as it was in the years prior to the Civil War. Christians on both sides were making claims based on the Bible. And when considering the politics of Christians, it is important to specify which Christians and whose politics we’re talking about. This is because there have been Christians on both sides of contentious issues across the history of United States politics. For this chapter, I will focus on the Christians who lived during the earliest era of our nation’s history, as it was forming into colonies and later into states. Much of their political discussions had to do with race, since the Civil War was a war fought over slavery. And so, to talk about the politics of Christians, and to go back to our nation’s earliest beginnings, we have to talk about race. We have to talk about race when we are talking about the politics of Christians, specifically, because the early development of this nation—its
economy, its workforce, its class structure, was predicated first upon the notion that some people did not count as part of the ruling class, and in fact some human beings could be viewed as property rather than people in their own right. And so, we will look at how the political contestation of slavery presented a wide range of avenues for political action among Christians. It is my hope that from these political acts we will learn ways to avoid making the same mistakes, as well as find the courage to take a stand against racism today. Now, before we go into the history, let me share a bit about why I’m interested in this subject. My research interests have been in helping white Christians talk about racism. My first two books, Anxious to Talk about It and Preaching about Racism, focused on helping churches address the ongoing reality of racism in our society. What I’ve discovered in trying to help white people talk about racism is that we have misguided ideas about what the word racism means. No one wants to be called a racist, so we try to reserve our use of the term for people who are outright Nazi-swastika-tattooed white nationalists—the people who are truly racists. We’d like to think that racism is an irrational belief that only ignorant people hold. And we don’t like to think that it has any real, lingering impact on people’s chances of success and happiness today. That’s what a lot of white people believe. But in talking to white people, there is also the sense that they don’t want to change their neighborhoods too much. They don’t want their schools overcrowded. But they do want to post notices about suspicious persons to their Nextdoor app so that people will be on the lookout for people who don’t look like they belong in their neighborhood—which leads to police stopping and interrogating people of color in these communities. These same white people don’t consider these actions to be in any way racist, but these patterns are similar to the ways that segregation has been maintained in more openly racist ways in the past. But what does that word racist even mean? Ibram X. Kendi, in his book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, talks about racism as the belief that there is one race superior to another, or put another way, that there is a race inferior to another. He speaks of two strands of racism: the segregationist strand, and the assimilationist
strand.21 The segregationist strand wants the inferior race to be kept away from the superior race and views them as distinctly different, coming from different sets of ancestors. The assimilationist strand of racism believes the inferior race is inferior because of its environment, and that once the inferior race is able to be assimilated into the superior race and adopts the practices and culture of the superior race, the inferior race can be improved. But at the heart of both of these forms of racism is the insistence that there is a superior race and an inferior race. And in Ibram X. Kendi’s more recent book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, he specifies that a racist is a person who supports a racist policy through their actions or inaction or by expressing a racist idea.22 And a racist policy is one that leads to racial inequity, which is “when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximate equal footing.”23 And by policy, he means “written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, regulations, and guidelines that govern people.” He goes on to insist: “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”24 What I appreciate about Kendi’s definition is that in some ways it makes it clear that we are talking about beliefs about inferiority and superiority that have led to political outcomes—real laws and rules and policies that shape people’s everyday lives. I find it more helpful than the definition that racism is prejudice plus power. This concise definition has been used in anti-racism trainings for years. But it can be confusing for many. For one thing, the word racism is interpreted to mean that only white people can be racist, because they are the ones who hold the most power in society. But white people who don’t perceive themselves as having power can’t see themselves fitting into this definition—especially if they’re working low-paying jobs and have bosses and managers who are people of color. The abstract word power misses the larger-scale differences among racial groups in terms of wealth, home ownership, employment, and so on. These large-scale differences are impacted not by individual interactions Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Bold Type Books, 2016),
Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist (New York: One World, 2019), p. 17.
Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist, p. 18.
Kendi, How to Be an Ant-Racist, p. 18.
but rather by governmental policies. Therefore, we’re not just talking about the sense of power a person feels they have or don’t have—we’re talking actual policies, rules, and laws that impact people differently. Kendi says talking about policies that lead to racial inequity or racial equity can help us be more concrete in evaluating the effectiveness of our efforts at anti-racism: How do they impact people of color? How do they impact white people? In making these evaluations, we also are looking for whether these policies are based on racist ideas. A racist idea is one that views one race as inferior to another, and then blames racial inequity on that race’s inferiority. So, we return to the two strands I spoke of moments ago, the segregationist and the assimilationist—both are based on the racist idea that one race is inferior to another. Using this lens to look at our history before the Civil War, it’s interesting to see that even people we assume to be on the “right side of history”— people who were against slavery— also could be making their arguments against slavery using racist ideas!25 For instance, Abraham Lincoln infamously believed that there should be an effort to send freed African Americans back to Africa, or at least to Central America, which is a segregating impulse. Sure, end slavery, but we cannot end up living together. After bringing in a small group of Black leaders in August 1862, Lincoln told them that Congress had designated funds to help the colonization efforts to remove Black people from America, saying, “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. … It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”26 Fortunately, those were not his only thoughts on the subject. This took place before his Emancipation Proclamation—a great anti-racist piece of legislation. But even so, it is important to note that even leaders who are famous for making a significant difference in our political life still can be people operating under racist ideas. And that people can still change their minds or become enlightened and go on to do great work. A month after his meeting with the five Black leaders, Lincoln met with two white ministers from Chicago who were urging him toward emancipation. Here is how he responded to them: 25
Kendi, Stamped, p. 4.
Ronald C. White Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2010), p. 510.
I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one of the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter.27 So Lincoln was looking for an answer—telling these ministers that he appreciated them directing him in what they believed to be God’s will, but he had received many such admonitions from preachers in the South saying the same! So how did we get here? Christians on both sides of the Civil War, each believing firmly that God was on their side. Well, they turned to the Bible. Since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, white Christians have made appeals to the Bible to justify their actions. We have documentation that cites a biblical reference as part of the reason for the actions of the Portuguese when they made their first voyages to Africa, attacking and enslaving Africans. From around a.d. 1450, we have the writings of the chronicler Gomes Eannes Zurara, the royal scribe for the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator. In chapter sixteen of his chronicle (available online), he writes, And here you must note that these blacks were Moors like the others, though their slaves, in accordance with ancient custom, which I believe to have been because of the curse which, after the Deluge, Noah laid upon his son Cain, cursing him in this way—that his race should be subject to all the other races of the world. And from his race these blacks are descended.28
White, A. Lincoln, p. 512.
Gomes Eannes de Azurara, “The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea,” Project Gutenberg (New York: Burt Franklin, April 1, 2011). http://www. gutenberg.org/files/35738/35738-h/35738-h.htm.
And in an earlier writing, Zurara cites the purpose of the voyages as being to bring people to Christ!29 So there is the biblical justification—a racist belief that blacks were descended from a cursed son of Noah—coupled with the evangelistic impulse to bring salvation to these “heathens.” So, the earliest justifications we have for enslaving people, from the mid-fifteenth century, was the belief that they were bringing people to Christ. And because the Bible records a curse Noah makes on Canaan in response to Noah’s son Ham’s actions, they surmised that it was acceptable to attack, kidnap, and enslave the very Black people they were trying to bring into the kingdom. It’s really messed up biblical exegesis, but this was not the last time this justification and logic would be used. We see this same argument appear in the centuries that follow. In early Puritan New England during the 1600s, the religious leaders of the day were wondering about baptism: whether Puritans should try and convert the Native Americans and enslaved Africans in the New World. British minister Richard Baxter wrote to slaveholders across the ocean to “make it your chief end in buying and using slaves, to win them to Christ, and save their Souls.”30 But in the process, Christians in the colonies were wondering whether this meant that Christian baptism meant these enslaved people had to be freed. To clarify the matter for the religiously minded, the colony of Virginia ruled in 1667 that “the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage.”31 We see one of the earliest recorded racist policies in our nation’s history—a political ruling body, the colony of Virginia, deciding that baptized Black Christians would remain enslaved. Remarkably, even then there were political dissenters. In 1688, when the Germantown Quaker Petition against slavery was crafted, Christians were calling out the evils of slavery and racism. Quakers, an Anabaptist denomination that emerged from the Protestant Reformation, had been violently persecuted in Europe. They came to the New World seeking freedom to practice their religious faith. This freedom from oppression helped them recognize the oppression present in the colonies. In an antislavery pamphlet circulated in 1688, they wrote: Azurara, “The Chronicle,” chapter 7. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35738/35738h/35738-h.htm
Kendi, Stamped, p. 48.
Kendi, Stamped, p. 49.
“There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men like as we wil be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are … In Europe there are many oppressed [for their religion, and] here those are oppressed … [for their] Black colour.” These Quakers declared that both oppressions were wrong, and that as oppressors, America “surpass[ed] Holland and Germany.” The petition also declared that Africans had the “right to fight for their freedom.”32 Unfortunately, these views were not widely shared among other white Christians of the day. In 1701, the Anglican Church in Britain founded the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to send missionaries to the English colonies. One such missionary, Francis Le Jau, journeyed to South Carolina in 1706, where he evangelized until his death in 1717. He was outspoken against British exploitation of the indigenous population, and he tried to convert indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans to Christianity. But he emphasized obedience as a condition of baptism. He made the enslaved converts recite, as part of their baptism vows, their intention to remain enslaved: You declare in the presence of God and before this congregation that you do not ask for holy baptism out of any design to free yourself from the Duty and Obedience you owe to your master while you live, but merely for the good of your soul and to partake of the Grace and Blessings promised to the Members of the Church of Jesus Christ.33 Echoing these sentiments was famous Puritan preacher Cotton Mather. He wrote a pamphlet in 1706 titled The Negro Christianized, wherein he insisted that “the Law of Christianity allows Slavery.”34 He cited other Puritan writers of the time, as well as the writings of Paul in the New Testament. Members of Cotton Mather’s church responded by gifting the minister with an enslaved man whom Mather called Onesimus, after the man named in Paul’s letter to Philemon. 32
Kendi, Stamped, p. 52.
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).
Kendi, Stamped, pp. 68–69.
Cotton Mather’s views of slavery were widely represented across New England. Among these proponents was Minister Hugh Jones, a professor at William and Mary, who wrote a document in 1724 on The Present State of Virginia. In it, he declared, “Christianity … encourages and orders … [African people] … to become more humble and better servants.” Another minister, James Blair, preached that “masters … were to baptize and treat their slaves kindly.”35 In 1740, South Carolina passed legislation called the Negro Act, which passed itself off as benevolent because it discouraged “barbarity being exercised toward slaves,” because “cruelty … is highly unbecoming those who profess themselves Christians.”36 But this same piece of legislation made it illegal for enslaved people to travel freely, assemble in groups without white supervision, raise their own food, sell their own goods for money, or learn to write.37 Ibram X. Kendi remarks that from the beginning, enslaved Africans were engaged in illegally resisting slavery. Because slavery was the law of the land, enslaved people resisting their enslavement were marked as criminals. So, fighting for one’s own freedom made one a criminal, as did, after the 1740 Negro Act, simply congregating with other Black people. The criminalization of Black bodies has been with us from the beginning of our nation’s history, making it hard for people to simply live while Black. Leading up to the Revolutionary War, the first Great Awakening was creating a stir across the colonies with new forms of preaching that emphasized emotional appeals and conversion. These services, many of which were held outdoors because of audience size, often were attended by enslaved Africans, who overheard the messages of freedom and liberation proclaimed by these fiery preachers. They too were being converted, and they made Christianity their own. Paul Harvey has pointed out that baptism through immersion in water, notions of rebirth, and emotional expressiveness were already present in African religious traditions.38 35
Kendi, Stamped, p. 74.
“Slave Code of South Carolina, Articles 34–37 (1740),” Duhaime Law Museum. http://www.duhaime.org/LawMuseum/LawArticle-1501/1740-Slave-Code-of-SouthCarolina-Articles-34-37.aspx.
Tisby, The Color of Compromise, p. 46.
Paul Harvey, Through the Night, Through the Storm: A History of African American Christianity (Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), p. 32.
One of the influential Christian leaders of the first Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and his book Religious Affections, which defended the role of emotions in drawing sinners to God. And yet, despite his renown for preaching the gospel, he purchased and owned enslaved people. In 1731, he bought an enslaved African at an auction in Rhode Island, and across his lifetime he owned several. Yet, he preached to crowds that included enslaved people and was glad to see many converting to Christianity. About the Northampton, Massachusetts, revival of 1734–36, Edwards wrote: “There are several Negroes who, from what was seen in them and what is discernable in them since, appear to have been truly born again in the late remarkable season.”39 Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth of the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, suggests that part of the reason why Jonathan Edwards—who opposed the slave trade but supported owning enslaved Africans, and who simultaneously preached salvation to people who had to remain enslaved—could hold such contradictory stances is because “evangelicalism focused on individual conversion and piety. Within this evangelical framework, one could adopt an evangelical expression of Christianity yet remain uncompelled to confront institutional injustice.”40 This same lack of compulsion to advocate for change can be seen in another major leader of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield. At first, Whitefield was ambivalent about slave ownership, but he was adamant that those enslaved should not be treated badly. He declared it “sinful, when bought, to use them … as though they were Brutes.” He, like Cotton Mather before him, steadfastly insisted that they be evangelized as part of good treatment. Yet, Whitefield’s views changed with time. When Whitefield established an orphanage outside of Savannah, Georgia, he had trouble securing the funds to keep it afloat. So, he turned to his wealthy slave-owning friends in South Carolina, and with their help he purchased a six-hundred-forty-acre plot of land and enslaved persons to work it. Whitefield discovered the financial incentive for moral compromise. He declared, “Georgia can never be a flourishing province unless negroes are Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 128.
Tisby, The Color of Compromise, p. 50.
employed [as slaves].”41 Both Whitefield and Edwards were saving souls for Christ, but as we will see again and again, devout Christian people can also be deeply racist and fully supportive of racist policies that keep one group of people perpetually oppressed. Meanwhile, Black people were challenging the stereotypes and racist ideas held by these Christian leaders. Phillis Wheatley, a woman born in West Africa around 1753, was kidnapped at age seven or eight and enslaved in Boston. She became widely known for her gifts as a poet. When she was eighteen, a group of eighteen white men from Boston, including John Hancock, the governor of Massachusetts, and the son of Cotton Mather, gathered to attest that her writings indeed were her own, just as her enslaver, John Wheatley, had claimed. Their attestation was included in her first book of poems published that following year in London. She was formally emancipated after her book was published. Wheatley married and gave birth to three children, all of whom died as infants. She died at age thirty-one. Wheatley’s poems show her political advocacy as a Christian. She wrote a poem to King George after he repealed the stamp tax, and she wrote to George Washington and other revolutionary leaders after the war. Writing letters and/or poems to politicians: That’s political. Lemuel Haynes was born in 1753—the same year as Phillis Wheatley—in Connecticut to a Black father and a white mother. He became a preacher and began preaching to white congregations. First licensed to preach in 1780, Haynes was ordained by the Congregationalists in 1785, making him the first known person of color to be ordained by national denominations.42 His first call to a white church lasted less than two years. He was forced to leave because of opposition from whites in the congregation who complained of having a mulatto preacher. His second call was to a mostly white church in Rutland, Virginia, where he ministered for thirty years. That call also ended, it is surmised, because of racism. The official record lists preaching style and politics as being the reason for his departure. And what kind of “politics” might be a source of conflict between a free Black preacher and a mostly white congregation in Virginia in 1818? Even though Lemuel Haynes fought in the Revolutionary War as a militiaman, and even though he was patriotic through and through, his “politics” Thomas Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 209.
Tisby, The Color of Compromise, p. 45.
differed significantly from his congregation because of the color of his skin and because of the ongoing practice of the institution of slavery in Virginia.43 Some of the enslaved Africans, upon gaining their freedom, wrote about the unchristian-like behavior of those who held them captive. Olaudah Equiano, born in Nigeria around 1745, was kidnapped with his sister when he was about eleven years old. He was sold into slavery and endured the brutal conditions of the Middle Passage. Eventually, he escaped to freedom. In his 1789 autobiography, Equiano lambasted the faith of those white Christians who had held him captive and who continued to kidnap Africans and tear them away from their families: “O ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”44 Around this time, the Christian denominations that had grown and flourished under the Great Awakening and revivals of the eighteenth century began to argue over beliefs about slavery. The Baptist General Committee of Virginia issued a statement in 1785 against slavery, and in 1790 it produced a statement that declared slavery not only against the law of God, but also “inconsistent with a republican government.”45 But backlash to this statement came quick, and the committee had to reevaluate its statement. The following year, they declared slavery to be a civil issue—a political issue—outside the jurisdiction of the church. Richard Allen, born enslaved in 1760, purchased his freedom in 1786 and began preaching in Methodist churches. Allen joined St. George’s Methodist Church in 1786. His leadership at prayer services attracted more Blacks to the church, and with them came increased racial tension. St. George’s had no history of segregated seating prior to the later 1780s, when white leaders required Black parishioners to use the chairs around the walls rather than the pews. During one service in 1787, a group of Blacks sat in some new pews that, unbeknownst to them, had been reserved for whites. As these Blacks knelt in prayer, a white trustee came “Lemuel Haynes,” PBS. Accessed: February 27, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/ part2/2p29.html.
Olaudah Equino, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equino, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (Public Domain Books), Kindle, p. 32.
Tisby, The Color of Compromise, p. 51 (footnote 26).
over and grabbed Absalom Jones, Allen’s associate, and began pulling on him, saying, “You must get up—you must not kneel here.” Jones asked him to wait until prayer was over, but the trustee retorted, “No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.” The group finished praying anyway, after which they got up and walked out. That was the end of their affiliation with the Methodist church. Richard Allen used his own money to found the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794, the beginnings of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.46 Creating a new denomination in response to racist policies: That’s political. Other denominations split over the issue of slavery closer to the Civil War: The Methodists split in 1844, and the Baptists in 1845. And while the Presbyterians already had split over New School/Old School lines in 1837, they split again in 1861 into the Northern PCUSA and the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (later changed to PCUS).47 The country also was battling this question in its legislative chambers and courts. In 1820, when admitting the states of Missouri and Maine, legislators settled on the Missouri Compromise, which allowed slavery in Missouri but declared Maine to be a free state, a decision which rattled abolitionists. They saw the allowance of another slave-holding state into the Union as a sign that slavery was expanding its footprint across the United States. Thirty years later, another piece of legislation rattled abolitionist groups: the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In this ruling, the government gave enslavers the right to cross over into states where slavery was outlawed and recapture the enslaved who had escaped to freedom and return them to enslavement. This meant no free Black person was safe, setting off waves of terror among freed Black communities. To the abolitionists, this was opening the gates for slavery to expand throughout the country. At a meeting of abolitionists and women’s rights activists in an Ohio church in 1851, a Black woman rose to the platform. She spoke over the protests of the white women in attendance and over the white male counter-protesters who argued against women’s ability to make their own resolutions, including male ministers preaching on Eve’s sin and women’s “Richard Allen.” Christianity Today. Accessed: February 27, 2021. www. christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/richard-allen.html.
Tisby, The Color of Compromise, pp. 76–80.
feeble minds. In the midst of this, the lone Black woman in the group called out, “Ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I can outwork, outeat, outlast any man. Ain’t I a woman!”48 These words of Sojourner Truth spoke to the sexism among the men trying to silence her and the racism of the women trying to stop her from speaking. Attending a political rally and speaking up to point out the blind spots of political leaders: That’s political. Another woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was inspired by the abolitionist movement and sought to change hearts and minds through fiction. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, presented imagery of slavery and of Black people that sought to convince white people that slavery should be abolished. Her book played a major role in changing the minds of many. However, as Ibram X. Kendi points out, her ideas were rooted in racist beliefs. Kendi writes: “For the cosmic shift to antislavery, Stowe did not ask Americans to change their deep-seated beliefs, she asked only for them to alter the implications.”49 In her preface, Stowe wrote that Black people’s “lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection and facility of forgiveness … in all these they will exhibit the highest form of the peculiarly Christian life.”50 In other words, we should free enslaved Black people because they are much more likely than white people to demonstrate the Christian life. This idealization of Black people as predisposed to being more religious than white people, who then are positioned as being more intellectual, follows in the footsteps of the racist segregationists who viewed Black people and white people as fundamentally different. Unfortunately, these ideas were passed on to both whites and Blacks. Kendi writes: Stowe’s popularization of spiritually gifted Black people quickly became a central pillar in African-American identity as Black readers consumed the book and passed on its racist ideas. Racist whites, believing themselves to be void of soul, made it their personal mission to find soul 48
Kendi, Stamped, p. 192.
Kendi, Stamped, p. 193.
Kendi, Stamped, p. 193, citing Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (London: George Bell and Sons, 1889), iii.
through Black people. Racist Blacks, believing themselves to be void of intellect, made it their personal mission to find intellect through White people.51 It is important to name that tendency to idealize marginalized groups, and to name it as another form of racism. Even if we are ascribing a positive trait to an entire group of people, that generalization is a form of racism. In trying to do good, as Harriet Beecher Stowe surely was, we can inadvertently pass along racist ideas, even in service to anti-racist laws. That said, it is important to name the resistance Black people demonstrated to the oppression they faced, and one form that resistance took was claiming Christianity in a way that was very different from the whites who preached to them about obedience and humility. In his book Slave Religion, Albert Raboteau describes how enslaved Blacks sang spiritual songs that demonstrated their ability to interpret the scriptures and to tell a different story of the faith despite what they were hearing from white Christians.52 Song lyrics such as “God’s gonna trouble the water,” “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land / Tell ol’ Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go,’” and “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home” use images from the Bible to proclaim a message of hope and liberation, showing enslaved people’s identification with the people of Israel, God’s chosen ones, in bondage under Egypt. Moreover, these songs are widely believed to have served as a coded language for the enslaved to communicate messages regarding their secret religious services or freedom plots such as the Underground Railroad. According to the Library of Congress and other documented sources, Spirituals are also sometimes regarded as codified protest songs, with songs such as “Steal away to Jesus,” composed by Wallis Willis, being seen by some commentators as incitements to escape slavery. Hard evidence is difficult to come by because assisting slaves to freedom was illegal. A spiritual that was certainly used as a code for escape to freedom was “Go Down, Moses,” used by Harriet Tubman to identify herself to slaves who might want to flee north. Frederick Douglass … wrote in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) of singing spirituals during his years 51
Kendi, Stamped, p. 194.
Raboteau, Slave Religion, p. 137.
in bondage: “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.”53 Douglass also noted that the spirituals “were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” The spirituals also proclaimed that God would judge the wicked and bring vindication for the oppressed, again finding in Scripture a message that sided with their condition and enabled them to identify with the saving work of God in the Bible. They also found a fellow sufferer in the person of Jesus Christ, someone who was innocent and yet afflicted, the suffering one who yet prevailed over death and evil. The formerly enslaved William Wells Brown penned the following lines, demonstrating the power of the person of Jesus: “Am I not a man and brother? Ought I not then to be free? Sell me not one to another. Take not thus my liberty. Christ, our Savior, died for me as well as thee.”54 Wells Brown was born enslaved in Kentucky, escaped to freedom, and lived the rest of his life in the North as an abolitionist, novelist, historian, and playwright. His writing communicates the political demand for liberty, rooted in a theological claim that he, too, bears the image of God. And yet, while in the company of white Christians, Black people knew they were experiencing a very different kind of religion. In rural areas, where there were not many church options, or where it was illegal for enslaved people to have their own church, Blacks worshipped with whites. Albert Raboteau writes: In mixed churches … there was tension between fellowship and slave status. It affected seating patterns, the distribution of communion, the application of church ordinances, and participation in church meetings, but most “African American Spirituals,” Library of Congress. Accessed: February 27, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197495/.
William Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983), p. 58, citing The Anti-Slavery Harp (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1848), p. 10.
important, it affected the experience of being Christian. This tension revealed the irreducible gap between the slave’s religion and that of his master. The slave knew that no matter how sincerely religious his master might be, his religion did not countenance the freedom of his slave. This was, after all was said and done, the limit to Christian fellowship. The division went deep; it extended as far as the interpretation of the Bible and the understanding of the God.55 And so, because of these deep divisions, Black preachers founded their own churches, in the North and the South. And there was a great deal of political action that took place in churches. Princeton professor and MSNBC commentator Eddie Glaude points out the public function of the Black church—an indigenous place to gather away from whites, to collaborate and build community, to raise up leaders, to share opinions only expressible in the company of others like them.56 Gathering together and raising up new leaders—this is political. What was this interpretation of the Bible that allowed for so many white Christians to worship side by side with Black Christians and yet not feel their fellowship as equals? What kind of understanding of God would allow white preachers who owned enslaved people to preach on a Sunday morning, and to go home in the afternoon and whip an enslaved person for some transgression? Where did our religion go so wrong? As the country entered the lead-up to the Civil War, the biblical arguments justifying either side poured forth from pulpits in the North and the South. And there were voices in the North that argued just as vehemently for slavery as those in the South. Take for example the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, John Henry Hopkins, author of A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, from the Days of the Patriarch Abraham to the Nineteenth Century, published in 1864. He had written earlier pieces, including “The Bible View of Slavery,” a tract circulated to Episcopal bishops and ministers in New England and middle-eastern states in 1861. Before that, he had lectured across New York, touting his proslavery arguments, which were all 55
Raboteau, Slave Religion, p. 208.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Nineteenth-Century Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 18–43.
supported by biblical texts. Another proslavery voice of the same period was Charles B. Hodge, distinguished professor from Princeton Seminary, who wrote a forty-page essay titled “The Bible Argument on Slavery.” These proponents of enslavement, drawing on the Bible, painstakingly combed through the biblical text to find the stories and principles that they believed defended the current institution of slavery. Among their examples include Noah’s curse on Canaan, which Hopkins cited as “the first appearance of slavery.” He referred to it as “the wonderful prediction of the patriarch Noah,” a prophecy Hopkins believed pointed to the future enslavement of Africans. They also cited Abraham, who brought slaves with him from Haran on his journey to Ur, who owned as many as 318 enslaved people (as recorded in Genesis 14:12), and who received enslaved people as gifts from Abimelech and willed them as part of the inheritance to Isaac. They also cited Genesis 24:35, which they read as God blessing Abraham by multiplying his slaves, and Genesis 16:1–9, in which the angel of the Lord instructed Hagar to return to her master. These proslavery advocates preached that Jesus was aware of the practice of Roman slavery and never spoke against it; therefore in his silence, he expressed his support for slavery. And finally, the apostle Paul’s words about slaves in the epistles, and the letter of Philemon in which he sends Onesimus back to his master—these were the primary justifications for their proslavery position. If scripture clearly says that slaves should obey their masters, and that Onesimus had a duty to return to enslavement, then clearly, the Bible is in support of slavery. To these biblical exegetes, their position seemed irrefutable. The Bible is clear: Slavery is permissible under the law of God. And this was what these Christians preached, trying to convince congregations and other Christian preachers that this political issue—the legality of slavery—was in fact a divinely sanctioned institution. Interfering with this political issue, challenging the social order, was contrary to the will of God. On the other side, the abolitionist position of Christians against slavery tried to refute these biblical claims, also by appealing to scripture. In 1864, the United Presbyterian Church published The Bible Against Slavery, which included in it an essay by Theodore Dwight Weld, an evangelist and social reformer. Weld challenged the proslavery preachers’ interpretation of Noah’s curse, pointing out that Africans are not Canaan’s descendants,
since the boundaries of Canaan are detailed in Genesis 10:15–19 and it was never reported in scripture that Canaan’s descendants moved to Africa. He also pointed out that it was Noah who cursed Canaan. These were not God’s words; therefore, it could not have been God’s intention. Noah was not a prophet, and the curse was spoken “by a man just awaking out of a drunken sleep. The Holy Spirit in no other case has made use of a mind in this condition for the purpose of revealing to us the will of God.”57 In other words, God doesn’t speak through drunken people. So, Noah’s curse was not an expression of God’s will. And just as voices supporting slavery were not limited to the South, voices against slavery were not limited to the North. In the state of Virginia, Presbyterian minister George Bourne published a work in 1816 titled The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable. Bourne’s writing influenced the thinking of abolitionist leaders such as Theodore Dwight Weld as well as William Lloyd Garrison, who published the Boston-based abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in the 1830s and ’40s. Bourne’s ordination credentials were revoked in 1819, since his views on slavery stood so contrary to that of his fellow Virginian ministers. Bourne’s work challenged the proslavery preachers’ reading of Abraham. He highlights that the Hebrew word for “acquired” or “got” —which the proslavery side cited as proof that Abraham had slaves—is the same word that was used for having his wife and nephew join them. Were they also slaves? Furthermore, the word used for slave also could mean other forms of service that would in no way have been like the kind that enslaved people in America had to endure. In response to the claims that Jesus’ silence was a form of condoning the institution of slavery, the abolitionists proclaimed, As we have no account whatever of any public preaching by Christ and the apostles against forgery, arson, piracy, counterfeiting, and twenty other heinous ancient as well as modern crimes, we are to presume from this supposed approving silence and acquiescence of theirs, that the whole of those crimes are morally approbated and licensed in the New Testament, by the special example of Swartley, Slavery, p. 40, citing Francis Wayland, The Elements of Moral Science (1835), ed. Joseph L. Blau (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963), pp. 95–96.
Christ and the Apostles, so that we have no moral right whatever to disturb others in the commission of them!!!58 At the same time, they did not deny that forms of slavery were practiced in the Roman world, and that the New Testament writers do mention slaves while not denying church membership to people who were enslavers. But, the abolitionists argued, the words spoken to people in those social positions aimed to make more just an essentially unjust social arrangement. Specifically, looking to the example of Onesimus and Philemon, “the principles laid down in the epistle to Philemon …would lead to the universal abolition of slavery. If all those who are now slaves were to become Christians, and their masters were to treat them ‘not as slaves but as brethren,’ the period would not be far distant when slavery would cease.”59 The abolitionists also drew from the Ten Commandments, numbers eight (do not steal) and ten (do not covet), claiming that slavery is stealing humans and coveting humans for oneself. Slavery also reduces humans— who were all made in the image of God—to property, which robs people of their dignity and ignores the image of God within each person. Slavery is oppression, and the Hebrew prophets regularly preached against oppression in all forms, condemning injustice against the poor and the vulnerable by the rich and powerful. And looking to God’s deliverance of the nation of Israel from Egyptian slavery, the abolitionists declared that God had pronounced judgment on slavery as against divine will. God hates all forms of slavery. The injustice of slavery clearly goes against Jesus’ teaching to love one another, to love others as you love yourself, and the evils perpetuated on human bodies can in no way be consistent with Christian moral character and faithful Christian living. In response to the abolitionists’ use of the Bible to defend their position, the rejoinder from the proslavery side included this admonition: The history of interpretation furnishes no examples of more willful and violent perversions of the sacred text than are to be found in the writings of the abolitionists. They Swartley, Slavery, p. 44, citing George Bourne, A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument: By a Citizen of Virginia (New York: S. W. Benedict, 1845), pp. 70–71.
Swartley, Slavery, p. 46, citing Albert Barnes, An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery (Philadelphia: Parry & McMillan, 1857), p. 330.
seem to consider themselves above the scriptures; and when they put themselves above the law of God, it is not wonderful that they should disregard the laws of men … Let these principles be carried out [as laid out by the abolitionists] and there is an end to all social subordination, to all security for life and property, to all guarantee for public or domestic virtue … we shall soon have a country … from which all order and all virtue would speedily be banished.60
Elections Have Consequences Proslavery advocates’ fear concerning the future of the country reached a fever pitch after the presidential election of 1860. On November 6 of that year, Abraham Lincoln won the election, and slavery supporters took his win as an existential threat to their very way of life: “Nothing more nor less is at stake in this controversy [over slavery] than the very life of the South. The real question is, whether she shall be politically annihilated. We are not struggling for fleeting and temporary interests. We are struggling for our very being.”61 These sentiments were not spoken by a politician but by a clergyman. James Henley Thornwell, later known among Southern Presbyterians as the author of the “spirituality of the church” doctrine, an ideal that the church should not concern itself with civic matters, was also the clergyman who spoke the words above, fearing the political annihilation of proslavery advocates. Thornwell and other Christian defenders of slavery firmly believed that the Bible was on their side, and they felt that the history of civilization supported the institution of slavery as well, which to them meant that defending slavery politically should be reasonable. Thornwell spoke before Swartley, Slavery, p. 49, citing Albert Taylor Bledsoe, “Liberty and Slavery: or, Slavery in the Light of Moral and Political Philosophy,” Cotton is King, and ProSlavery Arguments Comprising the Writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe and Cartwright on This Important Subject (1860, rpt. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), pp. 379–380.
J. H. Thornwell, The State of the Country: An Article Republished from The Southern Presbyterian Review, third edition (Columbia, SC: Southern Guardian Steam-Power Press, 1861), p. 25. Electronic edition: https://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/thornwel1/ thornwel.html.
the December 1860 Convention of South Carolina when the state declared its succession from the Federal Union, and he justified this political move by defending slavery as a universal custom: “Slavery is rooted in common law, wider and more pervading than the common law of England—the universal custom of mankind.”62 Thornwell argued that because slavery was a “universal custom,” the federal government had no right to legislate slavery as illegal, and the government had a duty to protect the rights of both slaveholding and non-slaveholding states alike. Because the Federal Union, under newly elected President Lincoln, was likely to abolish the institution of slavery, he argued that “the South has no election [no choice]. She is driven to the wall, and the only question is, will she take care of herself in time? The sooner she can organize a general Government, the better. That will be a centre of unity, and, once combined, we are safe.”63 Once the Confederacy could form its own government, clergymen like Thornwell believed, the rights and privileges of slavers would be protected. Thornwell’s support for the “spirituality of the church” doctrine is truly ironic, a strange idea to attribute to a man who made appeals to Supreme Court cases and the Constitution to argue for a federal government that respected the rights of slavers. Thornwell had spoken at the political convention of South Carolina’s succession, sounding very much interested and committed to engaging in politics: We of the South have the same right to our opinions as the people of the North. They appear as true to us as theirs appear to them. We are as honest and sincere in forming and maintaining them. We unite to form a government. Upon what principle shall it be formed? Is it to be asked of us to renounce doctrines which we believe have come down to us from the earliest ages, and have the sanction of the oracles of God? Must we give up what we conscientiously believe to be the truth? The thing is absurd. The Government, in justice, can only say to both parties: I will protect you both, I will be the advocate of neither.64 Thornwell died in 1862, before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which freed all those whom Thornwell and other proslavery clergymen
Thornwell, p. 13.
Thornwell, p. 30.
Thornwell, p. 12.
had insisted were rightfully their “property.” At the end of the Civil War, the Southern states rejoined the Union once again. But the church Thornwell represented remained segregated from its northern counterpart. The Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America became the Presbyterian Church of the United States, remaining a separate entity from the United Presbyterian Church in the USA until an official reunion of the two denominations in 1983. In the decade following the Civil War, leaders within the Southern Presbyterian church made a point of creating a “spirituality of the church” doctrine, using words from Thornwell and minimizing the proslavery and political work of clergymen like him. The Southern Presbyterian church insisted upon a view of itself as indifferent to politics, unable to interfere in the work of civil society, claiming its duty was evangelism and the work of the kingdom of God.65 Church historian Jack P. Maddex wrote that the Southern Presbyterian church effectively renarrated its history by creating documents that drew upon Thornwell’s speeches but insisted the Southern church’s identity had always included this spirituality doctrine, when in reality “it was the overthrow of the Confederacy and slavery which turned Southern Presbyterians to belief in a wholly ‘non-secular’ church. Social activists whose cause had perished then retreated to pietism as their defense against encroachment by Unionist civil religion.”66 I was born and baptized into the Southern Presbyterian church before it became the PC(USA) in 1983. All through my growing up years, I absorbed this sentiment, that the church was not to involve itself in politics. Recently, within a span of twelve months, two Presbyterian clergymen brought to my attention the words of James Henley Thornwell, pointing out his “spirituality of the church” doctrine as the official stance of the Southern Presbyterian church. Both pastors made this reference, I believe, with an attitude of lament that the church stood by in the face of slavery, and did not do more to stop it. However, as a myth, to say our church was “indifferent to politics” does more to distance Southern Presbyterians from our actual complicity in a Jack P. Maddex, “From Theocracy to Spirituality: The Southern Presbyterian Reversal on Church and State.” The Journal of Presbyterian History (1962–1985). Winter 1976, vol. 54, no. 4, pp. 438–457. Published by the Presbyterian Historical Society. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23328098.
Maddex, p. 448.
very vocal political advocacy in defense of slavery. Southern Presbyterians did more than just “stay out of” politics; we actively petitioned political leaders to safeguard white slavers’ rights to hold Black people as property. And while the Civil War ended slavery, the Southern church did not address the racist sentiments that undergirded its defense of slavery in the first place. Looking back at the proslavery arguments from the vantage point of modern moral sensibilities, believing that slavery is immoral, the positions of the proslavery preachers can seem hard to understand. Reading these documents with Black people in mind, it is heartbreakingly clear that those who defended slavery could not see Black people as human beings, deserving the same freedoms and rights as white people. The proslavery arguments focused on labor and money, not on the humanity and dignity of those they counted on for labor and money. And while plenty of white people today believe that racism is immoral, we may view our politics through the lenses of labor and money, and not through the lens of doing what is best for all members of the human family. But the reality is that our love of money is so fierce that we will hold on to whatever beliefs and practices ensure that we can keep as much of it as we can for as long as we can, whether those beliefs and practices are racist or not. A similar sentiment was stated by eighteenth-century Quaker abolitionist John Woolman, who said, “The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable.”67 We could perhaps reword his statement this way: The love of comfort and money are the motives in general of racist policies, and people are likely to take hold of weak arguments (and biblical justification) to support a cause which is unjust. As we approach modern political election seasons, we must keep in mind our history and tendency to distance ourselves from politics, instead remembering that who we elect, and what policies they sign into law, all impact ongoing patterns of racial equity. We may not be having the same Swartley, Sabbath, Slavery, p. 55, citing John Woolman, Journal of John Woolman (New York: Corinth Books, 1961), p. 60.
conversations that we had leading up to the Civil War, but the political conversations we have today are as important as ever. Politics matter. And Christians who know the troubled history between our churches and racism are more likely to make decisions that are consciously anti-racist. Racism has never been partisan: there have been racist policies enacted by members of both political parties. At the same time, racism is always political: The laws regulating how we are to treat one another are legislated through policies. It takes all of us working together to make this world fairer and more equitable for everyone. Our churches have never been “above” politics. And working together to develop policies that benefit all of us is part of our common calling, no matter what denomination we are a part of or faith we profess. If talking about politics makes you anxious, it is time to take a deep breath: Working to address the racial inequalities that continue through the legacy of the deep seated racism that defended slavery will require all of us to get involved in politics, from our local communities and school boards to our national politics. We need to get over being anxious to talk about politics, because talking about racism means talking about politics. Churches today cannot advocate for a political party or a particular candidate, but they can talk about policies. Churches can sponsor voter registration drives, but they cannot tell people who to vote for or ask people to disclose their party affiliation. Churches can sponsor nonpartisan forums and invite candidate from both political parties to speak, as long as the questions are broad and cover a wide range of issues. The church can write letters for or against a particular policy, but not for or against a party or a candidate. Churches cannot post party or candidate signs on their property or solicit donations for a particular candidate or party. To infringe upon any of these rules is to risk a church’s tax-exempt status. But the tax code does not silence the church on political issues or prevent Christians from talking about politics. For too long, the political divide between parties has prevented people from engaging in dialogue about the policies that impact all of us living in this society. We have to get over our ideas of us versus them, Northerners against Southerners, Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives or Liberals, and instead see all of us as imperfectly working towards a more perfect union.
In a world that has faced a pandemic, humanity has come to see its interdependence. We need one another. And in order to work together, we must be able to talk to one another, which means we need to embrace conversations that make us anxious, including conversations about race and racism.
Questions for Reflection Reading about the history of religious leaders’ defense of slavery, did anything surprise you? What about the history of persons known for being abolitionist who also expressed racist ideas? Were these details surprising to you? How does it make you feel to think about people like Abraham Lincoln expressing both racist as well as anti-racist ideas? How does it feel to talk about US history prior to the Civil War? Does it feel too long ago to make a difference, or do the quotes from historical figures still seem relevant? What do you think of Ibram X. Kendi’s idea that people are not racist or anti-racist, but constantly choosing to support racist or anti-racist policies or ideas? Does thinking about racism in terms of impact help us get past the need to defend ourselves as “good” people? Besides slavery, what are some policies that have impacted people differently based on race? How does it feel to name these differences? Does talking about politics make you anxious? Why or why not? How frequently do you talk with people whose political affiliation is different from your own? If talking about politics and race makes you anxious, read op-ed pieces that describe someone else’s political perspective to begin to understand another’s point of view. How might you and someone from a different political party share some of the same values and goals in common? How might those common interests serve to help you work together for racial equity?
A white friend of mine in her seventies knew I was writing about race and wanted to share some of her memories of growing up in segregated Texas. She remembers water fountains and separate bathrooms for white people, with signs showing inferior fountains and bathrooms designated for “colored” people. She saw a picture of a green-and-yellow public bus in a book about Rosa Parks and told me she remembered riding on buses that looked just like that, with Blacks sitting in the back of the bus and whites sitting in the front. She told me there were even separate rooms in Luby’s Cafeteria restaurants. There would be a room for Blacks, a room for white smokers, and a room for nonsmoking whites. “That’s just the way it was. It didn’t seem right or wrong; it just was. We didn’t know anything different. It wasn’t until later, when I got my first job out of college, and I’m going to the restroom, and a Black woman comes into the restroom after me. And I realized, I had never been in a bathroom with a Black woman before. And this was in a time when I was working at a place where there were very few other women. I was called ‘girl’ and had to correct them every time! “When I had children, the TV shows my kids would watch [in the late 1980s] often had good guys and bad guys dressed up in different-colored clothes. The good guys were always wearing white and the bad guys were always wearing black. My son, watching one of these shows one day, says to me, ‘Mom, all the bad guys are always Black.’ And I was shocked! ‘No they are not! Did you know your housekeeper is Black? Did you know your teacher is Black?’ And my son looks at me, mouth open, saying, ‘No! I never knew!’ Well, then he goes to school the
next day, and I get a call from the counselor. Apparently, he had gone up to his kindergarten teacher and said, ‘Ms. Thompson, did you know you were Black?’ And, of course, he didn’t mean anything by it! But I had to come to the school and explain to them what we had talked about the day before. Because he hadn’t really even noticed that she was Black until that day.” My friend had never intentionally tried to be mean to Black people. She never realized while growing up that segregation was a bad thing, nor did she necessarily think it was a good thing. It just was. She did not say she was shocked or disappointed when segregation changed, just that it was different. We all grow up believing in a world in which things are done in a certain way. You do not know the world in any other way than how it first appears to you. Then, at some point, things begin to change. At first, the change appears gradually, but in other places the change appears quickly and dramatically. The world no longer looks to you the way it once did. How do you respond? White people born in white communities where segregation just was grew up to see drastic changes in the world. They saw people who were not white receive greater attention and opportunities, and they witnessed great political protests and new laws passed against discrimination. Some of these changes may have affected them personally—for instance, they may have seen more people of color in their schools and neighborhoods and places of work. But many did not experience a significant impact on their daily lives as a result. Now, the world just is different. To them, it’s neither bad nor good—it’s just the way things are now. Sometimes, a moment in our lives awakens us to the reality that racism is a bigger problem than we realized. It may be a conversation with a person of color whom we have gotten to know through work or school, or it may be an incident that takes place somewhere else and becomes a news headline. For many people around the world, the video of the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day 2020 became one such moment. To see the police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, with no sign of remorse or worry for his well-being, was a wake-up call to many and put faces to the experience of police brutality. In the same way, the 1963 murder of four Black girls in a Birmingham, Alabama, church was a wake-up call regarding the deepseated, pernicious nature of Southern racism in America.
But until moments like these occur, or until we have our own experiences of truly feeling racism as a societal wrong that requires our action and response, it is hard for those of us who are white to seriously “feel white,” or to recognize that how we are perceived in society as white people has an impact on our life experiences or opportunities.
Growing Up (White): My Story I am white, but I would not have willingly called myself white when I was growing up in the 1980s unless I had to fill out a form requesting my race. Nor did I think about being white when I felt called to ministry or went to college. But in seminary, I learned through reading books on theology written by African-American women that Black women still experience racism. These women taught me that ignoring the fact that I am white was a symptom of a larger problem in society that viewed people like me as “normal” or without a race. I discovered from talking to my peers the many ways people of color continue to experience racism in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And by ignoring my own race, I was dismissing or minimizing their experiences. But reckoning with my own race was uncomfortable. I felt ashamed of being white and guilty for receiving unearned advantages or privileges as a result of my whiteness. I knew racism was real, but I did not want to think about myself as white. In ministry, I encountered others like me who were white but who avoided naming themselves as white or talking about race or racism. As a preacher, I realized I needed to talk about being white, but I was uncomfortable discussing a subject that brought up so much anxiety and shame. Then I came across racial identity development theory. A professor who knew I was interested in the subject of race gave me an article written by Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College in Atlanta.68 The article described how a group of students who were learning about race in the classroom were able to stay engaged in discussions when they knew in advance that they were going to be uncomfortable. The teacher had discussed the theory of racial identity development with Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development in the Classroom,” Harvard Educational Review 62 (Spring 1992): 1–25.
the students ahead of time.69 The theory is that people come to see themselves as racialized in stages and that individuals can move toward a healthier racial self-understanding. For people of color, that means unlearning the internalized racism or feelings of inferiority they may hold unconsciously; for whites, it means understanding the legacy of racism and developing an anti-racist white identity not based on feelings of superiority. For white people, the stages of racial identity development begin with the experience of disorientation: the confusion and shame that white people have when they first begin learning about racism. White racial identity development then moves into a stage of “reorientation,” during which whites may turn their inner negative feelings outward and onto people of color. Naming the reorientation stage helps whites become aware of their tendency to project their own negative feelings onto others. Moving beyond this tendency requires that whites stay committed to learning more about racism, even while their emotions are leading them to withdraw from the conversation. Staying engaged enables whites to continue learning about the history of racism, along with the legacy of other whites who have fought for racial justice. Then, it is possible for whites to begin building coalitions with people of color and to recognize how racism intersects with other experiences of oppression. The final stage is reached when race no longer symbolizes threat and whites can grow in greater solidarity with people of color. More about racial identity development—for whites and for people of color—will be discussed in chapter four. I describe it briefly here to show how my story began to change. For me, the realization that guilt and shame are not the final goal was redemptive. I began to understand my emotions as necessary to the challenging process of learning about racism and as tools I could use to help other whites understand that racism remains a problem. I also came to understand that healthy white racial identity grows through recognizing the negative feelings we experience when talking about race and accepting those feelings in order to stay engaged with the long-term process of healing and understanding. Tatum cites the work of Janet Helms. See Janet Helms, ed., Black and White Racial Identity: Research, Theory and Practice (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990).
Segregation and the Absence of Conversations about Race One of the reasons it may take whites so long to get started on their racial identity development is the fact that whites continue to live mostly in isolated circles. Attempts to address this segregation have been successful to an extent, but there is much more to be done. Laws to enforce desegregation led to busing students across town to attend school with different races. After desegregation, more white people were able to say that they personally knew people of color. But that also led to backlash and further segregation, as seen in Boston in the late 1970s. Boston’s working-class neighborhoods went into an uproar when students were bused to schools in other working-class neighborhoods. White parents who had money moved to the suburbs or enrolled their children in private schools. Looking at statistics today, the situation across metropolitan areas remains largely unchanged: Public schools continue to be predominantly segregated, and neighborhoods are as well. Part of the problem with the desegregation effort was the lack of authentic relationships. White kids sitting in a classroom with a couple of Black kids could say they “knew” these other children, but these relationships were often only superficial and lasted only during school hours. Children and youth may play together on sports teams, but after the game and outside of school hours, white kids hang out with other white kids in their neighborhood, and the Black kids hang out elsewhere. There was less interest in socializing outside of school. White kids would rarely go to their Black friends’ houses on the other side of town. White people’s friendships largely remain segregated, and studies have reported that within white people’s circles, few have hosted someone of color or visited someone in a nonwhite home. Churches also remain largely segregated. These places of relationship—schools, neighborhoods, and churches—continue to reinforce separation. The problem is not simply race, however. The deeper problem is the inability to relate across racial differences.
Responsibility vs. Response-ability If you have a hard time feeling responsible for racism, you may have trouble considering your responsibility. If that’s the case, it may be good to consider
your “response-ability.”70 To say you are responsible for something brings up feelings of defensiveness, perhaps anger, and these strong emotions make it difficult to hear others’ perspectives, let alone build meaningful relationships. Often, people sharing their frustrations about racism need you to simply hear them, not to take personal responsibility. You can be response-able, able to respond with compassion and care, without needing to feel personally responsible. For example, if a Black man talks with you about his experience of being pulled over by the police in his own neighborhood for the ninth time that year, you can respond with compassion and empathy to that man’s experiences and feelings of anger and sadness. Alternatively, responding by trying to explain, rationalize, defend, or otherwise dismiss his experience limits your response-ability, and you are less likely to build a meaningful relationship with him. Understand that the man is not asking you to take responsibility for the police; rather, he has invited you into his experience. He knows this is not your common experience, and he isn’t asking you to do anything about it or even to make sense of it. You are not responsible for the fear or anger he feels. But you can be response-able by listening, believing, and accepting his experience. Being response-able to anger can be particularly challenging. As a white person, listening to a person of color share about discrimination from another white person or white society in general can be difficult to hear without interpreting it as being directed at you. For example, a Latinx woman says white people always assume she’s a foreigner or from Mexico, when in reality she’s from Puerto Rico, which makes her an American citizen. You hear this, and you sense she is angry. Where does your mind go? Is it to thinking whether or not you have ever done this? Or is it to defensiveness, thinking she’s being too sensitive and that it’s an easy mistake? Some white people, when talking about race, say they “feel stupid.” Maybe you didn’t realize Puerto Ricans are American citizens and now you’re wondering if you should just back away from the conversation and Google information about Puerto Rico. To feel stupid is to feel inadequate, The phrase “response-ability” I first read in an article by my husband Philip Browning Helsel, “The Relational Basis of Agency: An Integrated Psychological/ Theological Approach,” in C.W. Gruber et al. (eds.), Constraints of Agency, Annals of Theoretical Psychology 12, pp. 143–162. He is quoting a brief passage from Marjorie Suchocki, The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1994), p. 132.
insecure. So what do you do with that? It is not helpful for meaningful relationships. Given that you just saw her frustration that white people are not aware that Puerto Ricans are citizens, you may be hesitant to say, “Wow, I didn’t know that, either.” You don’t want her anger directed at you, and your white anxiety could prevent you from continuing the conversation. You may keep your mouth shut, feeling guilty for your own ignorance. Perhaps you felt responsible—convicted—because you’ve been guilty of assuming Puerto Ricans are foreigners. But what if, instead of letting this push you away, you focused instead on your response-ability? Might you be able to improve your relationship with this woman? Being response-able might mean you could listen to her frustration and not say anything. Perhaps being response-able would include saying, “I’m so sorry. That must be really frustrating.” It might include getting to know this person better and learning what her experiences have been like living between Puerto Rico and the United States. Perhaps it could mean thinking about your own education as a white American student in public school, never learning history lessons about the unincorporated territories of the United States. Perhaps it means simply sitting with the anger that the other person feels, understanding that it’s about something much bigger than you and it’s not in your power to do anything about it. Your response-ability is in your power—how you respond in the moment. Of course, this discernment and presence of mind takes practice and mindfulness. It requires being mindful of our own tendencies to react to anger with fight-or-flight rather than acceptance and peacemaking. It can be important to reassure yourself that you are safe and that this person’s anger will not harm you, nor is it directed toward you. Also important to understand is the role of anger in the work of justice. Anger over injustice propels us to make a difference. At the same time, anger can feel all-consuming, and so we need to take breaks from our anger from time to time. The best way to diffuse anger is to help someone feel they have been heard. If you express your anger and someone dismisses you, ignores you, or tries to talk you out of your feelings of anger, they only fuel it and make it greater. But if you share your anger and they listen to you without becoming defensive, you feel heard. The issue may not be resolved, but the anger itself diffuses and the mind can begin to work
again. Then you can feel free to address the action that caused the anger. The anger has served its purpose and is no longer needed. But imagine you are perceived as an “angry Black woman,” a stereotype that many whites have toward Black women. Imagine you are angry about being treated unfairly, but because of this stereotype, you cannot express your anger. If you do express anger, you are dismissed as an “angry Black woman.” So you stifle your feelings of anger, put on a smile, and turn the other cheek. Imagine this kind of response happening again and again. The anger, which is justified, never gets acknowledged or affirmed. Therefore, the anger does not achieve its purpose. So you feel crazy, constantly avoiding or suppressing your feelings and having to talk yourself down, never letting the anger speak. Imagine: What might that do to your overall physical health? Your spiritual health? Your mental health? If we were to walk in the shoes of a person of color for a day, seeing the little and big things that communicate to you that your race makes you a problem, then we understandably would feel angry. We would feel like the world is unfair. We would want to tell someone about it. Consider your own experiences when life has seemed unfair and unjust, and you will remember your feelings of anger. Building relationships with people of color involves being able to respond to anger without becoming overwhelmed or afraid or defensive. Building relationships with people who have been discriminated against means believing that their experiences of discrimination are real and that their feelings are what we would feel if we were in the same situations on a daily basis. Authentic relationships require this kind of responseability: being able to hear the frustration and the pain another person has experienced, without feeling as though we need to run in and “fix it” or save them. Instead, we are called to respond by being witnesses, accompanying our brothers and sisters and supporting them in whatever ways we can.
White Feelings: Do They Keep White People as the Focus? By asking white people to examing their response-ability and to name their feelings, am I re-centering whites instead of people of color? I have heard critiques of anti-racism conversations that acknowledge the emotions of white people. Namely, white people already are centered in society, and their feelings have been so problematic in the past that we should
not continue this pattern by trying to appease whites’ emotional responses to the work of anti-racism. I see the significance of this critique. Emmitt Till was murdered at age fourteen based on the “feeling” of a white woman who claimed he’d made lewd overtures toward her. The tears of white women can be deadly for people of color, especially men. The feeling of “fear” that police officers say they had just moments prior to using deadly force against a person of color is how they justify the killing in a court of law, even if the person killed had no weapon. The feelings of white people can literally be deadly for people of color. And those same feelings can lead to white people’s exoneration in court when they have murdered a person of color.71 The feelings of white people have for too long taken precedence over the feelings of people of color. In the 1619 Project edition of The New York Times Magazine, author Linda Villarosa wrote about the cruel “experiments” conducted on enslaved Africans in order to show that Black people had thicker skin or less capacity for feeling in their skin. This lie was passed down through the centuries, so that even modern-day medical students were reported to have assumed patients of color had a higher pain threshold than white patients.72 If people of color do not “feel” as much as white people, then whites are surprised when they see people of color express emotions such as anger. In turn, those feelings are interpreted as being extreme or unnatural, inappropriate to the situation, or too strong. Black men and women who express their anger receive the label “angry Black man” or “angry Black woman,” which serves to minimize the legitimacy of that person’s feelings. So while the emotions of whites have taken on larger-than-life powers of life and death, justifying the murder of unarmed Black and brown people, the emotions of people of color simultaneously are viewed as being too strong, making their impact, in fact, weaker. Emotions come out of our experiences, and when our emotions are regarded as inappropriate or too strong, we question our experiences. And when others question our experiences and our emotions, it can feel For more examples of the ways that white feelings of resentment and anger have led to harm for communities of color, see Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016).
Linda Villarosa, “Medical Inequality: Myths about physical racial differences were used to justify slavery—and are still believed by doctors today.” The New York Times Magazine: The 1619 Project (August 18, 2019), pp. 56–57.
crazy-making. Am I crazy? Are my emotions out of touch with reality? Did I misinterpret what happened? Is it my fault that I’m feeling this way? Having these experiences again and again can make you numb to your feelings, or they can eat away at your well-being over time, leading to depression and other health problems. Many people of color reading this book may feel anxiety at the thought of talking about racism with white people, dreading the predictable responses they may hear from their white colleagues who minimize the suffering of people of color and question the legitimacy of their complaints, while asking them to consider a different interpretation of events. To the people of color bringing this anxiety to the conversation, I hear you, and I’m sorry. I hope that you will have new experiences of others respecting your voice and experiences and learning from you. The reason I talk to white people about their feelings is not because I want to continue the history of elevating white feelings above others, but rather because of the power of white emotion to continue to dominate and negatively impact the well-being of others. I want white people to better understand their feelings and to gain the capacity to reflect more seriously and deeply on why they feel the way they do and to hesitate before acting on their emotions or saying something rooted in their feelings. I am aware of the painfully unjust ways white feelings can impact the lives and bodies of people of color, and I want white people to become aware of this history and to change. I want white people who feel afraid or who sense “danger” when they are in the presence of a person of color to question their initial reaction. Why are you feeling afraid? What messages are you believing about this person that inform your beliefs? Is there any observable data you can point to that would justify your beliefs? Are there other signs that could point to another inference you could make about this person? In the highly publicized confrontation between Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper (no relation) in Central Park on Memorial Day 2020, Amy called the police on Christian after he tried to give her dog a treat in order to help keep him restrained in the Ramble, an area of the park that required dogs to be on a leash and that had signs posted to that effect. She refused to comply, citing her reasons. Christian responded, “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.” At that point, Christian prepared to pull out a dog treat and Amy began
screaming, “Don’t touch my dog!” At that point, Christian began recording the encounter. After exchanging a few more words, she warned Christian that she would call 9-1-1 and report that an African-American man was threatening her. And then she did it, repeatedly referring to his race during the call. She mustered the frantic sounds of a fragile woman in immediate peril. This is the poignant ugliness of the encounter: She, as a white woman, knew the potentially disastrous outcome of her decision to call law enforcement and tell them she was in danger because of a Black perpetrator. She was familiar with the incidences of Black men who had been killed by police for the slightest transgressions. She must have believed that her threat would instill fear in Christian as a Black man and make him back off. The point of a threat, after all, is to frighten the other person into compliance. But Christian did not give in to her demands. He remained calm and continued to record the exchange on his phone, standing in place as he cautioned her to back away from him as she called the police. I do not know Amy Cooper, but I wonder about the emotional reaction she had to being told to restrain her dog in the Ramble. I can imagine something like the following playing out: How dare this person tell me what to do! I’m so mad! Does he think he is better than me? Why, this is an African-American man! [Insert whatever racist logic she grew up with that fed her beliefs about him being African-American.] I’ll show him not to mess with me! But what if, instead of responding the way that she did, she had practiced listening to her emotional reactions, particularly in interracial settings? What if, instead of letting her defensiveness get the better of her, she had noticed her defensiveness? What if she had asked curious questions about her defensiveness: Why am I mad that he asked me to restrain my dog? Maybe I’m still nervous about my ability to care for this dog. I’m so stressed about the pandemic and being alone, I needed a companion. But I wonder if this dog was too much for me. Maybe this person sees me as incompetent as a dog caregiver. Maybe I am! But then again, maybe it’s okay to acknowledge that I’m still learning. That I’m still trying to figure this out. If I can admit that to myself, maybe I can start giving myself a bit of grace. Why don’t I take a deep breath, apologize to this man, and see if I can get my dog back on the leash. Maybe I can even talk to the adoption agency and let them know I need help. Do they offer dog training sessions? And so on. Of course, we’ll never know, because if she had responded this way, then we would never have heard about Amy Cooper and her interaction with Christian Cooper.
The Feelings That Drive Us Our emotions are not formed in a vacuum. They are not purely biological or chemical: While the neurons in our brain are certainly influenced by the food we eat or the medications that simulate important chemicals in our brain, all of these biological reactions happen within the context of our social and material lives. How our relationships are doing impacts how we feel. How we are doing financially impacts how we feel. If we are stressed about paying the bills every month, that stress means more cortisol (a chemical our bodies release when under stress) floating in our bloodstream and in our brains, which can make it harder for us to relax and get the proper amount of sleep. If we are not getting adequate sleep or eating foods that help nourish our bodies (because we are choosing whether to pay the rent or buy groceries), then that also impacts the chemicals in our brain and bodies, and our emotional reactions to life events are going to be primarily negative. We will be less patient with ourselves and others. We will lose our temper more quickly. We may not make the best decisions regarding how we handle difficult conversations. I say all of this to help us understand that our emotions are complicated, and that they are impacted by our life experiences. As a white person, if I have not had conversations about racism, and if I have been brought up with a colorblind mentality, a sense that I should not talk about race, then someone else talking about race will make me feel uncomfortable. It takes time to get used to talking about things that make us uncomfortable. Feelings of discomfort also are related to levels of stress. If we are already highly stressed, feeling uncomfortable in a situation will make us want to fight or flee—activating that fight-or-flight response in our brain that tells us to either engage in aggressive tactics toward whatever is causing us distress or to run to avoid confrontation. Many white people opt for the second. Avoid. Run away. There’s a meeting to discuss racism in our institution? Is it mandatory? If not, then many people simply will opt out of attending to avoid adding stress to their lives. They act to prevent having to engage in conversations that will create discomfort and add stress to their bodies. People of color may have similar reactions to conversations about racism: Do I want to talk about this with people I do not know I can trust? Do I want to add additional stress to my already stressful existence as an employee in this institution or member of this community? Do I really want to hear what these people actually believe and spend time hearing their
confessions, which they will then expect me to respond to, absolving them of their sins? No thank you! It can be very stressful to have these conversations, because the emotional toll on each individual is shared with the group. For people unaware of racism’s impact on others, learning of new stories and instances where racism has been painfully present can be hard to hear. It can challenge our idealized narrative of where we work or live. In my neighborhood, one of the former students who helped create a network of alumni to fight racism in the district wrote that her own experience growing up in the school system was largely positive. As an Asian American woman, she felt generally accepted and included, and was even voted class president. Yet, hearing the stories of Black peers made her reconsider her own experiences and made her aware of blind spots she had about her beloved school. Hearing stories of racism can be painful for the people sharing these stories because they can be retraumatizing, forcing people to relive the experiences in order to share them with others. It also can be painful for the people listening: people who have similar stories but who have so far kept silent, as well as those who wanted to believe their institution was not capable of such meanness. The image we have of our institutions reflects an image we have of ourselves. We want to believe the best about the institutions we love, just as we want to believe the best about ourselves. The challenge in these conversations is to be aware of our desire to preserve those positive feelings, to name that impulse, and to also provide room to hear additional stories. So, yes, my experience at the school was great, and also yes, the experiences of some of my peers were dreadful and extremely painful. How can we do better together? Attending to our own emotions also means noticing when we feel overwhelmed. Listening to the painful stories of others can feel overwhelming, not only because of their content, but also because of the sheer number of them. Hearing so many stories about racial discrimination when your own life has sheltered you from such encounters can make you doubt your own experience. You may wonder, How did I miss this? Is there something wrong with me that I have not seen this happening the whole time? These questions can make you feel bad about yourself. On the other hand, when we get overwhelmed, we also may react by lashing out at others. When our systems are overloaded, we may not
recognize when our ability to respond to others becomes compromised, such as when we begin acting out our negative feelings by projecting them onto other people. Our emotions can respond to stress by blaming other people, essentially saying to those sharing their stories of racism that it’s their fault it happened to them, and that they just need to “develop a thicker skin,” or “go somewhere else if they don’t like it here!” These kinds of responses are hurtful and counterproductive. They hasten the breakdown of communication and end whatever trust had initially been extended by the person sharing their story. To stay in these conversations long-term, we need to recognize when we are starting to build up negative emotions that are beyond our capacity to moderate, take a step back, take a deep breath, and come back to the conversation another time. It’s also important that we recognize the emotions of others as also being challenged in these conversations. When we see that this is a hard conversation for ourselves, we can begin to extend that same understanding to others. If someone reacts strongly to a conversation about racism, it can feel like the conversation is at risk. Should we keep talking about this? Traditional norms of conversation habituate us to changing the subject when things get too difficult or people begin to show strong emotions. What about the conversations around racism that bring up strong emotions in white people and people of color? How do we ourselves handle our strong emotions, and how do we react to the strong emotions of others? Awareness of our own emotions leads us to become more aware of the emotions of others. In paying attention to others’ emotions, we also need to be aware of our own emotions in response to sensing the emotions of other people. To put this in different words: If you are sad, I will wonder what made you sad, and seeing you sad may make me feel sadness. We tend to empathize more readily with people who express their emotions through sadness rather than through anger. We have movies and cartoons that show anger leading to violence, so it may be our experience that we become fearful of someone when they get angry. If you and I are in a conversation and you look like you’ve gotten angry, and if I have only seen people express their anger with violence, I will react emotionally to you being mad by worrying whether I made you mad or by becoming afraid of you. But if I can see that you are mad and tell myself, This person is mad. Did I cause them to be mad? Or could it be something beyond my
control? I can respond by asking you directly, “Did I do something to make you mad?” Or I could wait for you to volunteer that information, depending on our relationship. How do you respond when you get mad? Do you express your anger toward others? Or do you tend to turn it inward? Do you try to stifle your anger? Or does it fester? When have you felt good about the way you dealt with your own anger? Conversely, how do you respond when other people get angry? How do you feel when you notice someone else is mad? Do you become afraid of the person? Does it make you worried or concerned? How do you see people acting on their own anger? Have you seen people express their anger in ways that seemed to maintain the person’s sense of self-worth (i.e. “It is right for me to be angry”) while also accomplishing their own goals (“If my goal is to stay in the relationship, I will need this person to hear my anger, respect the reasons for my anger, and commit to the relationship by seeking to avoid upsetting me in similar ways in the future”)? Let me share one interaction that was illuminating for me. A Black friend became angry at the way I was responding to a project we were working on. There was another white woman working on the project, and the two of us would respond quickly to one another’s emails. Often there was the assumption that our Black colleague was not answering email as quickly as necessary for the timeline of the project, so I would jump in and respond by email for the both of us. My friend eventually left me a voice message, something that is temporary (not in writing) but allows you to convey a lot of information quickly. She said she did not want a response at that time, or to talk to me about this, but she wanted to let me know that she was angry at the way I and the other white woman were treating her. She expressed why she was mad, and then left the clear expectation that I do not try and resolve it right away. I found this experience to be super helpful on multiple levels. On one level, it made me aware of what I had been doing. I did not want to jeopardize my relationship with my colleague, so her telling me what had bothered her was essential to our long-term success as partners on this project. On another level, it taught me so much about helpful ways of expressing anger. Anger needs to express itself or it comes out in other ways that may not be helpful to the person experiencing the anger or the person who caused the anger. By expressing anger through a voice message, the an-
ger could be expressed and then “disappear”; it would not be a lingering reminder for either party about the experience, but was necessary in the moment. Also, the explicit instruction to give her space, to not respond right away, gave us both space to respond to our own feelings in the moment. It gave her emotional protection from me in case I had responded by trying to justify myself or get defensive. I was also given time to let my feelings handle this information, and because I actively want to do better and to listen to people of color, I was prepared to receive her critique eagerly. But then again, she did not need me calling her back all excited about what a learning experience this was for me, and wasn’t I such a good white person for taking her critique in stride? She just needed to express her anger, and I needed to give her space and take time to deal with my own feelings. I had learned my lesson from the exchange, and our relationship was better for it, and better for the boundaries she placed for us to have our own time to process our feelings.
The Problem with Political Correctness During the presidential campaign and administration of Donald Trump, many of his supporters voiced their appreciation for his lack of political correctness—his ability to “tell it like it is.” I have a hunch as to why these supporters appreciate such candor. To have someone campaign for the nation’s highest office and say statements that are offensive to certain groups, and to then get away with it by still being able to become president, shows that being politically correct is not a requirement for being voted in to lead. For people who feel they will never be “politically correct,” this is liberating. They no longer have to measure up to a confusing standard of political correctness that, for them, was ever elusive. The concept of political correctness is one of evaluation: Either you (or the things you say) are politically correct or not. Often the criteria for what counts as correct changes over time, so it becomes a moving target. If you are prone to saying things others deem offensive, you will resent the constant evaluation and the constant assessment that you are wrong or that you are saying the wrong thing. You may not change the way you feel, but you are being asked to use words that are less offensive in order to make them politically correct. So political correctness becomes this annoying morality code that is always telling you, “You’re wrong. You’re
offensive. You’re a bad person.” Living with this kind of message for long enough will make you want to say, “To heck with political correctness,” and appreciate seeing someone not politically correct being successful in the political realm. I say all this not because I think political correctness is a bad thing. Rather, I say this because I understand how the concept can become this feeling of judgment for people who are called out for not being politically correct. No one appreciates the feeling of being judged. If you are someone who lives in a part of the country where you already have a negative view about liberals in the big cities or on the coasts of the country, feeling judged by these liberals makes you feel even more resentful. Coastal and big-city liberals acting like they are the moral exemplars and depicting other white people as ignorant and morally immature makes a person resent all this condescension. When white people are condescending toward other white people, neither group is going to change their minds about the other. No one wants to be or enjoys feeling shamed or criticized.
Growing Up White and Female: My Story: Part 2 As a white person born in a Republican home, I grew up with the attitude that political correctness was a fake morality. As an evangelical Christian, I knew my faith was real and that the morality I followed had to do with my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. No secular liberalism was going to compromise my values for the sake of the idolatry of political correctness. In a senior sermon I preached at my church as a high school student, I spoke sarcastically of the age we lived in (the late 1990s) as one in which tolerance was the highest virtue. As a woman, I grew up assuming that I could do anything. I saw women working as associate pastors at my large mainline church. I had learned the term “feminazi” from overhearing Rush Limbaugh on the radio. I had the impression that people worrying about women’s rights were struggling against invisible enemies, ones they no longer needed to fight. Feminism was not necessary. When I heard that my mom was taking a course at a local university on women and gender, I asked, “Why? Feminism is over— why talk about it anymore?” As a teenager, I knew everything. (I even asked my friend why her parents had put up a refrigerator magnet that said “Ask a teenager, while they still know everything.” I asked her why grown-ups thought this was funny, “because we do know everything!”)
I went to a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest because I had heard that the school had a great religion department, and when I visited the campus, they seemed to share the same evangelical, passionate faith that made me feel at home. The classes I took helped me to think about my faith without deconstructing it, and many of my fellow classmates were also committed to pursuing some form of ministry after college. Many students spent their Saturday nights serving the homeless and bringing food to people living downtown with limited resources. It was an inspiring place to grow in community with others who shared my sense of faith. I began to feel a bit disconcerted when some of these same peers let me know they didn’t think God called women to preach. God surely calls women to “all” forms of ministry, they assured me, but preaching was reserved specifically for men, as it said in the Bible. These were peers I looked up to as examples of Christian faith, who knew the Bible better than I did, and who expressed their faith through service to the poor downtown. One of these peers I even had a crush on: He was so smart, and such a faithful Christian. How could he be wrong? I felt I needed to justify my sense of calling to myself after this man I respected led me to question my own worthiness to preach. A sense of calling is a subjective thing. You cannot point to an external event others could have witnessed and say, “There—that was a sense of call. Don’t you see it?” Instead, it is a personal experience, possibly misinterpreted, open to questioning and doubt. I could tell you exactly where I was when I felt the call to ministry, and you might shrug your shoulders and say, “Eh. You can’t be sure.” No, I can’t be sure. And as a woman, my call was now viewed as suspect by fellow faithful Christians who read a Bible that told them God doesn’t call women to preach. I felt called to preach on a Sunday afternoon when I was a fifteen-yearold living in San Antonio, Texas. My youth director was driving me home from a church event, and as we drove down Highway 281 crossing over the Olmos Basin, he asked if I had ever considered going into ministry. I explained that, just recently, in fact, I had thought about it. I was about to finish my sophomore year in high school, so I was thinking seriously about college. I realized blind ambition was not sufficient for choosing a college; I didn’t want to apply to Yale or Harvard simply because of the name recognition. I wanted to apply where I would be prepared best for what God wanted me to do. But what did God want me to do? As I was
thinking about this, the image of a preacher in a pulpit came into my mind, and I immediately shut it out. I told my youth director about this, saying I knew I couldn’t be called to ministry because I wasn’t a good enough example and I wasn’t a good public speaker. He told me about Moses and Paul, both of whom resisted God’s call—but God empowered them anyway. He concluded with a Bible verse where God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”73 There, in that conversation, I experienced a call to ministry. As we pulled up to my house and I got out of the car and stood on the edge of my driveway, I felt everything inside me saying “YES!” I knew what I was supposed to do. I knew what God was calling me to do. But a few years later, in college, when that experience was called into question, I wondered: How could I be sure God was really calling me to preach? Perhaps it was some other form of ministry God had in mind for me. I later learned that my youth director from San Antonio had changed denominations. He was now pastoring in an Orthodox church, a tradition that does not support the ordination of women. So, if the very person who had helped me hear God’s call was no longer sure women were called to preach, then how could I claim any certainty that God was calling me? I tried to rationalize my way out by learning as many arguments as I could for women’s ordination, as well as the arguments against it. In a college course on Christian doctrine, we were invited to take sides on theological debates and argue for a particular point of view. I chose to debate against women’s ordination in order to better understand the basis for this perspective. In class, I debated against a male student, who unfortunately had done little of the preparation necessary to battle the centuries-old stigma against women in church leadership. Armed with the psychology and theology of hundreds of years of misogyny, I convinced the class that women’s “weaker nature” and the fact that “God chose the male form in which to be incarnate” and had “only male disciples” were reasons enough for men to continue to be the sole occupants of the priesthood. Men were, in fact, the only ones fit to represent the divine. I was so thorough in my research and argumentation that I ended up convincing the class. These arguments fit too easily into deep-seated biases we never realized we had, biases we had thought were behind us as a culture and society; but in fact, they were still present, even in ourselves. 73
2 Corinthians 12:9, New International Version.
This realization that biases against whole groups of people were “rational” to a degree helped me later on to see the work of racism as ongoing. Racism, for too long, “made sense,” and it takes continuous effort and dedication to challenge those biases until they no longer make sense but rather make us cringe and cry out. My post-debate college self still sensed God leading me to ministry, despite what hundreds of years of Christian Bible interpreters had said about women. I applied to seminary, and having finished all my required coursework for college, graduated a year early and moved across country to begin my graduate studies for a ministry vocation. Seminary exposed me to the ideas of feminist theologians whose work I was now open to after my college experience. I learned about internalized oppression, how the devaluing of one’s identity by society can lead to self-doubt and constant questioning of oneself. These thinkers helped me consider that the root of sin was not always “pride” but could also be its opposite: the harmful belittling of one’s self. They suggested that how we talk and think about God impacts how we talk about God’s creation, including humans. If we talk about the story of creation emphasizing God’s curse on Eve after she ate the fruit in the garden of Eden, then we will talk about women as though they were cursed. If we talk about God always in male language and imagery, then we may talk only about men as being representatives of God. How we view God impacts how we view ourselves and one another. In reading about feminist theology, I also began learning about racism. I realized that in all my upbringing within the Christian church and in attending Christian college, no one had pointed out the sin of racism as something I needed to watch out for or repent from. It was never talked about as a source of humanity’s alienation from God and from one another. I never heard racism spoken about as a demonic force that is woven through our culture and institutions. Such condemnation was reserved for issues of sexuality or other “cultural values,” never racism. In seminary, I also learned that by focusing only on “feminist” concerns, many white women were ignoring the experiences of Black women who could not choose to advocate for their gender without also advocating on behalf of their race. Black women were suffering from the same sexist barriers white women faced, but with the added obstacles of racism. The frustrations Black women had regarding white women included feeling
that white feminists did not care about the experiences of Black women or realize that women of all colors need to work together for justice. Even recently, when calling for a “Day without Women,” white women who advocated for all women to boycott their places of employment for a day seemed unaware of the job insecurity poor women face. Calling on them to boycott their jobs for a day could lead to them losing their only access to a paycheck. In particular, women who work in low-paying jobs and whose immigrant status makes them ineligible for any of our social safety nets cannot afford to lose the income they need to provide for their families. Working for equality must continue, but take different forms depending on one’s social location and access to resources. Those of us with greater access must advocate on behalf of those who have less.
The Problem with Political Correctness: Part 2 Some may say that worrying about whether our efforts at working for justice are exclusive or insensitive is a divisive distraction. Perhaps someone may think the critique against white feminists for being racist or classist is an example of political correctness run amok. If progressive liberals can’t quit fighting about who is most liberal, then why inflict on the rest of society this unattainable standard? However, the problem with political correctness is with its assumed goal: to not offend. If our only goal is avoiding offense or speaking so that people from across the political spectrum will not be offended by what we are saying, then we are working toward a weak goal. Not offending others is a very low bar. It is easy to meet this benchmark by simply saying the things you know others want to hear and avoiding the things they don’t. A much loftier goal is the call of Jesus Christ to “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn. 13:34). Loving others means much more than not offending someone. The aim to not offend is the bare minimum, but it says nothing of your intention to love that person. Love requires something greater: to actually know that other person, to seek to know them, and to love them. It means having compassion for how that person has suffered, and to desire the best for them. Rather than simply avoiding offending another, love means actively finding ways to honor and care for them. When Jesus says to his disciples, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” he is saying this just after Judas
Iscariot has left to betray him. Judas was the disciple who sold Jesus to the authorities in exchange for a reward. Jesus knew Judas would do this, yet he still cared for Judas. In the scene before these verses in John 13, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet—all the disciples’ feet, including those of Judas Iscariot. Jesus was showing love, not by avoiding offense, but rather by actively loving Judas despite the betrayal he knew would come. Love requires more from us than polite language or saying the right words. Love requires we learn about one another and care for one another even in the midst of our disagreements. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” We love one another because God first loved us, and in Christ we have been able to know God. In the first letter of John, the author writes about love and how this love comes from God’s love for us: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 Jn. 4:18–21) Love casts out fear. Apprehension or fear of being “politically correct” will not help you love your neighbor. Being afraid of groups of people will not help you love your neighbor. If you are afraid of all Muslims because of a terrorist who claims they are acting out of faith in Islam, you will not be able to love your Muslim neighbor. If you are afraid of all immigrants because of news reports that an immigrant committed a crime, you will not be able to love your immigrant neighbor. What you know about one member of a group does not extend to every person in that group. But knowing your neighbors and asking them to help you understand them better will help you to love them. Being politically correct isn’t the goal; love is. The goal is building relationships. The goal is working together to make the world a better place, to care for those who are widowed or orphaned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked. The goal is something much bigger than political correctness.
But sometimes what is regarded as “political correctness” is also a sign of knowing someone, of knowing how they prefer to call themselves, and of knowing their history and what has caused them pain in the past. To know what words to use around a person means you know that person and care about how words impact them. It demonstrates sensitivity and thoughtfulness.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion Has anyone ever made accommodations for you that made you feel cared for? Has anyone ever asked you how you wanted to be addressed or treated you with respect? If so, then you know how it feels when another person is sensitive and thoughtful toward you. On the other hand, do you know what it feels like when someone calls you a name that hurts your feelings or makes you feel disrespected? Was the person intentionally trying to hurt you? Whether or not they hurt you on purpose, words and names can still cause pain. What is the nicest thing someone has ever said to you? Why did you appreciate it? If you are journaling, take a moment to write your thoughts and feelings after reading this chapter. What have been some of your experiences of “feeling white”? What feelings are stirred for you when you hear these stories? Share with someone your story of coming to notice race and its impact on your life. How do parts of our identity (our gender, for example) impact how we understand ourselves as racialized in society? Have you felt “othered” in some way because of who you are? How does this connect with your racial identity? If you are meeting in a group, close with prayer, asking God for an increased capacity for loving others where they are, including yourself.
Mapping Racial Identity Development
Have you ever come across an idea that helped you make sense of the world? Can you remember learning something from a book or in school that gave you a sudden “aha!” feeling? Sometimes, particular phrases stick with us, putting things into perspective when we encounter stressful situations. For me, one such “aha” moment came when learning about racial identity development theory.74 All of us living in this racialized society eventually learn what “race” we are considered to be part of. Psychologists have identified different “stages” or mental frames of mind as we learn to see ourselves as someone of a particular race. From my own experience, understanding these stages can help us move into greater awareness of ourselves as racialized by society, as well as identify areas for personal growth. This theory emerged from developmental psychology, which considers how a person’s inner life matures and develops over time. Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg are among the earliest developmental psychologists who studied how people mature from infancy to late adulthood, marking crucial moments of identity formation. Teachers and parents may learn about developmental theories to help teach children more effectively and to understand what child developmental stages look
See Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development in the Classroom,” Harvard Educational Review 62 (Spring 1992): 1–25 and Janet Helms, ed., Black and White Racial Identity: Research, Theory and Practice (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990).
like. Similarly, from this there has grown a “faith development” theory to talk about how a person’s faith and images of God change over time.75 Racial identity development focuses on how each individual comes to see him- or herself as racialized by society. I use the word racialized intentionally, which refers to how people are categorized into separate races, because how society categorizes people changes over time. For example, Eastern Europeans were not “white” when they first immigrated in great numbers to America in the early twentieth century. At some points in history, people from Arab countries have been considered “white,” and at other times “not white.” Laws at times have deemed people with “one drop” of African blood to be “Black,” even if a person was white-appearing. The way we talk about skin color is a social construct—people with different skin colors are not separate races, but rather considered part of different groups by a history of racialization. A person has no power over how society racializes him or her, but one’s own racial identity refers to how that person internalizes and responds in society as a result of being racialized. In other words, “being racialized” and “racial identity” come from two different directions. Racialization is externally imposed, whereas racial identity is the internal process an individual goes through to come to terms with one’s race. When people are racialized, society has told them they are of a particular race, but a person’s racial identity is something he or she personally claims. A woman who grows up in a home where her mother is white and her father is a light-skinned African American may unconsciously identify as white. Later in her childhood, someone may ask if she is Black or tell her she is Black. So, the young woman has been racialized by being told she is Black. Meanwhile, her racial identity goes through changes. At one point, she may see herself as white, and later, as Black. Racial identity has more to do with how an individual views his or her own race, and racialization has more to do with how other people view a person’s race, and how society has categorized him or her.
James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).
Similarly, white people who have grown up “colorblind” may not see themselves as white. They may view themselves as not having a color, of just being “normal,” not having a race. But in society, they are racialized as white. They are seen as white by others, and they are treated as white, which historically has given them greater advantages and benefits than people who are seen as not white and who are treated differently as a result. Of critical importance here is recognizing what racial identity can help you understand about your own emotions as you learn about race and racism. If you can better understand what you are going through, you can have a better sense of where these conversations are going and what you can expect. Racial identity development lays out a map of sorts—not that it tells you how to get from point A to point B; rather, it will tell you what kinds of territory you may pass through on your way toward anti-racism. This is a journey. It is not a matter of waking up and saying, “I am not a racist.” It is a process of learning more about how we got to where we are now, paying attention to the subtle ways we already notice race without realizing it, and having an idea of what we can do to keep learning and growing as anti-racists. That was the most helpful insight from racial identity development for me: that shame and guilt were not the end goals. Every time I learned more about racism, and as I began to see myself as white, I kept feeling guilty and ashamed. That was not a pleasant feeling. I knew I wanted to be able to talk about race and racism with other white people, but I did not want to perpetuate the same feelings these conversations had left with me. Racial identity development says those feelings are not the stopping point. Those feelings may be something you experience along the way, but noticing them and paying attention to them and saying to yourself, “This is not the goal; this is not where I stop,” can help you persevere in learning and growing into greater awareness of and compassion for people who experience racial discrimination. These feelings are part of the process, and we need to have a greater capacity to understand them and learn from them, while also leaving room for others to express their own feelings. Expressing feelings does not have to be a turn-taking event where only one person gets to feel at a time. Rather, as we grow in community, we need to continue to recognize the feelings we bring to the conversation and how those feelings may be similar or very different from the feelings that others bring to the same
conversation. Having room for more feeling, not less, will help us in our pursuit of deeper relationships and understanding.76
Racial Identity Development for People of Color: Ashley’s Story So just what are the stages that racial identity development lays out? The answer depends on whether you are a “person of color” or “white.” People of color have stages that are different from those of white people. Because people of color have been racialized as minorities and as nonwhite, their experiences of coming to see themselves as part of a particular racial identity will be different from those of whites coming to see themselves as white. Rather than tell you what all the stages are, let me offer you a couple stories. One is about a young Black girl, and the other is about a young white boy—how each of them comes to see themselves as “Black” or “white.” You may be able to relate to some of what they go through, but you do not necessarily need to have had their experiences to go through these stages. Both stories are fabricated, but I have pulled details from real stories I have witnessed. The first story is about Ashley, a beautiful and happy girl reared by her white mother and her Black father. She is an only child who lives with her parents in a predominantly white, wealthy suburb. Most of her classmates at school are white.
Stage 1: Pre-encounter This beginning stage of Ashley’s racial identity development is known as pre-encounter, which means she has not yet had an encounter in which the color of her skin identifies her as belonging to a particular race or that exposes her to negative associations with having brown skin. She may, however, unconsciously receive negative messages about having brown Recent books that have focused on the emotional process of unlearning racism include Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017), Anneliese A. Singh The Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism & Engage in Collective Healing (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2019), and Rhonda V. Magee The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness (New York: TarcherPerigree, 2019).
skin from the culture in which she is growing up. Because of these oftensubtle messages, she may internalize negative stereotypes about people with brown skin from the dominant white society without anyone yet communicating these negative stereotypes directly. Before she is three, she already has noticed her skin color is different from her mother’s, and her parents both celebrate her and talk to her about how differences in people make them beautiful. Even though her parents have told her she is beautiful, Ashley has picked up in subtle ways from her classmates in preschool that being brown is not beautiful. One day, as her pre-K class is coloring a picture of a girl, the children all pick colors from the available markers and crayons on the table. Ashley is left with a brown crayon that another child has passed over in order to reach for the peach-colored crayon. Ashley says aloud: “I hate brown. Brown is ugly. I don’t want to use brown for my girl.” No one may have said anything to her directly about brown being ugly, but she has internalized this value judgment. The teacher tries celebrating all the lovely things that are brown: chocolate and cinnamon, hot cocoa and good soil. But Ashley remains determined to color the girl in her picture a shade of pink.
Stage 2: Encounter Ashley is now in kindergarten at the local school. One day after school, a group of girls are jumping onto a rotating merry-go-round on the playground. Ashley runs around and tries to jump on with them. All the girls are white, and one of them pushes Ashley off, telling her, “Only white girls allowed.” Ashley ignores the girl and tries again, unsuccessfully, to join the group. She gets tired of this and runs away to do something else. Ashley’s father, who is Black, sees this and is unsure what to do. He is angry and wants to tell the other little girls’ parents what he has just seen, but he does not want to call attention to Ashley if she has not brought it up to him. He also is the only Black parent on the playground, and he doesn’t want the other parents to stereotype him as an “angry Black man,” so he tries to let it go. Ashley runs over to her dad a little while later and says she wants to go home. She seems sad, and her father asks if anything happened on the playground to make her sad. She tells him about the girls saying she couldn’t join them because she wasn’t white. Ashley’s dad experiences great sadness and shares with his daughter some of the things he heard
growing up from other kids. He tries to explain to Ashley why some groups of people think they are better than other people, and how she is not alone in what she went through. This stage of racial identity development for people of color is known as encounter, and it begins with the experience of racial discrimination. There may be other experiences of discrimination that are not overtly racial, but at some point, the individual realizes the discrimination is taking place because of the color of her skin. The person realizes she is part of a targeted racial group. Rather than seeing herself simply as an individual, Ashley begins seeing herself as part of a larger group of people who are “not white” and learns that she is seen as belonging to this other group even though she shares much in common with the white girls. Ashley may go back and forth between these two stages, in that she may forget about these encounters and return to a kind of unconscious acceptance of the subtle messages about race that she receives every day. She may continue to internalize negative feelings about herself. On the occasions when she again experiences explicit racism, she remembers she is not alone as part of this group of “others.” Each time this happens, she gets angry and sad but does not have a way to process her feelings, and so she develops a poor self-image.
Stage 3: Immersion In this third stage, Ashley’s parents become more intentional in talking to her about the civil rights movement. She reads books about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and she learns about the struggle for social justice. Her mom helps her to see that not all white people were against civil rights and that there are white people today who are working against racism. Her dad tells her about the leaders of several social justice movements, including Caesar Chavez and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Ashley begins seeing a lot more of the struggles that people who look like her have had to endure, and seeing their experiences makes her feel braver, knowing others have gone through what she is going through. She is starting to internalize a sense of pride in who she is—knowing she may have to endure people’s racism, but she has the strength of women and men who have come before her. Ashley feels proud of being brown, and she sees lots of examples of beautiful brown people in the books and videos her parents share with her.
Ashley also begins to notice the negative self-image she had as coming from this history of racism. She realizes she does not need to believe the negative messages that come across in subtle ways. She can feel proud of who she is and know she is beautiful and smart. She also realizes she has to actively remind herself of this when she spends time with her white friends who can say things that hurt her feelings. Her parents have raised her in this predominantly white neighborhood because the schools were rated the highest in the city. But because of her experiences with some of her white friends, Ashley’s parents are wondering whether they should move to a part of town that has more diversity. They look for ways to surround her with people who look like her so she does not have to work so hard to feel good about herself. Having positive examples and messages about who she is can help her develop into the strong and healthy young woman she is becoming. Ashley eventually decides to attend a historically Black college (HBCU). She surrounds herself with other Black people who are passionate and brilliant and who never make her feel like she is “other.” Her time in college is full of happy memories and a growing awareness of who she is. She participates in rallies in the local city when an unarmed Black man is shot by the police. She shares her experiences of racial discrimination with others to educate them that racism is still very real in the twentyfirst century.
Stage 4: Internalization This next stage is called internalization because it involves an individual’s racial identity becoming internalized through the positive experiences of being with others of a similar racial background. Ashley has a clearer sense of her identity even when she is not surrounded by people who look like her. She is able to develop close relationships with people from different backgrounds and sees how their struggles are similar. At this stage, she is also able to begin building coalitions with members of other oppressed groups. After college, Ashley goes to law school to become a civil rights attorney. Her law school is very diverse, and she has a different set of friends than she had either growing up or during her college years. Some of her friends are queer and some have disabilities, and the racial makeup of her group includes whites and Blacks, as well as Latinx and Asian Americans.
Among this new group of friends, she is aware of other issues facing oppressed groups in society. One of her queer friends, who is white, shares with her the struggle he had gaining acceptance from his family after he came out as gay. Her Latinx friends tell her about their fear of the discrimination their parents’ face. One of them has parents who are undocumented, and under the new president, they are afraid that one day they may be deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with no idea how to get in touch. An Asian-American friend relates to Ashley how frequently she is asked “Where are you from?” and “Are you an international student?”, even though she and her family have lived in the United States for several generations. Another friend of Ashley’s has a disability; she struggles with mental illness and worries she will be discriminated against at work. All of these friends remind Ashley that the struggle for equal protections and respect is long and wide. As she begins her work as a civil rights lawyer, she takes these lessons she has learned from her colleagues and studies and uses them to make a difference in the world.
Stage 5: Commitment This marks the last stage of racial identity development for people of color and involves an internal commitment to the idea that all people are equal and deserving of respect and fair treatment. The individual seeks to make a difference by committing to addressing injustices that are experienced by one’s own racial group as well as by other oppressed groups. The person is able to translate into action the positive understanding of one’s own racial identity in order to work on behalf of others. The person sustains this commitment over time. Ashley pursues her career as a civil rights lawyer and finds a deep sense of fulfillment in being able to help people feel valued. She finds her work very rewarding, though also very draining at times. It takes an emotional toll on her to listen to the stories of what others have experienced, and it is discouraging when she loses some of the cases she takes on. However, by attending to her own emotional well-being she is able to sustain a long career. She rears her own children to be aware of the injustices some people experience. In both her family and her work life she feels she is fulfilling her ambition to love and serve others. Ashley’s story is not unique. It tells us that people need to be able to feel positively about themselves, and, when they are in touch with their
own pain and struggles, they are more able to connect with the pain and struggles of others, even those very different from them. Ashley’s story demonstrates that people of color do not automatically wake up aware of their need to establish a positive racial identity or with a positive racial identity already intact. It can take years of suffering through racial discrimination before someone finally is able to stop internalizing hate and/or negativity. People of color have to work at a positive racial identity when they are constantly bombarded with the history of negative stereotypes about themselves and their race.
Racial Identity Development for White People: Max’s Story While the struggle is not the same, white people also need to develop a positive racial identity. This is not because white people experience racial discrimination but rather because they do not know how to be “white” apart from this negative history of inflicting racial discrimination onto people of color. It is important for white people to be able to address racism by first understanding what it means to be white, and then by understanding other ways that a person can be white within this history. There are plenty of examples of terrible white people, and there are plenty of examples of white people who allowed terrible things to happen by being silent or standing by while they happened. But white people also need to know that there have been and still are white people who actively work for justice alongside those who have been discriminated against. It is important for white people to have positive role models for what it means to be white. That is the only way that white people can see themselves in a positive way, apart from the white supremacist view that says white people are superior and good. White people need to know about ways that whites can resist the narrative of white supremacy and still feel good about being “white.” This feeling good about being white has nothing to do with the illusions of racial superiority, but everything to do with how we can use the gifts and influence we have to make a difference on others’ behalf. Let’s look at what that process might entail by learning about Max. Max grew up in the same neighborhood as Ashley. They were in some of the same classes in elementary school, but besides the few birthday parties to which all the kids in the class were invited, Max spent no time with Ashley
outside of school. Besides Ashley, there were a few other children of color in Max’s class, but he did not spend time playing with any of them. Max had a few close friends through elementary school, and all of them looked like him: white, blond, and blue-eyed. Max didn’t consciously hold any racist beliefs; he didn’t choose his friends just because they were white. They merely all had things in common. They all loved baseball and biking and Pokemon cards. Their parents were all friends, and they lived just around the block from one another. At home, none of these boys’ parents talked about race. It never seemed an important issue to address. Max and his friends all had parents who grew up thinking it was impolite to talk about race, and they brought up their children without reference to race in the hopes of raising them to be colorblind.
Stage 1: Contact At first, Max and his friends were in the earliest stage of racial identity development for white people, a stage known as contact. At this stage, the white person does not have any real engagement with people of color. If they know someone of color, they do not have a close relationship with that person, or that person may be employed in the home as domestic worker. Because there is no discussion of race at home, the white person does not see “race” as a significant category for him or her. They may be aware of some of the history of racism in the United States, but largely assume that this part of history no longer has any meaning for the present. If Max hears about a person of color expressing racial discrimination, he may wonder whether the person of color is misinterpreting it. Max may feel that people of color are just more sensitive and would be better off if they were less sensitive. If asked whether he is “white” or has a race, he most likely says, “I’m just American.” He may avoid conversations about racism, assuming that such discussions have no significance to him. Because of the unconscious way in which Max is white, he is unable to engage in meaningful conversations with people who experience race as a label that impacts them on a daily basis. He doesn’t feel race impacts him directly, and because of that, he’s not likely to engage in conversations about race. He senses it is a challenging subject, and to prevent himself from feeling uncomfortable he avoids the subject, hoping that by ignoring race, racism will lessen over time.
Stage 2: Disintegration Max spends most of his growing-up years in this first stage of contact. He knows a few nonwhite students, and he plays on sports teams with them, but at the end of the day, he never invites them to his house or vice versa. As a high school student, he notices that many of the Black students sit together in the cafeteria and that he sits at a table with his all-white group of friends. In his classes are students from different racial backgrounds—Indian, Korean-American, and Chinese, he thinks. The guy he thinks is Chinese is sitting next to him in class one day, and Max tells him a joke: “What do you call it when an egg goes down a hill? An egg roll.” Max smiles, thinking his classmate will think his joke is funny. Instead, the guy gets up and moves to another seat. Max is confused— what did he say? He was just trying some small talk. Max avoids talking to that student again. Later in the school year, the counseling office hosts a diversity education event for students who apply. They get to miss a day of school to meet off-campus for a day of learning about diversity. Max is all for missing regular school, so he signs up. When he gets there, the presenter starts talking about white privilege and the way racism benefits white people even without their knowing it. It is a long day and Max learns a lot, but he feels really conflicted. Max was not sure what he’d signed up for, but this was not going well. The things he was hearing were making him uncomfortable—like all of a sudden he was a bad guy. He thought back to the egg roll joke he had made in class the other day. Was that racist? He hadn’t thought so. After all, he loved Asian stuff. He grew up on Asian manga comics and Pokemon cards. How could he be racist? This stage is called disintegration because it presents a challenge to a person’s previously unchallenged positive view of oneself. Before this stage, the white person did not consciously think he or she was racist. Now, he or she is confronted with the message that they may be perceived as being racist even if that was not the intent. This confrontation creates a number of difficult emotions, including anger or defensiveness, as well as guilt or shame. The person feels conflicted by the reality that something he or she said was perceived as racist. This creates internal confusion and distress. There is a feeling of cognitive dissonance between how the person views him- or herself and the way they are perceived by others.
Stage 3: Reintegration After attending the diversity event, Max feels several different emotions. He feels overwhelmed by all this new information. He did not know about the experiences of people of color or people from other religious faiths who have been targeted for their faith or appearance. He feels unsure of what he possibly can do about it all. He also feels a bit guilty, since as a Christian white person he does not experience discrimination on the basis of his skin color or his religious faith. Based on the things he heard in the diversity meeting, he has a lot of privilege to not experience these things, and being privileged in that way feels bad. But Max does not like feeling bad about himself. He has had healthy self-esteem growing up, he has been confirmed in his church, and he sees himself as a moral guy. He resents the idea that somehow he has been “complicit in injustice,” as the diversity training taught him. How could he be getting it so wrong when he has been such a good person his whole life? Instead of feeling bad about himself, he starts to have bad feelings toward the people who presented this diversity event. “The student leaders and workshop facilitators are the ones who don’t know what they’re talking about,” he thinks. “Sure, bad things have happened in the past, but I’m no racist.” He starts avoiding anything that has to do with the word diversity. He thinks it is a waste of his time and that it’s just trying to make him feel bad about himself. “That’s not for me,” he says. “I’m sure there are other people who need to hear that, but not me.” This stage of white racial identity development is known as reintegration because the individual reintegrates previously held understandings about themselves, ignoring messages they have heard about ongoing racism. The individual cannot hold on to the negative feelings that such conversations bring up, so he or she avoids the conversations and turns the negative feelings outward onto others. The white person may notice that he or she now has conscious thoughts about people of color that are negative. The white person may think that people of color are too focused on being victims or aren’t taking enough responsibility for themselves. These ideas allow the white person to maintain their prior understanding of themselves: I’m a good person. There’s no reason why I should feel bad on your behalf. If you want me to feel bad, then it’s your problem and something must be wrong with you.
The reintegration stage obviously is not a positive step. It’s not a move forward. This stage is included within the process of white racial identity development because white people should expect to feel it. The feelings that come up when talking about race and racism are troubling, and there is a tendency to project those negative feelings about ourselves onto other people. Those not aware of this stage may end here and avoid further growth. But knowing this is a predictable part of the development toward a healthy and positive white racial identity can help us stay engaged and have compassion for ourselves. If we can recognize our own tendencies to push our negative feelings onto others, then rather than acting on those feelings, we can accept them and keep them to ourselves, trusting that as we stay engaged in the process these feelings may transform into something else.
Stage 4: Pseudo-independence The name of this stage captures the tentative nature of this forward movement. As the person gains a bit of independence from the earlier understanding of themselves as “normal” (not racialized), the person begins to learn more about what it means to be white in today’s society. The stage includes the prefix pseudo because it is a false independence. The person is still stuck in understanding whiteness as the former innocence and ignorance they grew up with. They are not yet fully ready to have genuine relationships with people of color, and the symptoms of racist beliefs still are present. But the person begins to think through what racism looks like today and understands it on an intellectual level. The person begins to accept that they are “white,” even though this does not come easily or comfortably. Let’s look at what is happening with Max at this stage. Max goes away to college and, while he is there, a police officer shoots and gravely wounds an unarmed Black student. The entire college campus is upset. The Black student caucus is protesting on the streets in front of the school, and students of all colors have joined in the march with signs and solidarity. Max sees all of this happening and is not sure what to do. He hears his white roommate talking to a Black friend, saying, “I know—I’ve never been pulled over by the police and treated that way. There’s no way that would have happened to me.” His white roommate seems aware of the different treatment he receives from police. The fact that the victim of the shooting did not have a weapon makes Max incredulous. How could
this happen? He wants to think the victim did something wrong or acted aggressively toward the police officer. He wants to believe there is some justification for the shooting. But the more he hears about the event and sees the grief of the students on his campus, the more he starts to wonder. He thinks, “I have a lot to learn.”
Stage 5: Immersion The next semester, Max signs up for a class on Black literature. He reads novels he was never exposed to in high school, by authors such as Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Frantz Fanon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Chinua Achebe. These books make him learn of a life so different from his own. He reads Ta-Nehisi Coates and learns how far we still have to go when it comes to giving everyone a fair and equal chance to succeed. He watches the PBS special Freedom Riders and sees the white men and women who also risked their lives and well-being to sit at lunch counters with Black or brown sisters or brothers. He watches the James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, that came out in theaters. Max notices how similar things are between the things Baldwin wrote about and the things Max is seeing on the news today. Max begins to sense that he can get involved in some way, though he’s not sure how. This stage of white racial identity development involves immersing oneself in a historical understanding of the events and attitudes that led up to where we are today in terms of continuing racial inequality. The white person begins to read about other whites who also fought for civil rights and who continue to fight on behalf of all oppressed people. The white person begins to see that they can be part of this bigger story—not because they are needed as a “white savior,” as is so often presented in the movies—but rather because they are called to be an ally, a coworker, a fellow human working for all of humanity to be recognized as fully human. The person at this point may realize the need to return to their own white community to raise awareness of ongoing racism there.
Stage 6: Autonomy This stage is called autonomy because the white person is no longer tied to traditional expectations of what it means to be white. They do not refuse the label “white,” and it does not cause discomfort to claim their racial
identity as white. The person is aware of the unfair advantages given to whites in this country, and also aware that simply being aware of white privilege does nothing to change the system that unfairly advantages whites. Because of this, the white person finds ways to actively raise awareness of racial discrimination and inequality, using what influence they have to try and widen the circle of people who will commit to addressing ongoing racism. The person at this stage also sees how whiteness and racism are interconnected with other forms of oppression involving gender, class, ability, citizenship status, sexual orientation, etc., and works to build coalitions with others who are addressing injustice. The person seeks to learn about other cultures and communities and values diversity in their workplace and neighborhood. Diversity no longer poses a threat. At the same time, at any of these stages, development is not a finished project. It is not something that the white person is “done with.” Instead, future experiences and opportunities challenge the person and require going back through earlier stages to accept these experiences in a growth mindset. For instance, the person may be criticized for saying something offensive, and again the person experiences the earlier stages of disintegration and reintegration until finally accepting the accusation and learning from it. There are plenty of opportunities for people to make mistakes in the work for justice! The goal is to maintain humility and be aware that none of us has “arrived,” so that we can keep learning and growing from one another. After his college experiences, Max decided to go to graduate school to study literature written by people of color. He teaches classes at a local community college that look at issues of identity and resistance within oppressive systems. Many of his students cite his classes as having the most impact on their learning and leadership development.
Racial Identity Development Is Different for Different People Why are these stories important? They demonstrate what racial identity development might look like in different people. Granted, these two fictionalized individuals had a lot of other things in common. Neither had to deal with other parts of their identity that would have been difficult to navigate: Neither is gay, both came from economically secure families, neither struggled with mental illness or other forms of disability. They
both grew up in the same white neighborhood that had good schools and abundant resources. Both of their families had been living in the United States for several generations and were not viewed as “foreigners.” Racial identity development does not take place in a vacuum—it is related to a number of other factors that make people who they are. How a person views his or her racial identity is impacted by these other factors as well. In fact, any of these factors can increase the challenge exponentially. In the television drama series When We Rise,77 which documents the gay liberation movement and is based on the lives of real persons, one of the characters is a Black man named Ken. Over the course of the movement, Ken attempts to bring awareness of the AIDS epidemic crisis to the Black community. Ken appears before a city council board and speaks about the need to address the problem of AIDS in the Black community. One of the members of the council looks at Ken and tells him, “This is a gay problem. No real Black men are gay.” Ken takes a deep breath, and then tells the room that he is standing there as a proud Black gay man, and that he served his country through several tours during Vietnam in the navy. He urges the council to pay attention to this plague killing men, women, and children by acknowledging the presence of gay members of the Black community. The council member turns away from Ken and calls on the next presenter. This scene depicts a real struggle for members of communities of color in which being LGBTQ means you have to pick your community. Ken faced racism from the gay community in San Francisco, and he faced homophobia from the Black community. Most of the people Ken associated with were white people and people of color who accepted his sexual orientation and the color of his skin, often because they were also members of the gay community. He gets involved with a church called City of Refuge that welcomes people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and that also provides a food bank and soup kitchen for the local community. At one point, a minister of Ken’s church, a Black trans woman, is killed in a car crash. The brother and mother of the decedent come for the funeral, and Ken tells them about her and what a lovely person she was. The brother reacts angrily to Ken, telling him not to call his brother “a her” When We Rise. Created by Dustin Lance Black. ABC Studios, 2017. Miniseries available online.
and that it was disrespectful to their mother. Ken has to walk away and find support from a more conservative white pastor to help convince the woman’s brother and mother to honor her identity and the community with which she served in ministry. For Ken, racial identity development looked different than it would for Ashley. He grew up in an earlier era, serving in the navy during Vietnam, facing racism in the military and silence regarding sexual orientation. Over the course of his life, he witnessed the plague of the AIDS epidemic and the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He also lived through the Supreme Court decision that made it possible for LGBTQ people to get married in every state across the country. His racial identity was different, not only because of the era in which he grew up, but also because of the community that most significantly impacted his identity. Being gay meant he was marginalized from the Black community. At the same time, being gay did not spare him from racism in the gay community. Similarly, a white person who experiences the emergence of other aspects of their identity in a significant way also will have different experiences of being white. A white person who grows up in poverty will have a different experience of race than Max. Similarly, a white woman who has a mental illness or who experiences domestic violence also will experience race differently. This is not to suggest that these other experiences related to one’s identity will make it easier to see one’s race as significant; in fact, it could be that these other aspects make it harder for a person to build connections across races for solidarity. Sometimes people feel the need to focus on only one issue, so they resist feeling pulled to support other causes. The following are only some of the differences that can impact how you as an individual experience racial identity: age; where you grew up; current neighborhood and places you’ve lived; gender; sexual orientation; class; education level; working environment; the ideas and values expressed by your parents; whether you have a physical or mental disability; or whether you are discriminated against because of your religious tradition, nationality, or immigration status. Black people from Puerto Rico or Cameroon will have different experiences and understandings of being “Black” than a Black person who is an American Descendent of Slavery, born and reared in New York City or a small town in Texas. Similarly, imagine being a white person who has immigrated from Serbia or is a
Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors and how very different your understanding would be of what it means to be white, compared to a white Christian born and raised in Phoenix or Milwaukee. Noting the ways that racial identity development can be different for individuals, what important lessons can the stories of Ashley and Max and the stages they demonstrate help us to learn? Simply knowing the progressive stages of racial identity development can help us understand what stage we are currently in, which one we’ve recently emerged from, and which stages we have to look forward to in our movement toward racial justice. If we can recognize they have common markers and experiences, we can better listen to our feelings and our experiences and determine how we can best move forward in working for justice for all. Ken’s idea of working for justice meant accepting his Black identity and his gay identity and being proud of both. Because race has been such a significant category in the history of discrimination and division in this country, it is a category to which we need to attend in order to address racism’s continuing injustice. Racism is not the only form of oppression that impacts people with intersecting identities, but we cannot ignore race if we’re to work for justice in these other areas as well. They all are connected. Also, it is important to notice stages such as the reintegration stage of white racial identity, when we may be projecting negative feelings onto someone else. When we find ourselves becoming angry or feeling defensive, we need to pay attention to those feelings. We do not need to deny them, but rather we can sit with them before we act on them. Letting yourself become more aware of your feelings can help you stay engaged and move forward, rather than projecting your emotions onto people around you by feeling negatively toward them.
How to Talk to Our Children about Racism Looking at these stages of racial identity development, and thinking about how each of us develops differently, it makes sense that we would want to know how to help our children through these stages as well. If those of us who are white are feeling “late” to the conversations about racism which seem to be happening all around us now, how can we help our children understand the ongoing conversation around them? Since the publication of the first edition of Anxious, I coauthored a book with Yvette Joy Harris-Smith, an academic and mom with seventeen years
of teaching experience.78 Together, we worked on how to help parents understand larger issues of diversity and how they can help their children embrace differences. We focused on the parents since helping our children must start with ourselves. But as we begin to better understand our own racial identity and how it impacts us, we can be more intentional about bringing in diverse images and stories to share with our children. Again, our own development has to be ongoing, since how we react to conversations about racism will have an impact on our children. Smaller children may notice differences at a very young age, and how we respond to them makes an impact on how they feel about people who are different. If we are embarrassed that our young child points out the skin color of another person, then our child will feel a sense of shame around different skin tones. Deepening our comfort level enables our children to be more comfortable with people who are different from themselves. When a young child points out someone’s skin color, acknowledge the comment positively: “Yes, you’re good at noticing things.” If they point it out with a question, such as “Why is that person’s skin so brown/pale?”, you can respond with a follow-up question: “Why do you think it is so brown/pale?” Allow your child to make their own guess. Follow up with a positive comment about the variety of skin colors among people around the world, and that all the colors are beautiful, using references the child may associate with other positive things: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate. Have you ever looked carefully at the bark of an old oak tree? You and your child can walk up to the trunk of a tree and notice the varieties of colors found on a single trunk in all the grooves and wrinkles of bark: all different shades and hues of browns and greys, perhaps even pale oranges or reds, all on one trunk. The human family is like that tree, all together on one planet, part of the same living species, not separate races, but rather different shades of the same bark on that tree. A great book to describe the different skin colors of people is The Color of Us.79 This and other children’s books celebrate the differences among
Carolyn B. Helsel and Y. Joy Harris-Smith, The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (And Ourselves!) Embrace Our Differences (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2020).
Karen Katz, The Colors of Us (United States: Henry Holt and Company, 1999).
people, helping young minds become more comfortable with people who look different from themselves.80 Older children may not talk about differences. There is a time when children shift from being “little” to being “big,” and as they near adolescence, they start to feel the pressure to fit in with their peer group. At this stage, children are a lot less comfortable with any form of difference. If you are different, you try to minimize the difference so you do not stick out. You want to be accepted, not rejected. Talking about racism with children in this stage involves asking them questions about what they have learned in school about the subject. In many state textbooks (which are chosen by the state’s education board), racism is not discussed in great detail. Children may learn about African Americans only in the context of slavery, without learning about prominent African-American leaders. In Texas, where I live, the heroes of the Alamo are lifted up without acknowledging that Stephen F. Austin had wanted independence from Mexico because Mexico had recently gained its independence from Spain. Slavery was permitted in Spain, so Austin inspired other white settlers to move to Texas from the South; but Mexico made slavery illegal. Austin wrote to the Mexican government that “Texas must be a slave country!”81 Ask your older child whether they are learning anything that might seem critical of the positive stories we like to tell about ourselves and where we come from. If students are only learning positive stories, they may not get a complete picture of history. Do our children learn about the many Chinese laborers who came here and built railroads across much of the Western United States? Can they name the first anti-immigration act, when our country outlawed immigration from China in 1882 in the Chinese Exclusion Act? Do they know about the racist propaganda showing Chinese people as unruly children who should be kept out of our country, pictures in newspapers that helped to spread anti-Chinese sentiment across the country? Throughout much of American history, people of Asian descent have been portrayed as “perpetual foreigners,” people who can never be truly “American.” Still today, Mem Fox, Whoever You Are (New York: Scholastic, 1997), and Ibram X. Kendi, Antiracist Baby (New York: Kokila, 2020).
Randolph Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821– 1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).
Asian Americans face questions like Where are you from?, even if their family has lived in the United States for generations. They may not learn about the era of Reconstruction following the Civil War, when many Black people were elected as legislators and succeeded in business. They also may miss learning about the rise of Jim Crow laws that stripped the Black community of many of these advances, or acts of racial terror, such as the Tulsa massacre, when white people burned down a prosperous business district known as Black Wall Street. Sharon Draper’s middle grade novel, Stella by Starlight, features a young Black girl in the 1930s who witnesses a Ku Klux Klan rally close to her home. The story describes the way Stella’s father tried to register to vote and had to pay a poll tax, demonstrate his ability to read, and take a test asking difficult questions about the Constitution in order to register, while white men walked in and voted with no such obstacles.82 The story is powerful because so much of it focuses on the strength and resilience of the Black community, not only highlighting the real threat and intimidation of the KKK, but also the powerful courage of Black men and women to vote despite the pressure and violence they faced. In the midst of national crises, when events like the murder of George Floyd take center stage across social media, ask your child about their thoughts. Ask what they think about the Black Lives Matter protests, and whether they understand why people are on the streets with signs. A study of the number of Black Lives Matter protests across the country showed that the majority were peaceful.83 Yet there were other protests that turned violent. Later it was determined that people who were affiliated with far-right groups rallied to join the Black Lives Matter protests in order to incite violence.84
Sharon Draper, Stella by Starlight (New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015).
Roudabeh Kishi et al., “Demonstrations & Political Violence in America: New Data for Summer 2020,” ACLED (February 11, 2021). https://acleddata.com/2020/09/03/ demonstrations-political-violence-in-america-new-data-for-summer-2020/.
Karma Allen, “Man who helped ignite George Floyd riots identified as white supremacist: Police.” ABC News, ABC News Internet Ventures (July 29, 2020). https:// abcnews.go.com/US/man-helped-ignite-george-floyd-riots-identified-white/ story?id=72051536.
Ask your child whether they would feel comfortable being part of a protest. What would make them want to protest? It is also a good idea to talk to your child about the fact that no one is ever “one thing”—that is, even though we have been racialized in our society to be “white” or “Black” or “Asian” or “Latinx,” each of us is more than our assigned race. And while children make friends with others in their class or neighborhood, we can encourage them to see that sometimes our differences from one another keep us from seeking out friendships with people who are different from us. Noticing that tendency within us can help us move through it. We ourselves can ask, Do I get along better with people who look like me and come from the same background? If so, why is that? Am I afraid of people who are different from me in some way? Do I feel uncomfortable around people who have a different skin color? Inviting our kids to ask themselves these questions can help them examine their own friendships and styles of relating to others. At the same time, adolescence is hard. Our bodies are changing, our hormones are kicking into high gear, and we fear that no one likes us. So, trying to examine how we relate to others can feel a bit like asking us to perfect our hand grips when we are climbing up a steep cliff. When we are barely hanging on, how can we do something different or reach out to someone else in an extension of friendship? Kids may have difficulty when asked to consider being vulnerable and trying to make new friends. What’s important is that they know this process is bigger than making new friends; our goal is to build community with people across our differences so we can work to make the world a better place. Knowing the history of the way society has been segregated racially and the messages we have inherited about one another is an important step in changing our future. Kids also can learn how to speak up and speak out when they hear other students making racist remarks. They can ask the other student whether they would make the same remark if a person of color was present. If the other student responds reactively, like “Now you’re calling me a racist?!”, a kid can say: “I’m calling what you said racist. And to be honest, we all can be racist. I’m not saying you’re the only one who says these things, but that if we keep on saying them then nothing is going to change.” Kids also can come up with their own creative solutions. Invite them to talk through ways they can disrupt racism they witness at school.
But ultimately, it is not about racist remarks or even being nice to everyone. Addressing racism is about addressing larger social problems that require all of us working together to change. We need everyone to feel they can be part of the solution, and to see how everyone can benefit from deepening our relationships with one another.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion Before moving on to the next chapter, take a moment to check in with yourself. Take a deep breath. What thoughts and feelings did these stories of racial identity development bring up for you? Write them in your journal. Circle the feelings that are the strongest for you. Maybe you are experiencing anxiety or resentment, sadness or irritation. Perhaps reading this chapter made you nervous and stressed out or left you feeling guilty at times. If you have any of these feelings, even doubt or suspicion or any other emotion, write it down. Say a prayer over those words and feelings. Ask God to help you honor what you are experiencing and grant you peace. Thank God for already knowing your heart before you knew yourself. Afterward, look back over the stages of racial identity development. Turn to the elements you found most helpful. Are there any you felt a strong connection to? Did you find yourself nodding at a particular place? Where do you find you’ve grown within these stages? What kinds of experiences have brought you to where you are now? Have you ever been angry with someone, only to eventually realize that your feelings toward them were outward signs of what was going on inside of you? When are you most likely to feel negatively about someone? What can you do to remind yourself next time to first sit with your emotions and investigate why you may be feeling the way you do?
Listening to Different Stories about Race
Stories are important for helping us to understand our own experiences and those of others. Hearing stories helps us to connect, to build a sense of community, and to learn from one another. Stories have a way of bringing us together. In this chapter, I share several stories that helped me gain a better understanding of the different experiences other people have living in white skin. These stories have created an opening into the lives of other white people’s experiences, and have helped me better understand how race shapes white people in ways that are different than for people of color.
White Criminals I was teaching a class to Doctor of Ministry degree students on the role of stories, and part of the class involved learning how to tell our personal stories. I gave the students a prompt and allowed them to think about how they would tell their stories, and then they began sharing their stories. The prompt was this: Tell me a story about the first time, or one of the first times, you broke the law. The students were full of energy, thinking about their stories and then crafting them to share. During the delivery time of the exercise, the room was contagious with laughter. One student told the story of being at a church camp in middle school and being committed to making new friends, which meant that he bravely went up to a group of the cool kids and asked if he could hang out with them. The cool kids said yes, but that meant that he was walking into a situation where the kids were sharing a tub of chewing tobacco. Instead of saying no, he went along and took
a chunk. But to avoid getting caught, he swallowed it, and not a minute too soon. A camp counselor immediately walked in on the boy and saw the tobacco stuck in the braces of most of the other kids. The student telling the story, however, had a clean mouth, so he avoided getting in trouble and being sent home. But as the other boys were being picked up from church camp by angry parents, the student who had been seen as innocent spent a terrible night being sick from swallowing that tobacco! Another student was hesitant to share any story about breaking the law because she viewed herself as a rule-follower. After I had given them the prompt, she asked, “Does it have to be breaking the law? Could it be something like speeding?” (Apparently, as a rule-follower, she felt she could justify speeding from time to time.) So I said, “Sure.” When she shared her story, she told us about the first time she was given a speeding ticket. She was driving on a street where the speed limit was posted at a much slower speed than she thought was necessary. She had told herself there was no good reason for the speed limit to be so slow, so she didn’t bother slowing down when she saw a police car on a side road. She saw the police car, and while she immediately knew she was speeding, she told herself, “If I slow down, then he will know that I knew I was speeding.” So she kept going at the speed she had been driving. Well, the sirens went off and the red-and-blue lights flashed behind her and she was pulled over. She was surprised and taken aback by how upsetting this was for her. She was crying by the time the policeman walked up to her car. The officer came over to her window and said, “I know you saw me. If you had just slowed down, I wouldn’t have had to pull you over.” A third student shared about a time when she was growing up in a rural area in the Midwest when she stole a pack of gum from the town convenience store. She set up the story by talking about the rolling hills in the area, how the few families that lived in the area all knew one another, and how everyone looked after one another. These families were mostly poor, but they were able to get by. She couldn’t remember why it was that one day when going into the town store that she looked around, reached down, and pocketed a pack of gum. She left the store and found herself running all the way home. She felt the shame of what she had done welling up inside of her. Later, she returned to the store, went in quickly and left money on the counter without saying what she had done. This memory had come back to her recently when she was shopping in an upscale boutique in her New Jersey
town. The store owner had followed her as she made her way to the back of the store, holding onto a box of stationary. She had a feeling the store owner was watching her, but she told herself there were other reasons he was there. But the feeling of being assumed to be a shoplifter ruffled her feathers. She was no shoplifter! But then, this old memory of her childhood came back to haunt her, and she was filled with shame—she had been a shoplifter at one time. A fourth student who was originally from Scotland shared a story about getting caught riding her bike on a pedestrian walkway at her college. She had been late for class, so even though she knew it was against the school’s rules to ride her bike on the pedestrian walkways, she knew it was the fastest way to class. But as she rounded a bend, up ahead stood a campus police officer. She knew she was caught. She knew she would have to stop. But the question she asked herself was “Do I stop in front of the police officer? Or do I stop my bike just after I’ve rolled over his foot?” She chose the latter. As we listened to these stories, the group laughed and delighted in the transgressions that these ministers were confessing. The moment felt lighthearted and sweet. All the students seemed to enjoy this poignant moment of sharing in these stories with one another. A few days later, I was with a group of religion scholars at a retreat. We all were professors at seminaries and theological schools across the country and had gathered for a weekend at the beach, as part of a teaching cohort sponsored by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning Religion. Over the time we had spent with one another, this group of scholars had come to know one another. We felt like friends. On the last night of the retreat, we had a bonfire at the beach. We were all seated in beach chairs bundled up against the chilly night air around the fire. At a moment when the conversation had a died down, I decided it might be fun to see how this group would respond to the same prompt that I had asked from my Doctor of Ministry students. So I asked the group, “Can we share stories with each other? I feel like campfires are good places for storytelling. What about telling stories about the first time you broke the law?” I thought that, since the previous group of people who had answered this prompt had seemed so engaged by telling these stories, a group of seminary professors would have a similar attitude.
A woman to my right started, “Well, I don’t know if I can tell you a story about the first time I actually broke the law. But I can tell you a story about the first time that someone accused me of breaking the law!” The tone in her voice was not one of delight, but rather, of pain. She told us about going shopping with a friend. They already had visited one shop where the storyteller had made a purchase. When they went to the next store, the woman telling the story waited up front while her friend went around to pick out what she needed there. The storyteller said that a security guard came up to her and asked roughly, “Are you trying to steal something?” She replied, “No, officer, I was just waiting here for my friend.” “What’s in your bag?” he asked. “Just what I bought at another store, sir,” and she showed him the contents of her bag. She was terrified and felt guilty, worried that she had done something wrong. It took her a while to remember that she had done nothing wrong. She simply was waiting for her friend. But her friend was white and she was Black. That was the first of many such experiences for her. Around the campfire, we all shared a moment of silence, and the sharing of stories ended there. In that moment of hearing my colleague’s story, I realized how different these two experiences of sharing stories were. I also noticed what I have until now left unmentioned about the activity with the students. The group of Doctor of Ministry students were all white, while my group of faculty colleagues consisted mostly of people of color—two different groups of people, two different sets of experiences. For the first group, telling a story about when they broke the law felt a little exciting, a little rebellious, coming from ministers who assumed themselves to be rule-followers. But being white, these students had never experienced someone else assuming they were criminals. They were usually presumed innocent. On the other hand, my Black colleague did not convey the feeling that telling stories about breaking the law was exciting or rebellious. The prompt brought up painful memories of times when she was assumed to be a criminal simply because she was Black. She shared one of her earliest memories of being accused of breaking the law, an accusation that happened many more times after that.
Have you ever broken the law? If you were invited by someone else to share your earliest memory of breaking the law, what feelings would emerge for you? Would you feel rebellious and share a story that made people laugh? Or would you feel upset, remembering when others wrongly accused you of breaking the law, feeling that others saw you as a criminal even though you were innocent? What do these kinds of stories have to do with your experience of race? I think back on the history of race in the United States. Throughout our country’s history, people of color have been labeled lawbreakers for doing things that should have been their right. Enslaved people escaping to freedom was against the law. Drinking from a water fountain that white people used was against the law. Sitting at the front of the bus was against the law. Marrying a white person was against the law. And, based on the story my colleague shared, apparently just standing in a store made her a suspect of breaking the law. As I write this, my heart grows heavy thinking about the ways the law has treated white people differently from people of color. It makes me deeply sad. I feel the weight of injustice. And I think about the stories of people who have been unjustly accused, imprisoned, and even put to death for crimes they did not commit. The psalmist writes words that lament this, crying out, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? / How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1).
The Truth and Reconciliation Oral History Project On February 18, 2017, a group of eighty students from across the state of Texas gathered at Texas Southern University in Houston to conduct interviews. These interviews were part of a Truth and Reconciliation Oral History Project. I and eight other faculty members from the represented schools served as advisors. The project director and founder, Rev. Steve Miller, envisioned this project as a way of helping people who had experienced racial discrimination to be able to tell their stories, for their own benefit and for the benefit of others who would learn about their experiences. In Miller’s past work with people who had experienced discrimination, he found that the telling of the story was a major component of a person’s healing, more than a legal action or some form of restitution. Telling the story to someone else who was
really listening, someone who could say, “I hear you,” was a powerful source of healing. Miller recruited faculty support from several historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Texas, as well as from the institution where I teach, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, because he had earned his master of divinity degree there. He also recruited faculty from Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History and scholars from New York who also were interested in stories for understanding history and social justice movements. Miller worked for months to raise funds to support students and faculty from the participating institutions traveling to Houston, staying overnight and spending a whole day interviewing people who volunteered to share their stories. The sheer effort behind this one-day event impressed me. Three students from Austin Seminary joined me in traveling to Houston for the event. My students were all white, so they worked with students from other institutions to conduct the interviews in order to create a more inviting environment for the interviewees. We assumed that people who were there to share their stories about racial discrimination, most likely perpetrated by white people, would feel uncomfortable being interviewed by three white students. Each white student was paired up with a student from one of the HBCUs, and together the two students would take turns acting as interviewer and operating the recording equipment. The day of the event came, and everything was ready. The rooms were reserved for all the participating students and scholars at the hotel and at the Texas Southern Law School, where the interviews would be conducted. Rooms were designated for hospitality, where snacks and drinks were available for people being interviewed, as well as for grief counseling in case someone wanted to speak with a professional after sharing their story. The planning and arrangement of these spaces communicated a message to the people who came: This is nurturing space, and we are grateful that you are sharing your story with us today. As a faculty advisor, I was not assigned an interview team, but instead worked to make sure the interviewers had what they needed. At one point, I went out to buy thirty boxes of tissues for the interview rooms. As the day went on, I was hoping to sit in and listen to one of the interviews. All of these stories eventually would be transcribed and shared more
broadly, but I wanted to be there in the moment with people who were sharing this gift with us. Finally, I got my chance. Due to shortages of interviewers, I was able to interview a few people who came late in the day—among them Texas State House Representative Jarvis Johnson.
Meeting Jarvis Johnson Johnson walked into the law school building accompanied by a woman whom I had met at a previous gathering of advisors and planners for this event, as she worked at a local radio station in their advertising department. She and her two children came in with Mr. Johnson, and she spoke with the receptionist: “Mr. Johnson would like to tell his story.” He looked reluctant. Dressed in an elegant suit and a handsome tie, he appeared too busy to be able to give up some of his time to sit down and tell a story. Rev. Miller, the event organizer, greeted him warmly and led him up to the briefing room, the first step in the process—where the person getting interviewed learns about the process and what to expect. Rev. Miller led him back downstairs afterward and asked, “Who is going to interview Mr. Johnson? People should be lining up to do this job.” I was the only person within close range as he made this statement, so I raised both hands. “I would love to. Can I?” Rev. Miller led Mr. Johnson and me into a lecture hall, so that others could join in and watch the interview. I was nervous. First, because I knew I was interviewing a state official. Second, because everyone would be watching. And third, because I felt like I should know more about Mr. Johnson because he was a state official, but I knew nothing about him and felt embarrassed about my ignorance. So, the interview began with a few broad questions about his early life and how he got into politics. I asked, “What journey did you take to get where you are now as a state representative? How did that journey unfold?” “I was a drug baby.” He paused. “Growing up, my mother drug me everywhere I needed to be. She would constantly take me and expose me to everything—every time I didn’t want to go, she still took me to all the meetings. My mother was involved in politics; she used to work for the late Mickey Leland. So, my introduction to politics was licking stamps and envelopes. And a lot of block walking.”
It took me a second to catch his play on words, that his mother had brought him to events where he was exposed to political action, not that he was an actual “drug baby.” When I later learned about Houston’s Fifth Ward, the neighborhood where he grew up, I realized the poignancy of this pun. The Fifth Ward is a predominantly Black area stricken with poverty, where drugs are indeed among of community’s challenges. But drugs were not part of his upbringing; instead, his mother reared him to try to make a difference where he lived. The interview proceeded with questions and answers that sounded like a political interview, with me asking him questions about how he was currently trying to make a difference, and how he felt the new administration would impact his constituency, and so on. These questions could have been asked by a news reporter and relayed in a political ad. But then I started to ask questions that drew out the nonofficial story. “Have you ever experienced a time when you felt like an opportunity was closed to you because of discrimination?” “You walk down the street every day as a Black man, so you know that …” He stopped in midsentence and started anew. “But I ignore that kind of stuff. I think I mentioned to you before that I’ve ignored racism. I’ve never let it get into me. But I’ve experienced it every day, just as much as Black men every day have to experience racism. I don’t think that doors were closed to me, but I’ve been mentally trained, if you will. Whenever I see a police officer, I don’t get nervous. I get scared. Literally. Get scared. And most people wouldn’t even understand that. And it’s not just me alone, but you’re talking about Black men all across this country. Literally. Get scared. So, then you get angry. And I’ve experienced those types of situations a number of times, and I think a very unfair number of times that I’ve had to experience those types of things.” “Could you tell me about one of those times?” “Well, recently, I guess it was a few years ago, in 2014. I was pulled over for what they said was speeding. I pulled over. I pulled into a welllit gas station. And a police officer got out of the car, took two steps outside from his car, pulled his gun, and walked to my door. When my window was down, he put the gun to my face and asked what the f*** was I doing.” Mr. Johnson paused.
Then he continued, reliving the experience, going back between his remarks and the officer’s: “‘I’m sorry. I don’t know what you are talking about. What do you mean what am I doing?’ ‘Didn’t you see my siren?’ ‘Yeah, and I pulled over.’ But I didn’t pull over to his liking, I guess. I didn’t pull over fast enough. “Now, from the time at which he put his siren on and the time at which I stopped—I had to go back and measure it later—it was 216 yards. Two hundred and sixteen yards from the time at which he could’ve put his lights on and the time at which I stopped. Now, he said I was going fifty miles an hour in a thirty-five, so if I was even going fifty, how fast does it take a car to go 216 yards? If you’re going fifty miles an hour, you tell me I didn’t stop fast enough for you? And so that was your right—and so from there, he puts the gun to my face and then he tells me to get out of the car, so I step out of the car. “And he pushes me against the car and tells me to put my hands up on the car. Now, my back is to my car, and I can’t put my hands up on the car so I literally stuck my hands on the car like that [showing his hands low behind his back facing against an invisible car]. He thought I was being funny. “I don’t know what to do. I get nervous; I don’t know what to do right now. “Eventually, another police officer came over. Now that police officer grabbed me; one held my arms, the other put handcuffs on me. They patted me down, took all of the things that were in my pockets and set them on my car seat, and then walked me over and put me in the back of his car, where I had to sit for the next thirty-five minutes. “And then other officers came. Other officers started coming. It was about nine of them. They got my ID. They took it to the officer while the others searched my car. So, from there, obviously I don’t think they knew who I was at the time, and I’m not saying I was anybody, but they didn’t know who I was. A constable and the Houston Police Department was there as well. So, when they ran my ID, the Houston Police Department just left—all nine officers, just gone. So, I was there with him, and I’m sitting in the back of the car for thirty-five minutes. He then let me out, took my handcuffs off, handed me back my license and said, ‘You’re free to go.’ I don’t understand what I was pulled over for in the first place!
“He did give me a ticket for speeding. So, at the end of the day, I got handcuffed, I got a gun put to my face, and I got thrown in the back seat of the car. For speeding.” As he spoke, I noticed the change that came over him. Dressed in a suit and tie, this man stood over six feet tall with a deep voice carrying all the authority of being an elected state official. But here he sounded like a child frightened by an experience that was more than humiliating; it was terrifying. Looking at Mr. Johnson walk into a room, it is hard to imagine anything intimidating him. But hearing his story, I recognized that no amount of political power or success could prevent this Black man from feeling as if none of that mattered when it came to an encounter with a police officer’s gun. Too many news stories have played that scene out with terrible and deadly results. He continued, “So when I’m free to go, I asked him where were all my belongings. And he said, ‘They’re in your console,’ and I said, ‘Sir, why did you go inside my console? Once you took all my money, my keys, and my wallet out of my pocket, you put it on the seat.’ … He said, ‘Dude, I told you …’ And I said, ‘My name is not Dude. It is either Jarvis or Mr. Johnson.’ The other officer then started walking my way, saying, ‘You need to calm down,’ and he grabbed for his gun. He says, ‘You need to calm down.’ And as calm as I’m talking to you was as calm as I was talking to him. “So, then I walk to my car, and the officers walked to my car. And they both stood at my car. For another twenty-five minutes. “Now I never left, and I wasn’t going to leave. Because typically when you get a ticket, the officer writes you a ticket, says you’re free to go, and then the officer typically leaves. Well, that officer didn’t leave. He just stood there. “So, I thought, I’m not going anywhere, let me go and get some gas. I walked into the store. And the officer walks into the store. I walked out of the store; the officer walked out of the store. As I was letting the gas pump by itself, I thought, ‘I wonder if they have cameras here.’ So I walk back into the store, and the officer walks back into the store. So that went on. “Until finally I called for a sergeant to come out. And the sergeant got there, and from there, I felt comfortable. After he sent them on their way, and then I went on my way.
“That was the first time in my life that I’ve ever been scared for my life. And I’m typically not a scared person. And I’ve had incidents like that since then. Now I’ve lived in what they consider some of the roughest parts of Houston. I grew up in Fifth Ward. “I’ve never had a gun pulled on me by anybody but by law enforcement. On three different occasions; that was just the most recent. On three different occasions. And again, I don’t have a criminal history. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never been jailed. But those are the situations that I’ve had to deal with, and that’s the kind of situation that goes on all across this country.” I then asked, “You mentioned earlier that the scared feeling turns to anger. ‘You feel scared, and then you feel angry.’ In what ways do you feel your anger has helped you focus some of your political work?” Laughing, he told me, “My anger has never helped me in anyway, so I try not to use my anger at all.” And then, taking a more serious tone: “But I thank God it did happen. Because it does happen so often. And you feel so powerless. When you ask the question, Why was I handcuffed? Why was I frisked? Why was I thrown in the back of the police car? For no justifiable reason for you to do it? We don’t do that to citizens just because you gave me a speeding ticket. You just did it because you felt like it. “Officers you’ve heard over the last few years who’ve shot Black men, the first things they’ve said is they feared for their life. How did you fear for your life while he was running away from you? How did you fear for your life when he didn’t even have a weapon on him? How did you fear for your life when you actually provoked the situation? You were supposed to come in and calm the situation down and you actually incite it? “You get confused. Could I have gotten shot because I disobeyed his order to put my hands against the car? You’re pushing me up against my own car with my back against the car. When I try to put my hands on the car you get frustrated and feel insulted and think I’m being funny. What do I do? So, we have to create laws. “I support law enforcement. I support them for the time in which I don’t have to call them. But in every group, there’s a bad apple. A bad apple can make it bad for the entire population. And we need to set laws that give punitive consequences for police officers. Who would shoot an individual and then say ‘I feared for my life.’
“Tamir Rice—you drove up within feet of him. Why didn’t you stay in your car, where you were protected? If you really thought he had a gun, why didn’t you stand away and use your megaphone and say, ‘Please, sir. You have a gun? Put it down. Put it down, please.’ Why didn’t you do that? Why did you drive into that situation and shoot him because you thought he had a gun? “The other day I saw a cop being chased by an individual. He was shooting at the cop. And they took him alive. Wow. That’s how you are supposed to deal with situations. A guy ran into a gas station and blew everything up, and he was going crazy, and he attacked the cop. The cop retreated, and he kept attacking the cop. They were able to take him alive. Of course, both of those individuals were white. “I don’t need to provoke an officer for him to shoot me. Simply my skin color. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know. “But that’s what I deal with, that’s what my son deals with. And that’s what I’m afraid of in this country today. “The fact is that at any given time, a police officer can roll up next to me, shoot me, and then there is no consequence to his action. None. “And we’ve seen it over and over and over again. “How do you choke Eric Garner because he was selling cigarettes on the street? Was that justification for having those many officers choking him? “Those stories go on and on. You’ve heard all the stories. And yet each time, each time, they’ve been exonerated. “And had it not simply been, in today’s society, for video … “The gentleman [Levar Jones] who gets pulled over and the officer says, ‘Let me see your driver’s license.’ And the guy turns to get his driver’s license. And the cop shoots him! And he asks, ‘Why did you shoot me?’ ‘Because I thought you were going for your gun.’ ‘But you told me to get my driver’s license!’ “How did he pose a threat? “And these stories go on. And it becomes frustrating when you hear those people being exonerated. So yes, it happens. And I have to use my experience to craft legislation that will make sure that this does not happen.
“Officers have one of the most dangerous jobs. We send our soldiers off to war, and they come back with PTSD. But our police officers see battle every single day, and there is never a time when the police are required to get mental checks. There is no time when they have to be psychologically evaluated. To be an officer, you just get a credit check. “So I have to craft legislation based on my experiences. So hopefully, my son doesn’t have to go through this, or anybody’s son have to go through this.” Hearing this story, I couldn’t help but feel frightened myself. I could imagine the scene in my mind, and I had all the other images of police confrontations with Black men in which the men have ended up dead. I saw this man sitting in front of me and thought, He could have been shot. He could have been killed. And no amount of fame or money or political influence would have saved him. He is a Black man, and as long as Black men continue to be seen as criminals, he will continue to risk his life in situations like a routine traffic stop or a speeding ticket. He is presumed to be guilty, even though he has been working his entire career to improve the living conditions of Houston’s poor Black population. Where is the justice? If you are reading this as a white person, have you ever been pulled over by the police for speeding? What was your experience like? Were you worried about your physical safety? Did an officer ever point at gun at you? Have you ever been handcuffed and put in the back of a police car? What would you be feeling if you were in Mr. Johnson’s shoes in that moment? Mr. Johnson said that this was not the only experience he has had like this one, only the most recent. What if this kind of experience happened to you more than once? What if you were pulled over many times and each time had an experience like this? If you are meeting with a small group to discuss these chapters, take time to share your reactions to hearing about Mr. Johnson’s experience.
Hearing Guwayne Guwayne was sitting at a table by himself in the cafeteria. We were on a lunch break from conducting interviews for the Oral History Project. Wanting to make friends and get to know people, I asked if I could join him. He said I could, so I put down my tray of meatloaf and collards and hung my purse on the back of the seat. Then, I went looking for silverware.
I came back and sat down, and we both enjoyed our lunches for a few moments before I began asking questions. “So what school are you with?” I asked. “Wiley College,” he said. “And where are you from originally?” “The same area.” “The area around Wiley?” “Yeah.” He was dressed sharply in a crisp white button-down and a tie. His skin was the color of milk chocolate, and he had a short beard lining his jaw. His cheeks looked worn, like the result of scarring, either through injury or adolescent acne. I had initially assumed he was the same age as most of the kids coming from the colleges and universities—between nineteen and twenty-two. But now, I could see he was older. I asked him how the interviews were going, and he said pretty well. Then he added, “But I’ve seen everything already, so there’s nothing that surprises me.” I asked what he meant. “I’ve been in the state penitentiary, and they keep you separated by race. You don’t know how bad racism can get until you’ve been in the pen.” Suddenly aware that I was sitting with a former inmate, I thought back to having left my purse at my seat and worried whether he had been tempted to steal it. I immediately felt embarrassed for allowing that thought to even cross my mind. I tried to focus on what he was sharing with me. “What do you mean—what was it like?” I asked. “They don’t even let you room with a person from another race. Blacks have to room with Blacks, whites with whites, Mexicans with Mexicans. And everyone sticks to their own race. Like, if someone from your race starts a riot, you got to join in too, even if you don’t agree with the guy who started it. Because, if you don’t help him now, no one is going to help you when you need it. And you’ve got guys walking around with knives, and you don’t have anything, and the guards are on the side of some guys and will sneak in weapons for them. So, you need people to have your back. “I’m almost forty years old, and all these younger kids with us here— they haven’t seen anything. They don’t know how lucky they have it. I’m
just glad I’m on the other side, that I’m back in school. That my life has changed.” “So how did you change? What led you to getting out and doing something different?” “This was my third time in the penitentiary. Right before I went in, my son was born, and then my grandmother died. I knew I had to do something different. I couldn’t just grow old in there. I needed to get out and make something of myself.” “What got you in there?” “Drugs. I was a hustler. I was in the pen twice before I was twenty-five. Then a third time before I was thirty. That last time, they picked me up because they were looking for some other guy. They wanted me to snitch him out, but I wouldn’t do it. So they got me instead. It’s not like I was innocent; I had been selling drugs too, so I couldn’t really fight it. I got fifteen years, served nine.” “You got fifteen years for selling drugs? That seems like a long time! I mean, there’s a lot of other people doing a lot of bad things who don’t get put in prison for that long.” “I know. And they’re making a lot of money off of us. It doesn’t cost but fifty cents to feed us every day in the pen—we make our own clothes, we grow our own food, we slaughter our own animals. But the people running the jail get like billions of dollars a year just for keeping us in prison. It’s not right. That’s why I want to go back and work in the criminal justice system. I want to work with young kids and keep them out of jail.” “Have you read a book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow?” I asked. “Yeah—I’ve heard of it—we were discussing it this week in class, actually. But I had to miss it because I’m here. But my friend said she would give me the notes.” Now a felon, Guwayne doesn’t have the right to vote. He can’t get a good job. He is stuck in poor-paying jobs for the rest of his life. He had told me that he got into selling drugs because that was the only way to make real money in his hometown. He grew up poor, and there were no jobs, no way for people to get ahead, except for selling drugs. The people selling drugs had the flashy cars, and they made it look good. But now he has had to pay for it with years of his life in prison, missing the first nine years of his
son’s life. He has deep regrets, and yet he also knows he has been treated unfairly.
The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander wrote a groundbreaking book titled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The book talks about mass incarceration as a new form of “Jim Crow” type laws that make it legal for people to discriminate against people of color. Mass incarceration refers to imprisoning Black and brown people at higher rates than white people and the unequal patterns of sentencing. The Netflix documentary 13th is about the 13th Amendment, the constitutional insertion that abolished slavery, but that also provided a loophole: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime … shall exist within the United States.” This loophole, “except as a punishment for crime,” meant a drastic rise in the number of prisons directly after the end of slavery, when African Americans who were now free were arrested on charges such as loitering or trespassing and sentenced to jail. Once in incarcerated, they were forced to work like slaves in some of the same fields where enslaved Blacks had worked previously. This legacy has continued, with Blacks being more likely to be stopped by the police, arrested, and put in jail than their white counterparts. And once in jail, they lose many of their basic rights. People can be labeled a felon for minor drug charges, and once they are felons, they lose the right to vote. In some states, that right is permanently revoked. Other consequences may include losing Section 8 or affordable housing eligibility. Some states ban people convicted of drug felonies from receiving food stamps or nutritional assistance. They are often discriminated against when looking for work. Thinking about Guwayne, I wonder how many other Black men have had their lives snuffed out through cycles of poverty and discriminatory drug sentencing laws. If white people were caught and imprisoned for doing and selling drugs at the same rate as Black people, the prisons would be considerably more overcrowded than they are now. But that is not the case. White people who are wealthy can afford better lawyers and can get away with doing or selling drugs because the areas where they live are less frequented by police. They do not have drug raids. Further, the kinds of drugs that whites consume are not as criminalized as crack cocaine. When
white people became addicted to opioids or painkillers, overdosing on prescription pain pills, the nation called it the “opioid epidemic.” When communities of color were suffering from overdoses on crack cocaine, the nation declared the “war on drugs.” Why do we treat drug addiction differently depending on the color of the skin of those who are addicted? Many white people are afraid of Black people. White people associate Blacks with crime. But what kind of crime makes us most afraid? If it is violent crime, then we should be more afraid of other white people, since white men have been responsible for most of the mass shootings that have taken place across our country (Columbine, Newtown, the movie theater in Colorado, Charleston, Las Vegas, etc.). If it is the fear of being robbed, then we should again be more afraid of white men, because of the amount of money that white men have stolen through huge scandals—the Houston Enron executives, Bernie Madoff’s investment scandal and other Ponzi schemes named after white men, the Lehmann Brothers bailout, the subprime mortgage fiasco, and so on. Politicians who are paid by taxpayers to serve the public interest can use taxpayer money (in effect, stealing from the public) to protect corporate interests instead. These are the thieves who are responsible for gutting our retirement accounts, for shutting down factories and sending jobs overseas, and for valuing the bottom line over human lives. So why aren’t white people afraid of these other white people? Another reason why white people are afraid of Black people is that they fear the anger that Black people have toward whites. Whether consciously or unconsciously, white people are aware of the anger that a group of people may have toward them because of the centuries of slavery and discrimination that white people have enacted against Black people. Awareness of the potential anger that could be directed against us makes us afraid. We are afraid of being punished, of others seeking retribution for past wrongs. Either rationally or irrationally, we fear recompense for the past cruelty and injustice white people have perpetuated against others. So, we maintain segregation. We keep separate neighborhoods, we hire people who look like us, or only the people of color who are very friendly and easy to work with, the ones who never complain or rock the boat. If white people see a Black person in their neighborhood, they call the police and report a “suspicious person.” This fear of people of color perpetuates the cycle of racial discrimination, because white people are more likely to judge negatively those whom they fear. White people may consciously
acknowledge the injustice of racial discrimination, but as long as they are afraid of Black people or other people of color, they will continue to act in ways that further racial discrimination. “Perfect love casts out fear.” This scripture verse from 1 John 4:18 gives an example of what we can do with our fear. We can turn it into love. Focusing on our fear, we can meditate on the person or people to whom our fears are directed and imagine ourselves loving them instead. The “perfect love” that we are called to live out is not something that we can achieve on our own; rather, through prayer and practice, we can work toward greater love for others. Sometimes working toward greater love means first noticing when we are afraid. A friend who is an immigrant from India relayed her experience of getting in a taxi leaving the Los Angeles airport. She and the driver both had dark-brown skin, and they both had accents. Starting up small talk, she asked where he was from. He answered: Pakistan. As soon as she learned this, fear consumed her. Should she get out of the cab? Could she escape if he attacked her? Her palms began to sweat, and her heart raced. She assumed he would be a terrorist. But as her rational mind caught up with her, she told herself, Of course he is not a terrorist! Why am I so afraid? There is nothing to fear in this situation. She had grown up in India being taught to fear Pakistanis, and she realized this was the first time she had ever met someone from Pakistan. We are taught to fear. Noticing fear and talking ourselves out of that fear is essential if we are to overcome the biases we were once taught.
Interlude: Confessions in a Sermon on “Denying Our Infallibility” After publishing the first edition of Anxious to Talk about It, I was asked to speak at a university in Oletha, Kansas. The director of diversity for the university had heard me and Rev. Steve Miller speak at the White Privilege Conference and invited both of us to come and address the campus. We came for two days, speaking in a lecture format to the wider community, as well as to student groups who had read my book and to classes who had been assigned the book as required reading. As part of that visit, I preached the following sermon. It was not a rehearsed or manuscripted sermon, and you will understand why in reading it. I preached in response to feedback I had heard the previous night after our community-wide lec-
ture. I share it here because it relates to the story of Jarvis Johnson, and because it connects to the challenges of retelling stories about racism. I hope you will learn from my mistakes and experience the ability to sit with your own discomfort when someone calls you up short.
“Denying Our Infallibility” The Reverend Dr. Carolyn B. Helsel Sermon preached in the Chapel of MidAmerican Nazarene University, February 27, 2019. Thank you, Karen and Tyler. And thank you MNU family for inviting Steve Miller and me here to share some of our stories and our struggles and to invite you to be part of this journey with us. Let us open with a word of prayer: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.” Well, friends, I didn’t want to get up here this morning and preach for you because of something that has been on my heart this day. Tyler spoke about the feelings of discomfort and invited us to lean into them, and I’m gonna lean in. The title of our sermon this morning, one that Rev. Miller and I had spoken about before we got here, is “Denying Our Infallibility.” When you read through 1 Corinthians 13 and all the different statements of what love is, one of the things that defines love is not demanding its own way. Love refuses to insist on its own way. So, we came with the idea of love being the ability to deny that we ourselves are infallible, or that we ourselves will never make mistakes. To deny our own infallibility is to be open to love, and to be open to being wrong. Last night, I gave a lecture with Rev. Miller at your gym, the Cook Center, and in the process of sharing some of my thoughts I retold a story found in the book that many of you have read, Anxious to Talk about It. In chapter four, I share a story about Representative Jarvis Johnson, about the time that he was pulled over by a police officer, had a gun pulled to his head, and was handcuffed and put in the back of a police car after being pulled over for speeding. It’s a harrowing tale. It’s infuriating to read.
But here’s what happened. When I retold it last night, without relying on lecture notes or a script, I used the word “intimidating” when I described Representative Jarvis Johnson. Now, after the talk, I was getting my coat, and one of the people who was there in attendance happened to be LaDonna McCullough’s mother, who is wonderful, bless her soul, and who has taught diversity and inclusion at another Kansas University, UMKC. She says, “You know, I do have to say one thing to you. When you spoke about Representative Jarvis Johnson, you used the word ‘intimidating.’ And I just have to tell you, that’s what a lot of white women say when they are talking about Black men.” And the thought crossed my head: Oh, that was just a misunderstanding, I really used the word as a term of respect. People earlier in the day had said that me and Steve were intimidating because they were in the book club, and they had read my book. But I thought about it some more, and I realized, Gosh, that hurts! It hurts when we say things that hurt other people and it hurts to be wrong. It hurts to come to a place and be paraded around as this expert who’s written this book, who’s helped us all have these good conversations, and then, to be told that I’m doing it wrong. That hurts. But if we are going to lean into love, if we’re going to take this seriously, we have to be open to denying our infallibility. To say, “Yeah, I can be wrong.” Even if that is not my intention. My impact was something that perpetuated a larger stereotype that Black men have been fighting against, literally for their lives. So, being open to that, and not putting away those feelings of hurt: I didn’t want to come up here and show my cards as someone who messes up. This wasn’t the sermon I wanted to give you all. I want to look good, right? Don’t we all? We want to look good! And yet! And yet … God doesn’t love us because we always get it right. God doesn’t love us because we look good or because we’re always saying the right thing. God loves us because God made us, and the gift of being in community with one another means being able to learn, being able to hear when we’re wrong, and being able to say “I’m sorry.” And I want to continue to work for a world that sees everybody for the content of their character before it sees them as someone who is “big” or “intimidating”—those kinds of images that have been so harmful.
So how can you or I live into this love? How can you and I live into a world where we seek to be better at denying our infallibility? One step at a time. One relationship at a time. Think about the people you are in relationship with now. People you work with now if you’re on staff. If you’re a faculty member, other faculty members. Students: your communities not only here on campus but also back at home. How can you be in relationship and open yourself to being wrong? Because love is not coming out with certainty, but rather coming out with a sense of humility, knowing God is here among us, loving us, even in the midst of our imperfection, and still empowering us to go and do it again! To continue to mess up, to continue to make mistakes. Because that’s what love demands. That’s what love asks of us. And I want to shout out to Rev. Miller, because I sat with him this morning and I shared with him before we left, “You know, LaDonna’s mother said this to me.” And I was giving one more chance to the universe to just disprove that this was really something I shouldn’t have said. And he said, “No, you know, I caught that, too. You know, it didn’t rub me the wrong way. I didn’t take it to heart, but I caught it, too.” So, having people in your life who can call you on this. Having people in your life whom you trust enough to open up to, who can give you their honest feedback, is critical. And when they give you that feedback, don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. It’s about this larger system that we’ve been part of and that has been historically steeped into our bones. This is something big. This is so much bigger than our hearts and our intentions. We need to continue to be in relationship, close enough that people can call us out, and call us in—to a deeper relationship with one another and with God. Amen. ***** Before moving to the next chapter, I want to point out what just happened in that sermon. Rev. Miller and I had previously agreed upon a theme: using the Bible verse about love to encourage listeners to “deny our infallibility,” or to change our tendency to want to defend ourselves at all times. Instead, we wanted to suggest, love calls us to admit when we are wrong and be open to hearing critical feedback from others.
The fact that I had a real-time opportunity to do that while on campus was, in Christian speak, a “God thing,” or a way of saying that it was happily coincidental (though I honestly was not happy at the time to be called out on my use of the word intimidating). But before I move on, I wanted to discuss briefly about the way we “confess” or acknowledge to one another how we have done wrong. In listening to the stories of others, we frequently may have moments of recognition where we think, I’ve done what that person did to you! Or I’ve said that myself, not knowing it was racist! How should we respond in those moments of realization? It may depend on the situation, whether we openly acknowledge that we ourselves have been guilty of that same action or word choice, or sublimate that realization, focusing only on the other person’s mistake, and delighting in the fact that we ourselves were not caught. But if we want to change and grow, it is important that we acknowledge—at least to ourselves—where we also have said things that hurt and offended others. This is different from confessing to a person of color. Whether we recognize in the response of another that we too have made the same mistake, it is still another situation to actually verbalize that. It’s important that we know when and where to “confess,” and that we are careful not to ask for people of color to “absolve us” like a priest of our racist sins. In the context of the sermon, I was naming my mistake as a way of showing others an example of how we struggle emotionally with admitting our mistakes, and yet how important it is to be open to hearing those critiques. I was not asking LaDonna’s mother to forgive me, or the group of listeners to forgive me; rather, I was hopefully naming and owning that my use of the word intimidating was not helpful in advancing the cause of anti-racism. I was also letting them see that someone perceived as an “expert” can be wrong. It is important for all of us not to get hung up on labels of “good” or “bad,” to try and make ourselves appear to be the “good white person.” It is far more important that we use our energy toward advancing the efforts of people of color who are working to make this society fairer and more just for everyone. And still we tend to our own emotions. Give yourself a moment to acknowledge: This hurts. It is hard to have someone call you up short,
embarrassing even. It can feel shameful. But that is not the purpose of accountability. The purpose that someone else is trying to convey is this: What you are doing is not helpful, but if you learn how to do it differently in the future, you will be able to model for others what change looks like. Tend to your own feelings, and in that tenderness toward yourself you gain the courage and strength to keep going. We all make mistakes. Know that you are not alone and continue to bravely engage in anti-racism conversations.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion If you are keeping a journal, take a moment to write the feelings you experienced reading these stories. Can you remember a time when you felt afraid of someone because of what you had been taught? Were you able to talk yourself out of that fear? Have you ever felt like someone was afraid of you for no reason? Or has someone acted like they thought you were suspicious? Reflect on how it feels to read the different stories told by white people, and then the story told by a Black woman, in response to the prompt “When was the first time you broke the law?” For me, I felt embarrassed and sad. Mutliple times throughout her life, my friend had experienced the suspicion that she had broken the law simply because of the color of her skin, and I had been so oblivious to have asked the question in the first place. I realized how the question had come out of my white experience of being presumed innocent. When no one suspects you, the feeling of doing something bad can sometimes feel “good,” or at least humorous. But for my friend, who had never had the luxury of being presumed innocent, there were no good feelings associated with breaking any kind of law. What about the stories of Texas State Representative Jarvis Johnson? What emotions did this story bring up for you? When I was listening to Mr. Johnson, I could feel his fear. I felt scared just listening to his experience. I also felt angry that this experience had happened to him, and that this was not an isolated event for him or anyone who looks like him. Black families regularly have to give their children “the talk” to teach them how to respond in case a police officer pulls them over—what to say and do so as to avoid being shot. I have never needed to have that conversation with my children. So, my feelings while listening to his story were those of anger and frustration and sadness. What were your reactions? What about Guwayne? Have you ever known anyone like Guwayne, who has had to pay for his mistakes in life? Does it seem fair to you that Guwayne should spend that much time in jail for drug charges and be labeled a felon for the rest of his life? What are some ways you think we could do better as a country to help the poor and to rehabilitate those who have been imprisoned? Who benefits from mass incarceration? Spend time reflecting on these questions, and if you are in small groups, take time to discuss your responses with another person or two.
When I spoke over Zoom with a white church group from Pennsylvania, one of the members spoke up. “Tell us more what you mean about gratitude.” I already had spoken some about gratitude, and I was not sure what “more” she was most interested in, so I asked her, “Is there a place in the book you want me to address specifically?” She replied, “The chapter on gratitude. That’s when I stopped reading and realized, ‘Oh, she’s not talking to me.’” I was still confused, so I pressed further. “I’m sorry, can you say more about why you thought I was not talking to you?” “Well, how am I supposed to be grateful for all of my experiences of oppression? How am I supposed to be grateful for racism?” In that moment, I realized I had wrongfully assumed all the members on the Zoom call were white. It was a great question and a great opportunity for me to try and clarify. I have wanted to help white people experience gratitude for these hard conversations as a spiritual practice that keeps them engaged in the process of anti-racism long-term. If we are coming into these conversations out of guilt or shame, then we will run out of steam quickly. But if we come to this moment eager to learn, eager to build new relationships, eager to be part of a new way of living in community, then we will keep showing up for more. Again, my goal is to get more people talking about racism in order to deepen our ability to be in community with one another. I find it is easier to enter through a framework of gratitude than through the lens
of guilt or duty. At the same time, gratitude can sound too positive for people who experience racism on a daily basis. So let me be clear: In the chapter, I am speaking to white people to help them stay engaged long-term in anti-racism. But even for white people, the idea of talking about racism through a framework of gratitude may seem counterintuitive. When many white people think about conversations on race, they get anxious and fearful. That fear comes from the assumption that there will be conflict, that they will be put into fight-or-flight mode. In political philosophy, there is a term for the conflict between people from different cultural identities—not only race, but also gender, sexual orientation, and other forms of identity that have been the basis for discrimination. This phrase is the “struggle for recognition.” Such a struggle involves the conflict of one group that feels oppressed by another group, seeking to make their grievances heard. Groups that have been marginalized and silenced must work to gain the attention of those in power, struggling to be recognized and seen as fully human, deserving of respect and equal rights. Several political philosophers have written insightful books that describe this process.85 But if those in power always expect a struggle, if they anticipate conflict, it is not likely the powerful group will want to continue the conversation. Most people tend to avoid conflict, if possible. So perhaps there is another way we can think about this process, particularly for those of us who hold social power. Hermeneutic philosopher Paul Ricoeur introduces another way of understanding the word recognition.86 Applied to our discussion, his work can help whites understand difficult conversations in another way. Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992); Honneth and Nancy Fraser, Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange (London, New York: Verso, 2003); and Kelly Oliver, Witnessing Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) are all excellent resources for further reading on this.
Paul Ricoeur, The Course of Recognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005). Personally, I have found that viewing these conversations through the lens of gratitude—including the idea that I, and others like me, may have gifts to offer in this conversation—has been an inspiring tool for continuing engagement. I am more likely to stay in the conversation.
Ricoeur finds that the word recognition sometimes refers to gratitude, such as someone being “recognized” for their contributions. Ricoeur suggests that viewing mutual recognition through the lens of gratitude, such as in a gift exchange, helps us anticipate such conversations less in terms of inevitable conflict and antagonism, and more as opportunities to share gifts with one another and express gratitude. Viewing recognition as gratitude can lead to additional opportunities for these experiences of mutual recognition—gift exchanges that lead to further gratitude rather than never-ending struggle. In my work, the idea that gratitude may have a central role in our conversations about race and racism has been both controversial and effective. Thinking about gratitude as it relates to racial injustice can be controversial in that it presupposes there is something to be grateful for, even on the part of those identified as the oppressors. However, if I as a white person feel I will be receiving a gift through this challenging discussion, and if I anticipate being able to offer gifts, I might participate more willingly. If all I anticipate is feeling guilty, then I will consciously or unconsciously resist staying engaged. But if I participate in this conversation because I expect it to lead to gratitude, then I am much more confident and willing to keep talking, even amid the challenging feelings that may come from difficult conversations. Arguing for a framework of gratitude and seeing recognition as gratitude are more than a matter of psychological self-esteem or a strategy for engagement. There are deeper theological reasons that warrant bringing gratitude into these conversations. We do not talk about the ongoing effects of racial discrimination out of guilt or a desire to fulfill some sort of moral obligation. We work on addressing ongoing injustice because of gratitude for the grace we have received from God through Jesus Christ. The reason behind our conversations about race has to be more than our own human failings. Talking about our sin, both past and present, is not enough to call our lives to action. We act out of the belief that we “have been saved through faith, and this is not of [our] own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2:8–9). The inspiration to work toward greater peace and justice in the world does not come from believing that we can save ourselves, but rather from the fact that we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10)—which means that we were made for this. The good work of building community with people from different
races who all make up the body of Christ—this is what we were created to do. It is the gratitude that comes from our redemption in Christ that moves us to action. The reason we must continue these conversations is because our gratitude knows no end. We continue to see God’s work in the world and in our lives, and we continue to experience the love and grace of God in real and tangible ways. God has not forsaken humanity. Because God has not forsaken us, we are grateful and moved to care and to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil.2:12) as we live into the gratitude that is our response to God’s grace. If we can talk about race through this deep gratitude that comes from knowing the love of God, then we may be moved to transform the world in which we live. By drawing from the deep well of gratitude that is ours through faith, we can help give strength to those whose feet are faltering in the pursuit of justice, nourishing them with the love of God so that together we can go on with boldness and courage. Gratitude is the source of our action because we have first been loved by God. It is in this experience of gratitude that we turn to others out of a sense of abundance and openness to what they have to offer to the conversation, aware that the love of God unites us with one another even amid our differences.
Disclaimers about Gratitude A word of caution: Gratitude is no gimmick. Gratitude is a natural response to the unmerited grace of a loving God. It is neither an obligation nor a duty. It is not a feeling that we have gotten something we deserve or a sense of self-satisfaction. It is not about feeling good about ourselves for something we have done. Gratitude is not something we command ourselves or others to give. It emerges only as a gift, the experience of knowing one is blessed beyond one’s control or merit. When I speak about gratitude in the context of talking about racism, there are those who are hesitant about this move toward gratitude. They worry that this move is too quick, that it overrides the call to repentance that white people need to answer first. They worry that the move toward recognition as gratitude is a step away from justice, jumping over regret and lament and simply reassuring the oppressors that they are loved and forgiven by God.
This may be true—this is a valid concern. As in any attempt to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is the danger of offering “cheap grace,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it. Gratitude is risky, and I want to return to Ricoeur to unpack this a bit. He writes that the setting for gratitude is typified by an exchange of gifts. One person gives a gift to another out of generosity, and the other person experiences gratitude. The gift receiver may want to give a gift to the giver—not out of obligation, but rather because of a desire to give. The original gifter becomes the gift receiver, and there is another opportunity for gratitude. The two are connected through this exchange of gifts.87 But in a gift exchange, there is always the risk that the gift will offend the recipient. Think back to when you tried your best to pick out a gift for a loved one, only to discover the cookbook you thought they’d love made them feel you were giving them dieting advice, or they felt the sweater you bought made them look fat. There is also the risk of one person feeling obligated to give, bound to give or reciprocate a gift. You give a friend an expensive birthday gift, and they feel guilty. Gift exchanges can and do go wrong, which reminds us that gratitude is never a sure thing or something we can predict, plan for, or orchestrate. We can try to cultivate it within ourselves, but we cannot control how others respond to the gifts we give in gratitude. People also can be suspicious of gifts we have to offer. In German, the word gift means “poison,” and German folklore includes stories of malicious gifts, such as poison put into beer that was gifted to an enemy. The gift of the Trojan horse in Greek mythology is another example of a gift intended to destroy the recipient. Some gifts may not be explicitly intended to harm, but they can be given with strings attached. In churches, members who give generously may also threaten to withhold their pledges unless the pastor makes decisions they agree with. In these gift-giving examples, gratitude would not be the appropriate response. Skepticism and caution are better. Relating this to conversations about race, it is tricky to talk about gratitude in a way that does not miscommunicate. The gratitude to motivate conversations about race and to inspire us to get involved in anti-racism efforts moves in a one-way direction. This gratitude cannot Ricoeur, The Course of Recognition, reflecting on the work of Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1954).
expect reciprocity or look for others to be grateful for it. If you join a group of people of color to work for justice, you may be viewed with suspicion. People of color will not automatically extend trust to you because of your good intentions. But even if your gifts are viewed with suspicion, stay present and engaged. Accept that others may have a reason for not trusting you right away. Be available and ready to offer your gifts at the best time, when others recognize the need. Gratitude is what motivates you; it is not something you expect in return. I share from my own experience. After completing my dissertation, but before I began teaching, I was invited to be part of a denominational work group on race in the Northeast. I felt honored to be included, but I also expected this group would want me to share some of my research on talking about race with white people. I traveled to New York City from Boston, and when I arrived, I discovered the event was an informal conversation, without any expectations that I share my expertise. I felt irritated, like this was a waste of my time, feeling unrecognized for my gifts. But looking back, I realize I missed an opportunity to learn from the people who assembled there—the group of church leaders who had had different experiences. Had I simply been grateful for being included, rather than expecting others to be grateful for my contribution, I would have opened myself to a better experience. Ironically, any gifts I may have shared were unavailable to me because I made myself unavailable to others through this unspoken expectation. Gratitude as a motivator can only move in one direction, moving us to respond joyfully. If we expect it to come from someone else, gratitude in us morphs into manipulation. To foster gratitude in ourselves, we must be present in the moment, open to the gifts of others.
Meeting Ms. Browning A couple of people have helped me to think about the complexity of gratitude. One of these people is a woman I interviewed during the Oral History Project (which I described in the previous chapter). She was the first person I interviewed, and the opportunity felt serendipitous. It happened that the last set of interviewers had begun listening to another story and we were down an interview team, so I volunteered. I was nervous for two reasons. The first was that the woman’s name was Ms. Sherry Browning, and Browning is my maiden name. A flash of panic went through my mind: What if I discover that this woman is somehow
related to me? As in, what if I learn that my ancestors enslaved her ancestors? I didn’t feel ready to make such a connection with the sins of the past showing up in my present. The second reason was her outfit. She had walked in wearing an interesting “costume” of sorts. On one side of her face, her hair was down, and on the other side her hair was pulled up and under a red bandana that looked almost like a big bow. She wore half of an apron and had one of her pant legs tucked into her calf-high sock, while the other was left hanging down. She had makeup on only half of her face. She carried around with her a poster that had a few photos on it and handwritten information around the photos. I have a family history of mental illness, and so I worried her eccentric attire might be an expression of mental instability. But I also knew that people are not necessarily mentally ill just because they like to dress eccentrically. I tried to set aside my nerves and uncertainty and open my heart to whatever she had to share. I also hoped that, if I interviewed her, I would not let her outfit distract me, as I worried might be the case with younger student interviewers. I wanted this interview to represent her seriously. I wanted this woman’s story to be heard. Two women accompanied her, and in the interview room they sat behind her a few rows back. At the start of the interview, she remained standing. I asked whether she would like to make herself comfortable, whether she would like to sit down. She did. Then, we sat facing each other, and I was able to look into her deep brown eyes. I focused just on her eyes, blocking out the costume. I started the interview by asking, “Could you share with us a little bit about your background?” “Well, my father was in entertainment, and I would go to work with him sometimes—shows with entertainers, mostly musical. He was one of the first Blacks to be inducted into Juilliard Conservatory School in New York. He was the guy that Ed Sullivan would call to book Black entertainment for his show, and Dick Clark. “My father, John ‘Tootie’ Browning—‘Tootie’ because they would say, ‘Come out here and toot your horn!’ He traveled all over the world, which I didn’t like as a kid. Seeing him on television, he’d be in another city on a holiday, and I didn’t like that. I’d think, ‘I wish I had my daddy here with
me this Christmas.’ As a kid, you don’t realize that’s how he made his living. “But I enjoyed the other part, because the entertainers would have to come by our house to get their sheet music, so it was great meeting Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, and people like that. “One day I said, ‘I need some allowance money! When these people come, can I ask them to get autographs from you all and I keep the money?’ So, that’s how I would make my allowance. When I got older, I got to go to the clubs with them and I would sell their memorabilia.” I asked more about her father, whether he was still living, and this got her talking about the story she was there to tell: “My father is deceased now, and that’s what brings me to this story. Some years ago, he had bought a brand-new Continental. I had gotten my chauffeur’s license because his aunt and I were going into the limousine service, and we had to get chauffeur’s licenses. And my dad had just got this brand-new Continental and he let me drive it by myself! “I was going downtown, and when I was driving into the parking lot, I was close to getting in, but not all the way in, and this man comes up and yells, ‘You n*****!’ And I was like, ‘What did I do?’ “He just came out of nowhere in his car, saying, ‘You took my damn parking space!’ And I was going, ‘Did he just call me that?’ And then he came up and spit on my daddy’s new car. “After he passed me by, I moved the car, because I’m saying, ‘This is my daddy’s brand-new car, and he trusted me with his car, and this man may go even further and scratch his car up. So, I just parked the car somewhere else and waited a while until I knew where he was going so he wouldn’t scratch up my daddy’s car. And then he left. And it was devastating to me.” “When you went back home, did you tell this experience to your dad?” “Oh yeah! I mean, I was devastated! I was in tears. My dad asked if I had a description of the man. He was really mad! But I was just trying to get away from the man—it’s not like they had camera phones back then. “And it was devastating because it was so different from what I’d experienced. My [white] godmother was the richest person in Houston at the time. And I thought back to what she said to me at the time. She
said, ‘All white people are not bad like that.’ But I was thinking, ‘He was horrible.’ “She told me that not all white people are bad, but I felt like I finally met one! I had never met anybody who wasn’t like her, because I was always in her circle of friends, and all of them were really nice to me, just like she was. “I’m just glad nothing happened to my daddy’s car. “And that was really my first experience. Because it was totally different from my godmother’s world and my world. Nice people would come to her house—people like John Wayne would come by. She was neighbor to the Bushes. She would take me to what’s now the Galleria, and the salespeople would be there with clothes in their hands, and all I had to do was to point to what I wanted, and I could take it home with me. “And so, I had never had a bad experience with people outside my race. I would hear about it, but it never happened to me. And I went through integration with the schools at that time. They had what you call ‘busing’ back then, where you go over to the other side of town and try to blend in. And never had I experienced that [racism] in school. And with my godmother I never did. “I just couldn’t believe that a grown man would go to a young lady and say that to me, and he didn’t even know who I was.” Pointing to the white poster she had carried in with her, I asked, “Can I ask about your poster?” “Oh yeah—my poster is about Black History Month. And I guess because of that incident, I was more determined to keep up with Black history and bigotry and prejudice, so kids would be prepared for it. Because the kids around that time, the kids after me didn’t know anything about that. They didn’t get a chance to really live it. I don’t want them to know about it negatively, but I do want them to know the truth that it does exist, even if it is hidden. Don’t think it’s just going to be a beautiful world all your life. It is not. So, I go into all the schools and talk about Black history.” We returned to the subject of her experience in the entertainment business, and I asked, “Have you experienced anyone else being disrespectful of you?” “No, I have not. But that’s not to say it’s not happening to somebody else.” She paused.
“But there is prejudice in the entertainment business. They wanted Blacks to sing at white clubs. And after you got through singing, you had to go. But you couldn’t sit on the same side with the white people. But you were good enough to come and perform for them, and after that you were cut off—no, nothing—like you never existed. “But then when I grew up to be old enough to sell memorabilia for the different artists, I didn’t see that, like it had faded away. “But as far as changing in entertainment, I think Ed Sullivan did that. He was white, but he was maybe about the first to have Black entertainment. We want the Jacksons! We want Diana Ross!” She laughed, thinking about these entertainers, but then she sighed and turned serious. “It was horrible. I mean it was like white people could just spit on you or hit you or hang you or beat you up … didn’t have to be a reason. There’s nothing to sugarcoat it—it was horrible. But it was so long ago, it’s not in mind anymore, but I would hear stories. Back then, I didn’t really understand about Martin Luther King and the issues of what was going on, because I was in my little ‘white world’ with my godmother. So, I didn’t get a chance to see it in person.” One of the women who had accompanied her jumped in: “Explain your costume.” “My costume? Oh. Okay—this side is like the 1800s when we were slaves, and cook and wear the aprons, and this side of me is like, ‘I’m every woman now.’ So, women of color started coloring and dying our hair like this— [pointing] that’s what that’s all about—and putting on makeup. That’s why there’s nothing on this side [makeup]. Because back in slavery times, there wasn’t any makeup, and my hair is up in a bandana like it would have been during that time. You worked in the cotton patches. And if you were good, you’d be what you call the house ‘N.’ Back then, that was the main goal for a lot of people, to be in the house, instead of in the field in the cotton patches, in the heat. And so that’s why I dress like this, for Black history, to let them know we have gone far.” Her costume was not a mark of mental illness as I originally had assumed, but rather one of creative pedagogy. She was using her costume to teach young people in her community about Black history. What came across as eccentric was the boldness of someone who had grown up around the
entertainment business and was not afraid to stand out. The poster she carried pictured her with the first Black mayor of Houston, Lee Brown. She spoke of how she had been recognized for her efforts in organizing a festival for honoring Black History Month, and she had been given her own day. Ms. Sherry Browning was a treasure. She had gifts to share. I felt embarrassed that I had found her strange at first. I did not directly ask about her costume. Would it have been odd for me to ask about it sooner? I knew I didn’t want to offend her or to make her feel that I found her outfit strange, but perhaps ignoring the outfit was a bit of an offense. Perhaps she wanted people to ask about it so she could share with them about Black History Month. I am thankful for the story she shared with me. It showed how one racist encounter can stay with a person for a lifetime. She hadn’t spoken about that event in forty years. And yet, she had also had other experiences with white people that helped her remember: “Not all white people are bad.” She was grateful for a particular relationship she had with her white godmother, and that was what kept her from losing hope in all white people after her negative experience. But this story is also about complex gratitude. When talking about her costume, she highlighted the enslaved women who worked in the master’s house. She identified these people’s jobs as the “main goal,” being better off and more privileged than the men and women working in the fields. This phrase reminded me of her relationship with her wealthy white godmother. When people receive benefits from those in power, it can be harder to criticize the power structure. White people who grew up with caregivers who were people of color serving as maids, nannies, or cooks often express that they experienced a mutual warm feeling of loving friendship. I think these experiences are real and genuine. Relationships of caring love can and do develop in such situations. But at the same time, such relationships are never equal. People in service positions do not have the freedom to show anything but loyal faithfulness for fear of losing their jobs. So, while these feelings of love and care from household employees may be authentic, it is difficult to consider a different response coming from someone who benefits from being employed. Similarly, when Ms. Browning’s white godmother lavished gifts of new clothes on her, I am sure her gratitude was real. But
not having access to the same resources as the wealthy white woman, she may not have had a choice. Ms. Browning’s story also highlighted for me the importance of educating young people about Black history. Black History Month is an important reminder of parts of our history we often overlook. While it has its limitations—some people argue that Black history should be an integral part of a school’s curriculum all year round instead of just one short month out of the year—it also serves a purpose in focusing on the work of Black men and women who fought for their equal rights. Continuing with the theme of gratitude, honoring this history is an expression of gratitude for their work, a recognition of the contributions of Black men and women who challenged unjust situations. Spending time learning about people who have overcome great adversity for the sake of equal rights for all, we express our gratitude for the ways they have taught us about what it means to advocate for oneself and on behalf of others.
In My Own Skin I learned another lesson on gratitude in a conversation about race with a white student. A fellow professor had sent this young man to me regarding the topic of his seminar paper. The student wanted to write about how white people have abandoned the heavenly kingdom in search of an earthly reward, while forcing Black people and other nonwhites to rely only on the heavenly reward. The other professor knew my work on race and suggested I could talk to this student about his paper subject, knowing it would be a sensitive topic. I had my concerns about the paper. I was worried about the student saying that all Black people were religious as a way of dealing with oppression. This is not true, as there are many people of color who have fought for justice from of a distinctly nonreligious perspective.88 But I also knew this student came from a different background than most of our students, and that he may need someone to think through this project in an understanding way. I knew he came from a rural Texas town surrounded by poverty, having earned his undergraduate degree See Anthony B. Pinn, When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Press, 2017). In this and in previous books, Pinn is critical of Christianity, saying it is unable to address the wrongs of racism that it helped institutionalize.
online. His residential seminary experience was the first time he had been in a community such as this. A man of deep faith, he often was seen as strange and not fitting in, and I knew he had said things in class that other students found offensive. When we met in my office, I asked him to share with me the story behind this paper, since there were a lot of ideas in his paper that could turn into a much bigger project than this seminar assignment. He told me his other professor had expressed similar thoughts, but that the other professor and I were “looking at the top of this large, crap tree, seeing all these branches, when all I see is the root.” I asked him what he saw as the root for this paper. “It started way back in the garden of Eden: the fig leaf. It’s a symbol of division between man and man that just keeps on repeating throughout history. I know I’ve got to include a major section of an introduction just to say, ‘Who am I to write this?’ and to talk about myself as a white male and so on before I get to my topic. But the matter is that white people have focused only on finding their treasure here on earth, keeping it from everybody else, and it’s the Black people who are finding their treasure in heaven.” I told him my concern about talking about Black people as all being religious, since that wasn’t the case, and that some people would feel offended by that. I asked whether he could talk about it just from the white perspective, writing to tell other white people what he has learned from these readings and from class. He said, “That’s what the other professor said too. That I just need to write about it from the white side of things. But here’s the thing. I don’t identify with the white perspective. White culture, white privilege, white theology, I don’t get any of it. But when I read Black theology, that’s when I really feel at home religiously. So, I can’t really write from that perspective, because that’s not where I come from, and you’re telling me I can’t write from the Black perspective because I’m white.” I responded, “So I hear you saying that class is also really important when considering religious perspectives.” I was trying to understand him and build some common ground. “I know a few people who have been writing on class, though not from a religious perspective.” I pulled a book from my shelf that I had read in graduate school titled A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working-Class Bar. He looked at that book as I read the title and shook his head.
“But see? Right there, you’re already above me. Those words, working-class and bar, already are too high above the people I’m talking about, where I come from. People I know aren’t even working-class, and don’t have a bar to go to. They’re too low to even make it into a class. It’s what some people call ‘white trash.’ I’m talking about jail. I’m talking about jailhouse cultures and Appalachia and the ‘trailer-hood’—where you can’t even talk to anybody unless they’re in prison, because that’s the only place where you’ll find them sober. Because once they’re out, you won’t be able to talk to them in their right mind again. “Here, I may be able to walk into a white restaurant, or a white marketplace and get served, but back there I’m still just white trash. And I’m walking around, and people know I’m white trash, and you get the door slammed in your face every time you try to ask for something. You have people walking around hopeless, who just don’t care, who may never make a dollar in their life. And in a lot of ways, they are worse off than oppressed Blacks; the conditions they live in are worse off than many nonwhites.” He paused before continuing. “And then you’re telling them, ‘You’re not Black, so you can’t talk about Black theology because you’re white. But they’ve had white people their whole life telling them, ‘No, no, no; you can’t have that.’ They see all this stuff that white people have, and they have none of it, so they don’t see themselves as white. And I mean, white theology doesn’t speak to them, and then you’re saying they can’t have Black theology either. But I know the Bible, and that there’s something in there about how even the dogs get crumbs from the table.” He watched my reaction as he said this. “They’ve got to get something. And Black theology is totally relevant to this culture.” My head was nodding, and suddenly I was telling him, “That’s your paper.” “I don’t know if I could do that. You’re asking me to crawl back into my own skin, crawl back into that hole. That’s too painful. I don’t know if I could do that. Because after this, I’m going home to that. I decided not to pursue ordination because I’ve seen things that make me think ministry is not about the gospel at all. So, I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m going to go back there, with those same people—and, I don’t know, write? Am I going to write about this stuff? I don’t know.”
“You’d be offering us a real gift. You’d be writing about your experiences in that community, telling us about those people because they are not just ‘those people’; they are people you know and love, people you care about— and people who are not hearing any good news from white theology and white religion. So, you share with them the good news that you have found from reading these Black theologians, and you write about what is the good news that you can bring back to that community.” “Okay. Okay. I think I got this. This is my paper, talking about my community, talking about Black theology, then talking about white theology, and then talking about the good news for my community. I think I can do this. But man, this is going to be painful, to go crawling back into my own skin.” This student taught me about the power of gratitude. Even though he felt at first that he couldn’t claim Black theology for his community because he is white, this student experienced the liberating impact of Black theology on his own life. He felt grateful for the ways that Black theologians had helped him better understand the heart of God for the oppressed, an understanding that he had not heard from the white liberal theologians he was reading in his theology class. He felt Black theology offered hope to his poor, white community, a hope that he wanted to share with the people he knew from back home. He saw Black theology speaking the good news of Jesus Christ to the poor whites of his hometown, and he was not going to let my concerns about his appropriation of their work get in the way of his connection to this material.
Acknowledging Class When Talking about Race While working on my PhD at Emory, I took a philosophy seminar on theories of justice with a professor named Liz Bounds. She was interested in my project, my work on how white preachers can preach about racism to white congregations, so we met to talk at one point early in the semester. She asked me if I had come across any writings on class and race, because she was involved in a women’s prison ministry that offered a certificate in theology to inmates. Many of the women she taught in that prison ministry were white. Talking about “white privilege” to a bunch of women locked away in jail, some of them facing death sentences, was not something that resonated with them. Liz Bounds wondered if I would be doing any economic social analysis in my work. She recommended the work of
John Hartigan, a sociologist who has written about poor whites and their experiences.89 I read some of his writings as I wrote my dissertation, but as someone who does not come from poverty, I had a hard time addressing issues of class directly. I wanted to be able to tell white people like me, “We need to talk about race!” I was more hesitant to say to white people like me, “We need to talk about class.” Where I come from in Central Texas, success is measured in status and appearances. You have a good job? You look healthy and beautiful? Then you must be successful. And being successful also meant that you were blessed. Somehow, you being successful meant that God had looked upon you with favor, as if your success came about by your moral virtue. If you were not successful, if you were poor, or if you couldn’t keep up appearances or lived in a poor neighborhood, then somehow you did not have the same favor in God’s eyes. There was never any question of whether the system of wealth accumulation benefited some by discriminating against others, or whether a person’s success could be attributed to their inheritance of wealth. As a white person, I am barely able to understand white privilege. It is equally challenging for me to comprehend my class privilege as someone who grew up middle class. It is much easier for me, and others like me, to believe even unconsciously that we are morally better than people who are poor, that we have had some special insight into how to succeed in life that others have been too lazy or stupid to learn.90 But this belief is utterly false. I know this is false just by looking at my own family. I come from a large family, the fifth daughter in a line of six children; the youngest is a boy. School came easily for me, and I have been able to achieve goals in life that I have set my mind to accomplish—such as going to graduate school and becoming a professor. But what about the others? My oldest two sisters have disabling mental illnesses. My sister Catherine, a star student growing up and a Texas state tennis champion, started showing signs of mental instability as a college student at Davidson. She has been in and out of hospitals over the years with schizophrenia, John Hartigan, Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).
For a great discussion of this tendency, see Tim Wise, Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich, and Sacrificing the Future of America (San Francisco: City Lights Open Media, 2015).
and because she is currently off her medications, she cannot take care of herself. She lives with my parents, who make sure she has food and drink set out for her to eat when she feels so inclined. But mostly, she lives on the couch, dirty for lack of bathing or ever changing her clothes. She will forcibly resist any attempts to groom her or to get her to the bathroom. She has the good fortune of a family who can take care of her and keep her safe and sheltered. But some people with schizophrenia are not so lucky. I share this story about my sister because I always have this thought in the back of my mind: That could have been me. It is by no power of moral fortitude or diligence on my part that I am able to care for myself and succeed in my career. It was a gift that I did not deserve or ask for, to be born with scholarly sensibilities and to not experience the mental illness of schizophrenia. Life is sometimes like that. It is not because God loves me more than my sister. It is a mystery. And so, I cannot attribute my own success to my own efforts, my own making. There may be truly “self-made” people out there, but I do not know any. All of us who are successful have in some way been helped by forces outside our control. And in some cases, those forces were established legally to benefit some and not others.
The Myth of Meritocracy Race: The Power of an Illusion91 is a powerful three-part documentary. In the third segment, the history of housing discrimination gets played out across the twentieth century, with the establishment of the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Authority. Although Black soldiers came home from fighting in World War II and had the same offer of a GI Bill to help them pay for a new home, very few of them were actually able to secure a mortgage due to discriminatory lending practices. Written into the original Federal Housing Authority mortgage underwriting was what was known as “redlining,” showing which neighborhoods in a particular city were of “greater risk” than others. Those known as “greater risk” were the parts of town with a significant population of people of color and immigrants. Christine Herbes-Sommers, Tracy Heather Strain, and Llewellyn M. Smith, Race: The Power of an Illusion, directed by Christine Herbes-Sommers (California Newsreel, 2003), DVD or available on Vimeo. See newsreel.org.
If a Black soldier wanted to buy a home in a predominantly Black neighborhood, he might be denied because his home would have been in an area deemed too risky to underwrite. If that same Black soldier wanted to buy a house in a predominantly white neighborhood, where there was no redlining, he would be denied access because of discrimination— restrictive covenants would forbid sale of the home to nonwhites, or the house would be “no longer for sale” or “just gone off the market”—thereby maintaining racial segregation in white neighborhoods. So, the Black soldier and his family would be forced to pay excessively high rent for a home they could never own, spending money every month that could have been building equity in the form of home ownership. A significant way wealth accumulates is through home ownership. As homes appreciate in value over time, the home eventually will be a source of income or inheritance to pass to the next generation. But this is not always the case. If you are a person of color, your home may not appreciate in value if you are living in a part of town that is not predominantly white. So, the rate of Black wealth does not accumulate as fast as white wealth. If a Black family moves into a white neighborhood, and then other whites decide to sell their homes and move to another neighborhood (“white flight”), then the increased number of homes on the market will decrease the value of the homes for sale. As more Black families move into the neighborhood, home values go down because of this same mentality: that these areas are not as valuable. There is no such thing as a “meritocracy” in America. People who work hard and save their money can still end up at a great disadvantage simply because of the color of their skin. When we express our own gratitude for the gifts we have been given, we also need to be aware that our gratitude cannot be a denial of the history that led to the inequality we still see today. Gratitude as a framework for talking about race and racism is not an easy idea. It is not an ignorance of inequality or injustice. Rather, gratitude is the thankfulness we experience knowing that God still loves us as we are, where we are, and yet calls us to act. Gratitude is not something we expect from others, but that we cultivate in ourselves to sustain us along the journey. Gratitude means accepting that God has given us gifts to share with others, and knowing that our good intentions may be misinterpreted. Gratitude is a practice we work on and a gift we receive. We cannot expect
ourselves to feel gratitude when we want to feel grateful, but we can try to cultivate gratitude within us and toward the God who aids us in feeling grateful.
Anti-Racism in Community: Working with Others as Opportunities for Gratitude Following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests that erupted around the world, I felt a shift. People I knew who had not been vocal about racism were now sharing their stories on social media, stories of experiencing racism as people of color, or stories of white people realizing that the time to act is now. In my neighborhood and in the school district where my kids go to school, there were new conversations taking place. Parents were getting together over Zoom to talk about next steps for our district and community. Alumni from our district were sharing their own experiences with racism in the classroom, the choir room, and the football field. New, anonymous Instagram accounts were formed to share posts about personal experiences with teachers, coaches, and peers, highlighting the problem that many whites in the community wanted to say didn’t exist: “There’s no more racism here than anywhere else.” And yet, there were plenty of parents who were rising up to say, “We can do better. We do not have to let this go on. We need to change our culture so all our students can thrive.” A group of alumni issued a letter calling for the district to seriously face its own racism—in the past, when the community formed in large part as a response to busing in Austin after the civil rights movement, as well as in the ongoing present, wherein students experience racism in the classroom and through the curriculum. Within a few days, the circulating letter received over a thousand signatures. There has been a shift. And people are ready to talk about racism. A group of parents started to meet by Zoom, many of them already members of the alumni and community group. This parent group saw the need for ongoing engagement. The pressure from our alumni would help get things started, but for things to continue, we needed the parents’ support. One of three subcommittees of this group focused on fundraising. The idea was that focusing on diversity requires more than just talk. These parents knew a big objection to programs or efforts focused on diversity would be the lack of funding. Schools were hard hit by the
coronavirus, just like everyone else, and their budget would have to allow for PPE (personal protective equipment) for teachers, students, and staff. There would need to be regular supplies of hand sanitizer and other ways of disinfecting classrooms. With the ongoing challenges of reopening schools and the hardships teachers were facing trying to lead remote classrooms and plan for in-person teaching, where would the energy and resources for diversity come from? There would be a struggle to compete for funds. Unless … What if efforts for diversity were woven into the design for returning to school? If students learning remotely also were asked to watch films and documentaries that told them stories, they will not find in their Texas-issued textbooks? What if TED Talks and other widely available video lectures took the place of in-person instruction so teachers could focus more on guiding dialogue and discussion in online forums? What if this particular moment in time was actually the perfect time to try something new? I attend a church in the neighborhood where my kids go to school, so there is a lot of overlap in relationships between the school district and my church. One of the members was serving on the board of trustees, and we had gotten to know each other briefly during a storytelling event a few years before. This person knew my work on racism from the talks I had given at the church soon after my book was released. In the midst of all the groups forming in the district to talk about racism, and the mounting pressure on the school board to act in response, she called to invite me for coffee. In the midst of a pandemic. And I said yes. We met with masks on, seated at a table far from other patrons, trying to maintain social distance as best we could. This was my first outing with someone since the pandemic had begun, and I was nervous about being out. But I also was “anxious to talk about it,” grateful she could call me and ask me questions. Grateful I could help her in her discernment as she considered her role on the school board. Grateful I was in the right place at the right time. The conversation covered her experiences of awakening to the presence of racism in our district, becoming aware of the experiences of people of color, like the mom who went in to register her child for classes at the high school and was turned away because that was not where “transfers” were processed. The Black mom had to explain, “I live in the district.”
This kind of experience was not unusual for people of color in the district. To give examples, an anonymous Instagram account was created at the beginning of June, sharing testimony from alumni, spanning the early 2000s to currently enrolled students. The posts are hard to read: They are painful in their directness. Parents and fellow students using the N-word, a teacher ending a Zoom session in the spring of COVID with the message “Don’t get the Chinese virus!”, and students being called “terrorists” because they were Muslim. There were stories of students telling the administration about their experiences only to have the issues left unresolved with no repercussions for the students at fault. Students who were women of color shared stories of assault and harassment, with other students aware of what was going on and doing nothing. Many of these posts came from 2018, 2019, and 2020 graduates, as well as from current students. The comments on the Instagram posts also are hard to read. People from the community want to dismiss some of these complaints and question their authenticity (since none of the authors are directly named and cannot be verified). The moderators of the account will reply to comments and often begin a long exchange with people in the comments, but it is not clear whether these interchanges produce any greater understanding. The moderators remain anonymous and tend to be critical of the comments on the posts, and the people they critique tend to become defensive. The defensiveness is labeled “white fragility,” and the cycle repeats. The school board member was particularly concerned with this Instagram account and what it was doing to our community. Is it helping or adding to the division? Is there a better way to go about conversations about racism? What does the district need to do? The morning of the board of trustees meeting, I got an early text: “Do you have time for a quick phone call?” My board member friend wanted to talk about the recommendation of the superintendent to bring on a highly acclaimed diversity consultant who is at the top of the field of education and anti-racism. The board member was feeling a lot of pressure to commit to hiring this person, but this was different from the way past hires had been conducted. A team had been assembled to make recommendations for hires in the past, the board had considered several, and then they had voted on the candidate they felt was the best. This hire felt much more
top-down to this board member. The name had been given by the superintendent, and the board member was concerned about the very expensive cost of hiring this particular consultant. She called me because in her mind I was an expert. I was able to retrieve a comment card that another parent had submitted to me two years prior, giving this same candidate’s name, along with that of another professor who did equity consulting. I assured her that these names had been suggested to the district at least two years ago. Then, I looked up this person’s curriculum vitae on the Internet and was so excited about what I saw—this person’s expertise was rare. The level of this candidate’s experience and training and research interests were so perfectly aligned with what we wanted to do in our district that I could not imagine a better fit. And I truly had not seen his CV prior to pulling it up while talking with her on the phone. The price tag was steep, I admitted, but this was basically a full-time job on top of this person’s other teaching responsibilities. By the end of the conversation, she felt better about the decision to hire this consultant. Again, I felt gratitude. Grateful for the gifts of other people who are out there doing this work, grateful for the kind of people who commit to educating others about ways we can improve our structures and schools to be more inclusive for all, and grateful that I had been at the right place at the right time to give this decision maker a sense of confidence in the choice she was being asked to make. I was grateful for this board member’s openness to hearing from me, to asking for my perspective, and grateful for the relationship we had built that enabled her to trust me. I was grateful for her courage to step out and make a difference with the influence she had in that moment in that place. Later that day, I watched as the district superintendent introduced principals who spoke of our need for a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultant who could help us change our school’s culture. This was followed by an introduction of the consultant: Dr. Mark Gooden, Christian A. Johnson Endeavor professor in education leadership at Columbia University’s Teachers College. He had years of experience in leadership education and anti-racism training as the director of the Endeavor Antiracism and Restorative Leadership Initiative. After asking Dr. Gooden several questions, the board went on to other business on the discussion agenda before moving to the action agenda, which started with the vote for the DEI consultant. Immediately, one member made the motion to approve the administration’s recommendation that the district hire Dr. Gooden
as a DEI consultant, and another seconded the motion. The chair asked if there was any discussion. One member raised her hand and shared her experience of coming to realize how important this decision was for our district. She had been so moved by the emails and comments people had submitted in favor of the DEI consultant, particularly those that shared from their own experiences of racism in the district. She apologized that it had taken her so long to realize this need, and she committed to doing better, voicing her full support for this hire. Trustee after trustee began to speak, affirming their commitment to working on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the district, all expressing their support. The seven-member, all-white school board voted unanimously to hire Dr. Gooden. This was a significant moment. All the efforts to voice concerns and raise awareness, all the stories shared by students and former students, all the emails and comments that community members sent to board members—all this had paid off. We were together, acknowledging we needed help, which is the first step in any process of change. We all knew this would only be the beginning, that the year we spent with this consultant would not “cure” our district of its racism, but it would be a start. And we would have someone who had experience working with other districts and who taught teachers at the graduate level, guiding us through this important work. What a gift! Of course, that was not the end of the work we needed to do as a school district. The group of alumni that had formed and gathered over a thousand signatures still were committed to pushing for change. Also, the group of parents in the community began mobilizing to offer resources for community forums and conversations. A few weeks after the board meeting to hire the DEI consultant, they hosted a panel with several diversity experts in the area to speak to the community and lay out a few basic understandings of the terms many people were using. The moderator asked each of the panelists to define different terms such as racism and white privilege. Later in the event, participants on Zoom were invited to ask questions of the panelists. Many of them related to children: How do I help my child who is a person of color and who wants to leave the district so they can be around more kids who look like him/her? How do we respond to people who say talking about racism is too divisive, or that now is not the time since we are dealing with schools reopening amidst the coronavirus pandemic? The questions were thoughtful and sincere, and the panel received really positive feedback after the event.
The groups of parents and alumni were coming up with future plans as well, to offer speakers and resources for parents to talk about racism with their kids. The work was continuing. The next component of the process involved the leaders of these groups continuing to meet one-on-one with board members, setting up times to get together to talk about future priorities and how the district could keep on the trajectory set by hiring the DEI consultant. This required several hours of corresponding back and forth by email to set up times to meet and talking over the phone or on Zoom. These meetings were helpful in allowing board members to hear the concerns of the leaders of these groups—the alumni and the parents—and to share their own commitment to continuing the work of diversity within the district. I share all these details to say that the ongoing work is just that—ongoing work. It is ongoing, in that it does not stop with a decision to hire a diversity consultant or at the end of the time with that consultant. It is work, in that it requires us be engaged and to use our time to build relationships and to develop networks that can help see this change through to actual differences in the way people treat each other. Changing the culture of a community does not happen overnight, but change can and does happen.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion What makes you grateful? Do you think of gratitude as an appropriate response to discussions about race and racism? Why or why not? What benefits or disadvantages do you think could come from having a framework of gratitude when discussing these topics? Have there been times when you have experienced gratitude through discussions like this in the past? This chapter addresses a lot of sensitive subjects, such as white people’s relationship with caregivers who are people of color, and how our class background influences how we think and talk about race. What feelings did these topics bring up for you? One of the sections mentioned the history of housing discrimination and its impact on wealth inequality. Thinking about your own housing situation, what kind of living situation did you experience growing up? What was the neighborhood like? Did your parents own their home or rent? If they owned their own home, did you see their home appreciate in value over the years? Did your parents’ prosperity impact your own ability to own a home? In thinking about patterns of discrimination that have resulted in segregated neighborhoods and schools, what are your thoughts about what might be a better solution? What kinds of efforts are you seeing in the area where you live to address these inequalities? Take time to write about these questions and then share them with another person. Remember to check in with your body to see where you are processing the emotions that arise in these discussions.
Spiritual Practices for Race Talk
You likely have read the previous chapters by now and some stories about experiences that may be unfamiliar to you. Perhaps you have shared with others about your own story and have heard about how others were brought up to think about race. You hopefully have had a chance to attend to your own emotional reactions during this time, letting yourself sit with them. But maybe this last part has been the most difficult. What does it mean to “sit with” our own emotions? And what does that have to do with faith? As you continue long-term in the process of working against racial discrimination, I encourage you to consider several spiritual practices. As a Christian, I grew up learning about traditional forms of spiritual practices, such as prayer and fasting. Some of the following practices may not be as familiar to you from Christian history, but they can be found within the Christian tradition. These are the spiritual practices I want you to consider as you end your study of this book and respond to some of the concerns we have raised together: practices of engaging in compassionate conversations with others, tending to cries for justice through bearing witness, strengthening community through hospitality and dialogue, incorporating a vision of reconciliation in the regular forms of worship and preaching, and caring for yourself through self-compassion,.
Compassionate Conversations Dr. David Campt is known as “The Dialogue Guy.” That’s the name of the company he founded to help businesses engage in difficult conversations. I met him at the 2018 White Privilege Conference where he was sharing his
latest book The White Ally Toolkit Workbook.92 What I appreciated about his book was its simple acronym for naming the kinds of conversations white people need to be having with other white people: RACE. The RACE model stands for Reflect, Ask, Connect, and Expand. I have started to share this model with groups I speak to as a tool for helping them go out and engage others in conversations about racism. Dr. Campt is Black, and he talks about why he writes to white people: White people continue to have more access to other white people than Black people. It is much more likely for white people to have a group of friends that is predominantly white than it is for a Black person to have a mostly white group of friends. In an online video in which he explains the RACE method, Dr. Campt explains that students have shown the high proportion of white people who still do not think racism against Black people is as much of a problem as racism against white people.93 The study, conducted in 2017 by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, found that 55 percent of white Americans believe that discrimination against white people happens today. Campt wants to shift that figure, so that 55 percent of white Americans become more concerned with racial discrimination against people of color than they are against white people. In order for that shift to occur, he says, white people need to have conversations with other white people. But what kind of conversations, exactly? Campt distinguishes between what he calls the prophetic voice and dialogic engagement. Campt says many anti-racist activists rely on the prophetic voice, which is characterized by confronting people directly with the hard truths of racism and how it hurts people of color. However, being prophetic can often backfire in conversations about racism, in which the white person at the receiving end of the conversation feels resentful and turned off by the approach. The goal of changing minds means that one-on-one conversations have to happen over time, and that the white ally who is convinced racism is a problem needs to take a different approach. Campt argues that this approach needs to be compassionate and empathic. David Campt, The White Ally Toolkit Workbook: Using Active Listening, Empathy, and Personal Storytelling to Promote Racial Equity (United State: I AM Publications, 2018, advanced edition).
Don Gonyea, “Majority of White Americans Say They Face Discrimination.” NPR. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2017/10/24/559604836/majority-ofwhite-americans-think-theyre-discriminated-against.
Compassionate conversations require the white ally to grant dignity to the white racism skeptic (the name he gives to people who doubt racism remains a significant problem for people of color). Campt draws from the work of Harvard scholar Donna Hicks, who writes about the definition of dignity with ten essentials: acceptance of identity, recognition, acknowledgement, inclusion, safety, fairness, independence, understanding, benefit of the doubt, accountability.94 Extending dignity to the other person means they will be more receptive to whatever it is you have to share. What exactly do you share with a racism skeptic? That begins the first letter of Campt’s RACE approach: reflect. Before you talk with a racism skeptic, it is important for the white ally to reflect on their own story of transformation: How did I become aware of racism? When have I noticed that I harbor unconscious bias? Can I think of a time when that bias came to my attention? Reflecting on your own story of coming to notice racism in your own life is a spiritual practice. It requires examining your life, acknowledging that you are not perfect, and being sensitive to your inner thoughts. It requires a degree of awareness to notice the moments when your instinct is to lock your car doors when you see a Black person go by or to put your hand on your wallet when a Black person gets on the elevator with you. Noticing these experiences may be painful, because they run counter to our image of ourselves as allies, or as people who are against racism. But reflecting on our own experiences of harboring racism is an important first step before we engage with a racism skeptic. The next step in Campt’s RACE model is ask. When someone makes a comment that indicates their doubt that racism is a problem, you can ask them questions to try to understand why they believe the way they do. Try to get them to share a story or an experience that informs their beliefs on the topic. The third step is connect, in which you connect with their story through the prior reflection you have already engaged on your own. Campt suggests using “I half-agree with you” statements, or ways of indicating that Donna Hicks, “The Ten Essential Elements of Dignity: What We Extend to Others and Would Like for Ourselves.” Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://www.ikedacenter.org/thinkers-themes/thinkers/ interviews/hicks/elements
you at one point may have had the same beliefs or assumptions. Campt suggests that white allies move towards connection before challenge. The challenge is what flows from the connection. After connecting, the final step is expand, which means you share the story of how you once held those same beliefs and how your opinion changed. This expansion happens through your ability to connect and identify with the other person, and then share your own personal experience of realizing that racism was still a significant problem. Noticing what in your own life helped you to recognize racism helps you to then testify to your experience of learning with a racism skeptic. I use the word testify intentionally. Sharing with someone else our personal story of realizing we were guilty of racism is a spiritual experience. We are testifying to the fact that we ourselves are guilty and still in need of grace. It means we are not on a soap box telling other people how to live their lives because we are perfect. Instead, we are trying to become antiracist people all the time. Testifying to our mistakes enables us to stay humble. At the same time, this kind of testimony is best used in a compassionate conversation with a racism skeptic, and not with a person of color. When white people share their “sins” of how they have been racist to people of color, there is often the unspoken assumption that the person of color will be expected to absolve the white persons of their guilt. The person of color does not need you to tell them how you have been racist in the past; they just need you to talk to your white friends to try and keep them from acting on their racism.
Bearing Witness Another spiritual practice important to continuing the work of disarming racism is the practice of bearing witness. The phrase bearing witness comes from the New Testament, specifically when Jesus instructs his disciples to go and be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Compassion and bearing witness are as old as the commandments of Jesus. To bear witness means several things. First, it means you are aware of the experiences of others, and you have relationships close enough to witness the things that people of color experience that whites do not. To witness something, you must be there; and to be there, you have to be around people who are experiencing it. This means you need to consciously and
intentionally cultivate relationships with people different from yourself. If you live in a predominantly white neighborhood, it means intentionally making friends with the people near you who do not look like everyone else. Get to know someone from a different country or background. Spend time with the families who have biracial children or transracial adoptees. Listen and learn from their experiences. So, bearing witness requires proximity, being close enough to people who have experiences that are different from your own because of the color of their skin. This does not mean go and tell someone, “You can be my Black friend!” However, it does mean opening your eyes to the people of color you already come across in your life and finding ways to build relationships with them. Work with intentionality to build relationships with people who are different, but not simply because they are Black. As with white people, there will be Black people with whom you just don’t “click.” As you expand your relationships to be more diverse, you will find those friendships encompassing much more than race. There likely will be a great many areas of common ground. The second thing bearing witness means is you are bearing something. When you learn about people’s experiences involving racism or xenophobia, you are bearing their experiences with them. This doesn’t mean you know exactly what they felt like when the episodes happened, but it means in that moment you are recognizing the pain the experiences caused them, and you are not dismissing the hurt and damage they caused. To bear witness means to sincerely bear what a person is telling you, not to suggest how their experiences could be reinterpreted. You are receiving their truth as it is being told. You are honoring their sharing of these experiences with you. Bearing also means you are feeling the impact on you. Pay attention to what feelings are being brought up in you. Intentionally bearing something means that we will feel its weight, and that can make us feel difficult feelings of our own. But to bear what has been shared, without becoming defensive or taking it personally, is to honor a moment of vulnerability and sharing. Third, bearing witness means that you do not keep these incidents to yourself. When you see a Black friend being pulled over by the police for no apparent reason, you serve as a real witness to this event, and you protest the action you see as unjust. You witness by telling others that
racism is still a problem we need to be addressing across our society. You witness by trying to make a difference in your sphere of influence. Witness the experiences of others and share what you have witnessed with other groups of white people to affirm that racism is real, and that by ignoring it we contribute to it. What exactly are we bearing witness to, besides painful experiences of discrimination against people of color? There are other things. We witness that society has changed and yet still needs to transform. We witness the grace and power of God moving through groups of people who have been oppressed for generations. We witness the movement of God’s Spirit calling on new leaders and generations of people to take a stand on behalf of the most vulnerable. We witness the stirring of Christ’s passion within us, calling us to become involved in some way. To all of these things, we are witnesses. To bear witness as a spiritual practice means to keep in mind these things while pursuing a life of justice. Taking time to thank God for the many ways we can bear witness even now encourages us as we continue in our work.
Hospitality Another spiritual practice we can engage in is hospitality. Hospitality can refer to several different actions—from the more concrete deed of hosting someone in your home for a meal, to the more abstract act of welcoming another person into your heart. I think there is a rich spectrum of ways we can be hospitable toward one another. In the sense of opening your heart to someone else, you already are doing so by reading this book. You are listening to the stories of others, people who are different from yourself, and you are attending to their experiences. Such attention is a form of care. Even if it is only through reading this book, you are practicing a form of hospitality. Being hospitable to someone else also may mean intentionally joining conversations with people you know to be on the other side of an issue. For instance, if you vote Republican, you may be practicing hospitality by having coffee with a friend who votes Democrat. Allowing space for the other person to share his or her thoughts is another form of hospitality. Talking about race is complicated. As mentioned before, race intersects a number of other ways individuals experience their identity. People who
are racialized the same can have very different experiences based on their economic status and other factors. People from the same family can have widely different experiences of race based on personal attributes. Sometimes, two siblings coming together to talk can be a sign of mutual hospitality if past conversations have been difficult. Conversations across differences of any kind can take place only because of a certain degree of hospitality. Hosting dinners with people from different groups may be an excellent way to intentionally build community in your city. Churches can connect across racial lines and build bridges through shared meals. Individuals can offer hospitality to others, opening their homes to make way for deeper communion. A group I have been part of in Austin called the Red Bench hosts monthly dinner gatherings for people to come together and talk about difficult topics. Churches have known for a long time that fellowship meals are powerful. The Lord’s supper, the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, we commemorate in worship every time we share the eucharist. Church potlucks may be as old as the first-century Christian communities. Sharing a meal is not something new to Christians, but making an intentional effort to share a meal with people from a different community or perspective may be out of the ordinary. Christians need to build upon this familiar tradition of meal-sharing hospitality to establish relationships with people who may be unfamiliar to them. Your church may do something like this already. Look into ways your church can get involved in hosting gatherings of people from diverse backgrounds, either under its roof or in other parts of your city or area.
Spiritual Practices in Preaching and Worship This next set of practices may seem rather obvious: preaching and worship, the shared practices that the church engages in on a weekly basis. This is where, together, we make up the body of Christ. And in worship we learn to listen for God’s voice, to confess our sins before God, and to commit ourselves to living responsively to the grace that God has shown us. Because racism is not just part of our history but continues today in the marches of white nationalists and the more prevalent instances of discrimination and ongoing segregation, preachers and worship leaders
need to name this sin in worship. Naming the problem of segregation and discrimination in our prayers of confession and prayers of the people can help remind us of our need to be mindful of the continuing struggle. Having leaders in our church who represent different groups of people also sends a message to all present that we all are made in God’s image, so any of us can lift our voices in service to the praise of God. There are a lot of great resources for worship that recognize the diversity of God’s beautiful creation, drawing from nonwhite authors of hymns, praise songs, and prayers. For preaching, there are a number of scriptural themes and texts that support and generate sermons on this topic. From the earliest dysfunctional family in the Bible—Cain killing his brother Abel—we see the trajectory of humanity at war with itself. Noah’s “curse” on his son Ham was used to justify slavery.95 A preacher can draw from these texts ways to inform the congregation of the history of racism and the harmful ways Christianity has fueled it. A story about the leading figure of the Abrahamic traditions—how Abraham took his slave Hagar to have a child, and then abandoned her at the command of his wife Sarah—is also a story about slavery.96 Biblical scholars have made connections between this text and the ways enslaved African women were forced to be concubines to their white masters and left to die, their children never recognized as part of the master’s family. The Exodus narrative of God bringing the Israelites out of slavery is a story that connects with many people of African descent whose ancestors were enslaved in the United States.97 The Psalms and the voices of the prophets call out for justice on behalf of the oppressed; these too call our attention to the oppressed who are among us today. These are just of a few of the many passages just in the Old Testament that can foster rich discussions and sermons that address the history and ongoing legacy of racism and remind us that our brothers and sisters continue to suffer. The New Testament is also a rich resource for such preaching, and early Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993).
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Exodus! Religion, Race and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Christian literature shows African theologians reflecting on difference from the beginning of the church’s history.98 The framework for preaching on race I teach to my students includes the three processes of recognizing racism, recognizing ourselves within the story, and recognizing gratitude for the grace of God.99 Recognizing racism involves opening our eyes to the ways the scripture text informs our understanding of the subtle ways sin continues to operate in and around us, particularly through insidious and slippery expressions of racism. Recognizing ourselves within the story means that the preacher needs to help white Christians understand how racism impacts them, how they are connected to their brothers and sisters who continue to experience racism, and how their own spiritual growth is stunted through the system of racism. Recognizing ourselves includes understanding the difficult emotions that may be brought up for us as white people unaccustomed to talking about our whiteness. Finally, recognizing gratitude for the grace of God means looking within the text for the signs of God’s grace that remind us God is already at work in us, continuing to work for our redemption. Gratitude is the third of these three processes because it is gratitude for God’s grace that motivates us to live and act differently, not the shame of our sin. I encourage my students as they preach on difficult issues such as racism to look for a way to end with gratitude, some sign of the promises of God. Worship leaders often let the seasons of the church liturgical calendar dictate the themes of worship, but some of the more “secular” holidays or ways of marking time can also be opportunities for talking about racism. In the summer, when many people go on vacation, the church can host discussions on “Driving while Black,” or on the experiences of African Americans as they have tried to vacation across the country or the experience of being pulled over by the police.100 When students return to school and some churches host “blessings of the backpacks” or school Gay L. Byron, Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature (New York: Routledge, 2002).
For more on preaching, see Carolyn B. Helsel, Preaching about Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2018).
Film by Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns, “Driving While Black: Race, Space, and Mobility in America.” PBS. Originally aired October 13, 2020. Accessed March 2, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/show/driving-while-black/.
supply drives for underprivileged school children, the church can engage in studies about the history of segregated education in the United States and in their specific area.101 When October rolls around and kids begin dressing up for Halloween, the church can have honest discussions of who gets to be afraid for “fun” in America. While on Halloween kids dress up in spooky costumes, white people tend to ignore the ways fear has been intentionally inflicted upon Black and brown communities through the Ku Klux Klan and other modern expressions of white power. The church can study Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and the ways the United States government tried to stop her from singing it.102 In November, church worship leaders can use the holiday of Thanksgiving to call attention to the ongoing struggles of Native Americans, linking the experiences of Indigenous peoples to the larger history of racism and colonialism. Throughout the months of the liturgical calendar, worship leaders in predominantly white churches can draw from prayers written by people of color, songs composed by people of color, and show art created by people of color. In this way, the church gets a wider representation of the gifts of the people of God. Churches continue to be segregated largely based on race. This is the result of the long history of racism. One of the ways our worship and preaching can engage in the work of anti-racism is to name this segregation, and to confess our blindness to the experiences and needs of people of color in our midst. As we confess and commit to anti-racism in our churches and our communities, it may be that our churches gradually see more and more people of color. If this happens, it is not necessarily a sign of our “wokeness” or our status as an anti-racist church, but it is a good sign. And as white church leaders continue to look to people of color as fellow leaders in worship, preaching, and across denominational committees, and as more white churches hire people of color to pastor their churches, the conversations about anti-racism must continue on, recognizing that assumptions about “having arrived” will not do us any favors. Honesty, In Austin, we can look at the 1928 Master Plan that intentionally segregated Black Austinites to the eastern side of the city. See: https://austintexas.gov/sites/default/ files/files/City-Council/Houston/CM_OH_1928_Op-Ed.pdf
The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Directed by Lee Daniels.(Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 2021). Hulu.
compassion, and a commitment to truly being in fellowship with one another will help us continue on this journey together.
Self-Compassion Finally, I want to end with a spiritual practice that may sound as counterintuitive as gratitude: self compassion. Why as a white person do I feel the need for self-compassion? Mainly so I do not let the guilt and shame of confronting racism get in my way of continuing to work against it. There are plenty of ways we can hear the message that we’re not doing enough, or that we are doing it wrong. Or learning about the horrific history and ongoing experiences of racism that people of color experience makes us feel guilt for not having had to go through those same experiences. But feelings of guilt and shame do not energize us to serve. We must address our emotional well-being in order to stay in the work long-term. I also see self-compassion as arising from my faith. The famous maxim of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself” includes within it the assumption that we love ourselves. In doing the work of social justice, in following Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, we cannot love our neighbor if we do not love ourselves. Self-care is often emphasized in seminary training, since pastors often spend many hours of the week caring for others—sometimes to the neglect of their own health. I tend to think of self-care in terms of making sure I get enough sleep, eat well, exercise from time to time, and spend time engaging in hobbies that renew my energy. But self-compassion is a little more intentional. The spiritual practice of self-compassion is something that I borrow from reading the work of Dr. Kristin Neff.103 A psychologist at the University of Texas, Neff has written on self-compassion both for the scholarly community and broader public. Neff’s understanding of self-compassion includes three things: mindfulness of one’s suffering, a sense of shared humanity, and an expression of loving kindness. The first aspect of self-compassion, mindfulness of one’s suffering, is simply a way of talking about how we need to acknowledge our difficult feelings. For a full list of her scholarship and books for the broader public, see Kristin Neff’s website: self-compassion.org.
Neff emphasizes the importance of being mindful of personal suffering because we tend to ignore or deny these feelings. By giving ourselves a moment to focus on these feelings, much like you have been doing in earlier exercises in this book, you are becoming mindful of your suffering, even if you do not particularly experience your feelings as “suffering.” That’s okay. The important thing is you are paying attention to whatever your feelings are in the moment. From having led many groups in talking about race and racism, I can tell you a lot of feelings come up for me, and it is important for me to take a minute and tell myself, “I see you. I see what you’re going through.” The second element of self-compassion is a sense of shared humanity, which means you acknowledge you are not the only one going through this experience in this moment. Suffering can leave us feeling very isolated. Believing we are alone in going through a situation can prevent us from accepting our experience and building relationships with others. After participating in diversity workshops, I notice my tendency to want to be alone. Not acknowledging the suffering we experience together in our shared humanity can prevent us from building connections with those around us. The third part of self-compassion is loving kindness, the ability to offer understanding and a nonjudgmental attitude to yourself. For many white people talking about racism, it is hard to avoid judging ourselves when we recognize racist thoughts or beliefs. We can judge ourselves and try to shut down our awareness of what is going on inside us. Acknowledging that others are also going through this assures us we are on a journey that others are traveling on also. That our complicity in racism gives us pain is a sign that our suffering is part of a growth process. Knowing we have not “arrived” can allow us to be patient with ourselves, to encourage ourselves along this long journey. We can accept our feelings and failings and remind ourselves that God still loves us. What does this look like in practice? When leading a workshop during a conference held at Montreat in North Carolina, I led the participants through a guided imagery prayer to help them cultivate self-compassion. You can use the following script to guide yourself or a group of others in a time of practicing self-compassion. The prayer began by asking people to sit comfortably and close their eyes, taking in deep breaths. (I encourage you to practice this as you read
along.) After several moments of deep breaths, I invite each of them to do the following: “Imagine the healing balm of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, being poured down upon your head, dripping down from the top of your scalp to your shoulders, down your arms, through your torso, to your hips, and down both legs. This healing balm of Christ, the Holy Spirit, is a word of grace being poured over you. In this moment, allow yourself to acknowledge that what you are going through right now is hard. This is difficult. What you are experiencing right now is a kind of suffering. Name to yourself the feelings that you are carrying in this moment. “At the same time, there are others who are also going through this same thing. Others, perhaps in this room, also are suffering in the same way that you are. There are others around the world who share in this suffering to varying degrees. Feel yourself connected to them. And as you continue to take deep breaths, feeling yourself connected to all others who are suffering, imagine now the loving arms of your Savior, Jesus Christ, being opened to you, with the scars in his hands still visible. Imagine these loving arms wrapping around you, embracing you with the love of a Savior who continues to be with you as you suffer, who sees what you are going through right now. Imagine those arms extending to surround people suffering across your community, nation, and world. See Jesus’ arms covering all who experience the kinds of suffering we have been discussing. “And as you imagine these loving arms wrapped around you and the whole world, let yourself exhale with gratitude for the love God has shown to you. With every breath, emit an audible or inaudible thank you. [I take an audible deep breath] ‘Thank you.’ [deep breath] ‘Thank you.’ You express your gratitude to God, to your loving Savior, Jesus Christ, saying, ‘Thank you.’ You give thanks for the healing balm of the Holy Spirit flowing down over you: ‘Thank you.’ You give thanks for the stories that have been shared with you, the individuals who have opened their hearts by sharing their experiences with you: ‘Thank you.’ You give thanks for the challenge of these kinds of conversations, the way they push us to think in new ways and to expand our network of concern and call us to love our neighbor anew: ‘Thank you.’ We are thankful for the ways that our emotions respond to these stories and conversations, thankful that we can feel deeply: ‘Thank you.’ We give thanks for all those who are working for racial justice, working to rebuild communities that remain divided; for these workers we say, ‘Thank you.’ We thank you, O God, for the ways that
you work through us and in us, continuing to redeem us and calling us to share good news with the world. For all of this, we say, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ [deep breath] ‘Thank you.’” At the end of the exercise, I invite the participants to remain in silence as they depart, carrying with them the thoughts and gratitude that they expressed through the guided prayer. I find this exercise helps many people attend to their emotions, connect with God during a challenging time, and return to the world renewed with the confidence that God continues to work through them. This exercise helps me as well. I can feel my own anxiety lessen, my awareness of God’s presence heighten, and my capacity to love myself and my neighbor deepen. Imagining Christ physically embracing us during the exercise helps us experience that love from God in a bodily way, beyond what we feel from simple verbal acknowledgment. We need to imagine ourselves physically embraced in order for our brains to send the message that we are indeed loved and cared for. At that same conference where I led the workshop, there were three services of worship over the three days of the conference. The worship services were patterned on the three days of triduum: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Prior to the event, a liturgical artist wrote lists of names on long hanging banners that surrounded the sanctuary where we worshiped. The names belonged to some of the many people of color whose lives have been lost because of hate and fear. Some of the names I recognized; many I did not. At the end of the Good Friday service, members of the worshiping body brought down each banner and draped them onto the front table. It was a powerful statement, seeing the names of the dead laid out on the communion table, the place where we commemorate the sacrifice of Christ. We left the sanctuary in silence. On the last day of the conference, we held a worship service that was themed with the message of Easter Sunday. As participants walked into the sanctuary, there in front—hanging high and brightly lit—were the names of the people; the banners that had been laid on the table were now lifted up. The message proclaimed that in our dying, we die with Christ. And as Christ lives and is raised from the dead, we too shall rise. This worship experience inspired me with hope that we can mourn the injustice in our society together, and we can pray for God’s strength as we work. All those who have died as a result of injustice will not remain dead but instead will rise with Christ, held forever by the love of the God who
created each one by name. We can address these painful realities in our worship and preaching, and we must, to remind us all of the God who has called us together, to be one body.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion After reading, listening to the stories of others, and attending to your own emotions, what feelings do you have? My hope is that you feel a deep sense of gratitude for the people in your life who have shared their own stories with you. I hope you are feeling grateful for what they have contributed to your own understanding. I hope you feel gratitude toward the God who loves you even though your mistakes and sins are completely known. I hope you feel grateful for the love that calls you to new acts of love. I also hope you feel an urgency that this is a subject we need to continue talking about, because the repercussions of centuries of slavery and later forms of discrimination do not simply evaporate or age out. The legacy of racism is born anew and regenerates in new forms. I hope you are left feeling a sense of urgency to stay alert for the ways it reemerges in your own context. My hope is that when you feel difficult feelings surrounding this topic, you will be able to notice what is going on inside of you and allow yourself those feelings without denying them or pushing them away. I also hope you will share this book with people you know. Invite them to read it with you as you reread it. Suggest that your small group at church or your leadership team read it together. Or find other books that talk about this subject in other ways. The goal is to stay aware and to continue looking for ways to engage with long-term efforts at racial justice. If you are journaling while reading this book, I invite you to write down things you hope to do in the next year that will keep you in this conversation. Is there a conference or an event you can attend? Is there an organization in your area you can join that’s working on issues of justice with and for people of color? Can you meet with the white people in your networks to talk about race? Can you put into practice some of the spiritual exercises talked about in this chapter? Can you work with people in your church to incorporate some of these ideas in worship? Take time to notice any experiences of gratitude you find along the way and give thanks to God for the opportunities for new relationships.
The Anxious Bench
The Second Great Awakening of the early part of the nineteenth century was a period of rapid growth of the Christian faith across the United States. Revivals happened in which thousands of people at a time would be saved. One of the most famous leaders of these revivals was Charles G. Finney, who wrote about the “New Measures,” which he said were effectively leading people to Christ.104 These New Measures included something called the “Anxious Bench.” This was a seat—a long bench—positioned at the front of the sanctuary below the pulpit. This seat was reserved for people who felt called to conversion. After the sermon, the preacher would call on the listeners to make a decision to commit or recommit themselves to God, and then the preacher would invite them to make that commitment public, coming forward to the anxious bench. People who felt so moved would rise from their seats, walk toward the pulpit, and sit at the Anxious Bench alongside others ready for conversion. Once seated, the preacher would then further exhort those on the bench to give their lives to God and to repent of their sins, and dedicate themselves to godly living. During these nineteenth-century revivals, there was debate among religious leaders about whether these New Measures truly were helpful for leading individuals closer to God. Theologian and Marshall College president John Williamson Nevin wrote a book in 1843 titled The Anxious Bench. Nevin criticized the practices of the New Measures, which in his Ted A. Smith, The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
view were epitomized by the Anxious Bench. Nevin believed that such practices actually distracted individuals from the movement of the Holy Spirit. Rather than focusing inwardly on the voice of God speaking to them in that moment, they were focused outwardly on needing to take this public action. Rather than having space to spend time with God in the quiet, they were made to interrupt any special illumination and instead give their time over to the anxiety of being in front of the entire assembly. Rather than being moved by God to make a decision, they were stirred by their fear of what others would think and say, caught up in the pressure of the emotion of the moment. Such motivation, Nevin argued, would not produce long-standing disciples of Christ, only people who caved to external opinion. I bring up this example of the Anxious Bench because talking about racism at times can feel to be an Anxious Bench of sorts. It can seem that in order to show that you are a good white person, you need to come before the assembly and admit that you are a sinner (someone with white privilege who is complicit in the larger system of white supremacy) and commit yourself to the work of anti-racism. To make such a profession is a highly anxious experience, and it relies a great deal on the fear of others’ opinion of you. Are you saying the right thing? Are you quoting the right people? Are you showing you have sufficient accountability from people of color? There are any number of ways white people can get overwhelmed with the imaginary list of qualifications needed to show they are “good” white people. So rather than making you, dear reader, commit to things you are not sure you entirely understand or believe, I want to give you the freedom to stay in your seat. You do not need to come forward to an Anxious Bench— either literal or figurative. I want you to be able to sit with your anxiety and not be forced to act out of it or because of it. I want any commitment you make to the work of racial justice to evolve from a thoughtful experience of learning from other people whose lives have been impacted by racism, and from white people who have experienced greater hope and community because of their work to further racial justice. I will not ask that you make any public profession resembling a move toward an Anxious Bench, but I may suggest you continue learning from people who are different from you—through relationships with people in your community as well as through books, art, movies, and documentaries—so you can have a different experience of the world.
I do not want anxiety to be your motivation for changing your life. I want you to be motivated out of gratitude for the grace of God that is already at work in you. I also recognize these are anxious times. Every few weeks more news reports tell us that racism is alive and well. We may not identify with white people protesting the removal of Confederate monuments with openly racist speech, but their rhetoric and violence harm everyone in our society. Spending time learning about these events can make us anxious and fearful. Thinking of our friends and loved ones, we may know people of color who feel threatened by each reminder of white supremacy. The anxiety caused by these news reports requires that we pay attention to our reactions; listen to the feelings that emerge. Ask yourself: “Am I feeling numb? Angry? Helpless?” Pray for God’s wisdom and courage to respond in solidarity. Respond, but not out of a sense of obligation to show your virtue to others, like appearing before the Anxious Bench. Respond out of the conviction that God is calling you to use whatever gifts you have to make a difference where you can. Because you do have gifts. And working against racism requires all of us working together.
Recommended Resources by People of Color Movies and Documentaries 13th. Directed by Ava DuVerney. Performed by Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander, and Cory Booker. Kandoo Films, 2016. Documentary available on Netflix. I Am Not Your Negro. Written by James Baldwin. Directed by Raoul Peck. Performed by Samuel Jackson and James Baldwin (archive footage). Velvet Film, 2016. DVD or available on Netflix. Race: The Power of an Illusion. Episodes Produced by Christine HerbesSommers, Tracy Heather Strain, and Llewellyn M. Smith. California Newsreel, 2003. DVD or available on Vimeo. See newsreel.org. Books Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012). David Campt, The White Ally Toolkit Workbook: Using Active Listening, Empathy, and Personal Storytelling to Promote Racial Equity (United States: I AM Publishing, 2018). www.whiteallytoolkit.com Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018). Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think, and Do (London: Penguin Books, 2019). Rhonda V. Magee, The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness (New York: TarcherPerigee, 2019). Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017). Latasha Morrison, Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation (New York: Waterbrook, 2019).
Anneliese A. Singh, The Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2019). Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
Still anxious to talk about racism?
“From guilt and shame to healthy white identity, Helsel has brought us a muchneeded guide to white self-awareness on the switchback-ridden journey to becoming anti-racist.” —Sharon E. Watkins, Director, National Council of Churches Truth and Racial Justice Initiative
“‘I’m not a racist,’ you may be thinking. ‘I’m not in the KKK and I don’t carry a Nazi flag. Why should I read a book about race?’ Carolyn Helsel’s new book will answer that question, and in the process, you’ll become not just a better white person, but a better, more mature, more caring human being.” — Brian D. McLaren, author of Faith after Doubt
“Anxious to Talk about It invites white people to recognize and relinquish racist ways, however subconscious, subtle, or insidious.” —Gerald C. Liu, Princeton Theological Seminary
“An honest, courageous, and thoughtful approach in engaging whites who are anxious to talk about race and racism. Beware (white) readers: you will meet the truth and the truth will set you free! If you dare to be free, ‘take up and read.’” —Luke A. Powery, Duke Divinity School “Helsel wades right into the thicket of emotions that accompany white fragility. This volume is packed with stories that need to be heard if America is ever going to live out a new story concerning race.” —Donyelle McCray, Yale Divinity School
Carolyn B. Helsel is Associate Professor in the Blair Monie Distinguished Chair in Homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). For nearly 15 years, she has helped white people talk about racism, working successfully with churches, non-profits, small groups, retreats, and within academic guilds and conferences. ISBN 978-0-827200-99-9
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“Anxious To Talk About It is challenging, encouraging and always faithful. A must-read for anyone desiring to discover how to live a spiritual life of self-discovery in the 21st century.” —Jimmie Hawkins, Director of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Public Witness & United Nations
ANXIOUS TO TALK ABOUT IT
While we know the time to talk about racism is long overdue, many white people are still anxious to talk about it. Guilt, shame, discomfort, and the fear of saying the wrong thing are just some of the feelings white people perceive as holding them back from the critical conversations around dismantling racism. In this updated and expanded second edition of Anxious to Talk About It, professor and anti-racism teacher Carolyn Helsel offers fresh new ideas and tools for moving beyond the anxiety, engaging the hard conversations, and joining the work for a more equitable world with courage, grace, and conviction.