Tonight, I spent 2 hours at church talking about race with my pastor and some church members. I was one of 2 black women there. We were discussing Isaac Adams’s book “Talking About Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations”. The conversation flowed with good points all around and the atmosphere was filled with curiosity, vulnerability, a willingness to listen and learn, uncertainty at times, but most of all, the truth of the Gospel.
I don’t think about race that often—and maybe I should—I don’t know—but tonight’s discussion with my different-hued brothers and sisters in Christ has me questioning some things and I want to unpack them.
***Disclaimer: I’m not speaking for all black people but just myself, based on my own experiences.***
Racial Division—in the Church and the Grocery Store
The Apostle Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that “there is no Jew or Gentile… for you are all are one in Christ” but 21st century Americans have all but become masters of creating and perpetuating division, especially when it comes to race. Integration may have successfully been legislated in 1964 but we’re still separated. Though interracial communities are increasing, we still have predominantly black churches and predominantly white churches. (My pastor, who is white, made an interesting comparison by pointing out that when diversity is spoken of, it’s usually in the context of “how can white pastors and churches increase diversity in their church and community” but it’s never the other way around? I never noticed until he said it but he’s right!)
At the beginning of the conversation, he asked the group, “When’s the first time you experienced/saw racism?” and several people shared around the circle. One older woman shared how she and her husband had grown up in the 1950s and knew, firsthand, the black mark of segregation: the separate “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” water fountains, for example. Her husband made a comment how one of his relatives, back in the day, couldn’t understand the insanity of segregation; how black people were “good enough to make your salad in the back of a restaurant but not good enough to sit at the table beside you to eat.” (I’m paraphrasing). That’s crazy to me. Like, my brain physically can’t comprehend living in a world like that but that’s what happened. I don’t know how my ancestors lived through that—only by the grace of God.
More conversation ensued. My pastor, Jamie, answered that question by telling us the story of meeting his aunt’s boyfriend when he was 6 years old. (I think they got married but I can’t remember the details.) His aunt’s boyfriend was a black man named Victor. As Jamie went on to tell us how he could now sympathize with what Victor probably felt in the moment—meeting your girlfriend’s white family and being the only Black person in the room, probably in the whole town—I was silently giggling, with my hand covering my mouth, remembering my first serious relationship that happened in college; me, a short, Black, Christian nerd with an equally nerdy, tall, Christian white guy of Irish-Lebanese descent, red hair, and blue eyes! What a match we made!
My First (and Most Recent) Experiences with Racism
I told the group that the first time I experienced racism was in the 4th grade. I was part of a friend group in elementary school. There were 5 of us: Alonna, me, Nathalie, Shaylyn, and Shanice. Alonna was white, Nathalie was Hispanic, and Shanice, Shaylyn, and I were black. One day, when we all were playing, Alonna pointed to each of the three of us, with Nathalie beside her, and said, “You, you, and you are niggers.”
This, out of the mouth of a 4th grader, a child. I remember this vividly—still—21 years later.
More recently, I had an incident at work last week that I also shared with the group.
Two older white ladies came in my line with one item but one of the ladies was pushing a buggy. I finished checking them out and I picked up the bottle to get a better look at it (I didn’t know what it was at first) before putting it in the bag (it was cleaning solution). One of the ladies saw me do that and asked, while laughing, “You wanna come over and use it for me?”
I didn’t think about it right away. My initial thought was a random one: “Who gets a shopping cart for just ONE item? What’s wrong with them?” and then… it hit me— what she had previously said. It made me feel…weird and now I know why. (If you don’t understand, let me break it down for you: This stranger, an older, white woman appearing to be in her mid-50s, made a racist comment, under the guise of a joke, that I should come to her house and clean it for her—as Black women throughout history have been treated as, and depicted in media and books, as nannies and cleaning maids, as well as other lower-class citizens.)
This is what’s known as a “microaggression.” It’s not the blatant, textbook racism I grew up reading about and came to expect, but a more covert, subtle division tactic that cuts just as deep. It could be something as simple as an “innocent joke” or a white man “complimenting” me with a “you’re so articulate”. (I got this a lot when I was younger. The implication being that I’m not expected to be smart or be able to have intelligent conversations because I’m black. Well, joke’s on them—I have a degree in Creative Writing!)
Or a white woman asking me, “Can I touch your hair?” or “Is your hair real?” (This happens on a monthly basis. *cue eye roll* I will never understand the fascination with my hair. It’s just hair!) In my experience, and I don’t know why it occurs this way, but this typically happens when I’m working and can’t actually respond (because when in retail, “the customer is always right!” even though, in reality, the customer is dead wrong 95% of the time!). Instead, I have to smile and fake laugh, lest the customer gets offended I don’t find them funny and run off to tell my manager, for which I could then get reprimanded; this is the game of survival.
Getting back to the book, Adams uses fictional characters to illustrate his points which, as an avid reader and writer, I commend him on, as it helps me and others I know understand the nuisances of the various perceptions of racism. There are multiple characters in the book, including Darius (the black deacon in a prominent white church) and Harvey (his white friend and fellow brother in Christ). From what I’ve gathered so far in the book (I got only up to the 4th chapter before the meeting tonight), Harvey wants to discuss the recent murder of a black man by the police, for supposedly stealing a candy bar from a gas station, but he feels silenced, like he’s not allowed to talk about these issues and, instead, is expected to listen because he doesn’t understand what it is to be black in America.
White people, as a whole I think, get accused of being ignorant to the racism around them because they don’t have to worry about certain things that we who are darker-skinned do. In a way, I understand. Sometimes I’m oblivious to the racism around me (hence why it took me a while to understand the grocery incident). I think part of the reason is that, as previously stated, the racism of today is not the blatant, direct racism I grew up learning about, but the more prevalent sneaky, side-comment-filled, carefully constructed racism that can fly under the radar if you’ve come to expect it or if you’re not paying attention.
Dealing with Colorism
And, in my experience, it comes from both sides, blacks and whites. When I was dating my previously-mentioned white boyfriend, I got so much silent racism from white people—but that was expected. The stares, side-eye, and double-takes from men and women as we walked through downtown? I was used to that. What took me by surprise though, was the colorist rhetoric—again, disguised as jokes—I got from my friends and certain family members. (Colorism, as I defined it tonight for our group, is “racism within the Black community”.) I don’t know what was said behind closed doors on my then-boyfriend’s side but if it was anything like what was going on my side, it wouldn’t have surprised me.
I’ve been called an Oreo on several occasions. Unlike the coveted snack food, being compared to an Oreo is not a good thing. (An “Oreo” is a derogatory term used by blacks to accuse other blacks of “trying to be white.” And as such, invalidating their experiences as a black person. An “Oreo” is, essentially, one who is perceived to be black on the outside, white on the inside.) I’ve been asked, several times throughout my existence, why I listen to “white people music” (didn’t know Rock or Contemporary Christian Music was claimed by one race, but ok!), or why I’d rather read a book than listen to rap (I think that is more so to do with my love of literature and introversion than just “being Black” but I digress. For more about those experiences, I suggest you read “When the White Girl Says “Amen!” in a Black Church: (My Beef With the Black Christians in America).” Seriously, go read it!)
Honesty and A Heart Change
Often, white people are accused of lumping all black people together, as if we’re all the same. But—and I didn’t realize this until I got home tonight—I do it too. When I’m at work, sometimes police officers come in and buy groceries (like everybody else, they, too, have to eat). I didn’t realize this until just now, but when I’m scanning their stuff, I don’t look them in the eye. I stare at the scanner and/or their groceries. I instinctively hold my breath without realizing it. When I hand them their change, my eyes are on their hands, not their faces. My internal dialogue is one of suspicion, of them and myself, even though I’m not doing anything wrong or dangerous or anything that might make them suspect I’m a criminal! I’m just literally doing my job!
Most of my customers are lighter than me. It’s hard not to lump them together and think the worst.
I’m tired. I’m tired of maneuvering a certain way or changing my speech so as not to make white people, and others, uncomfortable. I’m tired of being on edge and thinking the worst about people, both those I know and those I don’t. I don’t want to do that; it’s not Godly. I’m tired of being afraid and bitter. I’m tired of having something akin to hatred in my heart when I know—I know— that not every white person is out to get me.
I want to enjoy my friendships without having nightmares that my friends are gonna turn on me one day. (Malcolm X was wrong; the white man is not “the devil”. That title goes to Satan and one day, Jesus will annihilate him completely!) I’m tired of my sinful, wicked heart lying to me by convincing me I need to distance myself from other believers because they might bring up a racial topic and look to me for discussion, and I won’t know what to say (either due to lack of experience or just a loss for words). Something has to change.
Change is a slow process; it doesn’t happen overnight. The reason why segregation is outlawed now is because God had to change the hearts of those in power. If He did it then, He can—and will—do it again. That’s my prayer. That God would change the hearts of those who need it and guess what? We all do. I know I do.
Just as much as I pray for God’s liberation of sin and restoration throughout the nations, I need my own sinful heart liberated and restored. I pray that I, and every other believer, begin, and continue, to view ourselves and others through the lens that Jesus did: through the lens of the Gospel. I pray that He would open our eyes to see not the color of one’s skin, but that they bear the image of God, first and foremost.