So I guess I should have expected it. I did, in a way. After my last two blog posts about the Black Church burnings in the South and the mass murder in Charleston, the response was massive. On one extreme was the support and high fives of those who had been waiting for someone to “just say it.” On the other extreme was the name-calling and trolling. With the former, I’m always super careful. Like many creative people, I wrestle with the need for validation. And I truly don’t want that to be a driving force in what I’m led to write. And the latter? Eh. That kind of ugliness is just part of writing for an online audience. Nothing I can do about it. What was more interesting for me were those in the middle. Those who were genuinely wrestling with what I presented. In this case, I received numerous inbox messages and FB comments from White believers asking a variation of this:
“I don’t know what to do. What do I do about racism?”
Okay, in an effort to not go crazy repeating myself by answering each post individually, I’ve put together a list for individuals who I know are asking this question genuinely and from an authentic and sincere place. My words are a combination of things I’ve been saying around the internet. So here goes:
What can White (people, Christians, churches) do about racism?
#1 – Stop asking Black people what to do about racism
Please know that I say this in love.
Black people have been dealing with white supremacy and racism in this land since we were brought to these shores. We have endured slavery, lynching, segregation, redlining, segregation, brutality, discrimination, and much more. To ask a group that has endured that kind of hardship, who continues to see our children shot down in the street, our churches go up in flames, and our opportunities…though vastly greater than in the past…still limited in comparison to the dominant culture, to now come up with all the solutions and directions for the very system that has caused this pain is disingenuous at best. As Toni Morrison once said, we cannot be both the doctor and the patient. There comes a time when White people will have to reckon with and take responsibility for what has been done on their own. Yes, dialogue with Black people is important but having the hard conversations within your own communities–yes, to other White people–is becoming increasingly more important.
And I’m not clear as to why that’s hard to figure out. In any other scenario, this kind of engagement is possible. In business, with other social issues, in the sciences, even in other areas of the church–caucuses are formed, dialogue is had, and solutions, good or bad, are found. In any other tragic situation, people know how to come together to serve their fellow brothers/sisters and come up with ideas and strategy (even if imperfect) on how to help; how to affect change. But for some reason, when it comes to race in America…there’s this passive “we don’t know what to do, you tell us what to do” perspective. Consider this: When there’s a major flood happening, a major natural disaster, no one stop and says to those who are actively dying in the disaster, “How I can help you stop a flood? Break down the ways I can help you.” You simply grab some sandbags and GET TO WORK! But helping someone in a flood is risky business. And so is tackling racism. So it seems the underlying question is actually, “What can I do about racism that won’t force me to risk anything in the process?” And the answer to that is…nothing. You must be willing to lay your reputation down, risk being hated, to stand up for people of color on any number of issues that can be found with a simple Google search (on top of the fact that Black folks have been screaming about them since Reconstruction.)
#2 – Try asking a better question. Here’s one. How can I educate myself about the Black experience in America?
Here’s the thing: now more than ever, because of the internet, White people have access to everything they need to know about Black history or the Black experience. Enough to arm themselves when they have those conversations with each other.
White people also have access to ways to disseminate that information to people in their circles who might be more influential than any one individual. In your particular area and family, you might not think you “see” racism that much but as long as it exists, it’s your problem too.
Sidebar: White believers….stop walking up to Black people saying, “I’m sorry that happened.” Because essentially what many of us hear is, “I’m sorry that happened to YOUR people.” Yet if you believe what the word of God says–“In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal…” (Galatians 3:28)–then you understand that you don’t need to apologize to me because it’s happening to YOU too. The fact that you can apologize to me, as well intentioned as it might be, is further evidence of your disconnection from the problem. It’s evidence of your embracing of some ideal that makes my humanity different from yours. It shows an inability to feel the deep hurt of your brother and sister–a hallmark of walking like Christ.
Okay…back to educating yourself. Once you’ve done some reading and gotten your questions answered about specific issues, you can now bring awareness to the issue in your own sphere of influence…especially if it’s all white. As eluded to earlier, you have a social media platform, you know people, you can make calls to the media and government officials, you can set up forums at your church, you can visit a Black church or other predominately Black organizations to show solidarity, you can send money to activist organizations, you can make an effort to diversify your experiences, etc. Any white person, even someone who lives in an environment where racist activity is not seen everyday (uhhh, because it’s probably all white–which is likely evidence all by itself though I digress), can be an advocate if they want to. And they can do so, without having to constantly ask Black folks, “How can I help?”
But Tracey, how do I talk to other white people about racism if I don’t know your plight?
Okay, if you have educated yourself but still don’t feel like you “understand” what’s happening, here’s our plight:
1. Black people are treated unfairly in our economic, education, and justice systems.
2. Black people are being killed because they are Black.
Just start there.
You may never “understand.” But there’s enough pain in those two points for you to be able to go back into your community and say “What are we going to do about this?” Brainstorming from the privileged perspective is very much needed because you may have more of the means to demand change. So a better question to ask people of color than the vague “What can I do?” too often asked solely to assuage the conviction you feel, is “I want to educate myself on your history and story, could you suggest some places and resources that could help?” That shows way more intentionality than “Just tell me what to do to fix this.”
A great resource is the Charleston syllabus put together by a professor at Brandeis. It will seem overwhelming so I recommend you starting with the links to the Op-Eds. Anything written by Ta-nehisi Coates of The Atlantic is worth digesting. http://aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/
How does one demand that public school education is equal, that racist symbols and policies are not allowed to stand, that rogue police are held accountable, that there is diversity and inclusion at every level in business, that little white kids are not allowed by their parents to call my baby girl N*gger on the playground? Welp…I don’t know if that’s for Black folks to answer for you. It’s time for white people to do the work and brainstorm. In the meantime, I will grieve and pray and work, work and pray and grieve.
#3 – Talk Amongst Yourselves. Then do something.
Start with your immediate circle. Start with other White people. I believe engagement looks like white people, and white believers specifically, engaging in conversations amongst themselves and strategizing on how to leverage their status to make change.
Talk to each other. YOU check your fringe elements before Black Twitter gets a chance to. Leverage your privilege in order to dismantle the system. Stop asking the people who are on the receiving end of 400 years of abuse for the solution. And yes, I get that it is frustrating to hear someone say this to you when you may be sincerely wanting to help but please shift your lens a bit. This is not the time for white people to center the issue of racism on how helpless THEY feel. Imagine what it would be like to have the kind of history Black people have in this country and then be tasked with having to educate the oppressor and those who benefit from the oppression (for those of who you who say, “Well I didn’t hurt anyone”). Imagine that you must bury your child who was shot and killed for walking while Black and then you are asked, “What can we do to help?”
Umm…make it stop?
Black people have fought, prayed, cried, marched, rioted, and voted to be seen as equal and valuable in the eyes of our government and its systems. If we knew how to dismantle racism, it would have been done already.
There are still way too many organizations, particularly white Christian evangelical ministries, that have quite a bit of cultural, political, and social capital who won’t even DARE have the necessary conversations much less do anything about what is happening. Where are the leaders standing up demanding to know the truth about these church burnings and calling it what it is–terrorism–on Fox News no less? Who is demanding that the media and politicians talk about it seriously? If enough of those orgs as well as individuals were engaged, then the Confederate flag would be down, body cams and accountability would be a non-issue, and other issues would suddenly become much more clear. Institutional racism is not as circumstantial or unlegislated as one might think. The key is to look at circumstances and legislations through the lens of the group adversely affected.
Scary huh?! Sure it is. But be clear. Your fear doesn’t exist because you don’t know what to say–especially if you’ve educated yourself. Your fear exists because it’s super risky to say anything. Courage is not something Black folks can give you. Courage is going to come from the conviction of the Holy Spirit or by God’s pressing. Pray for courage.
#4 So don’t talk to Black folks at all?
Of course I’m not saying that. I think it’s important to talk to people of all different backgrounds–for relational purposes. Get to know me. Black people aren’t a monolith so my experience with racism will not be the same as someone else’s. Same goes with the random Black person plucked from obscurity to speak on CNN or Fox News. They don’t represent us all just like a Dylan Roof doesn’t represent all white people. So I submit that the best route to fruitful discussions with Black people will derive from coming alongside individuals with the intention of getting to know us individually and not, necessarily, as a knee jerk reaction to current events. (Although that could be the catalyst for you to establish the relationship) And be transparent. Be authentic. Be honest about what you do and don’t know. Say, “hey, this is what I think. I don’t know if that’s true for you. What do you think?” Engage in a dialogue–not in a one-sided “break it all down” for me conversation. Be willing to hear the hard things. Be willing to be uncomfortable with what you learn. Sit with that discomfort.
Yes, as human beings, that’s hard for all of us to do. But it’s still critical.
In these conversations, you will likely discover, if you don’t know already, that as a white person, your point of view is privileged. So what! Don’t let that discovery unnerve you. Own it. Most people of color, particularly those active in this justice movement, know that already. We get that. What we don’t get is this denial or lack of acknowledging of it–especially within the Church. What we appreciate is someone who is not afraid to speak up for something that is obviously wrong…even when they may not understand all the nuances fully. We appreciate those who are willing to risk reputation and other things to stand in the gap for the disenfranchised. Whether your ancestors were slaveholders or not, you have benefited from white supremacy. And it’s going to take all of us to shut it down. And its especially going to take all of us who are believers to represent Christ in the matter. So in addition to having intellectual integrity when it comes to racism by educating yourself, as a believer, ask God to illuminate areas in your life where you might be influential. Racism…and every other ism for that matter…is linked directly to the prejudiced hearts of those who have the power to oppress (and those who benefit from that power). And it’s the heart that has to be healed, resurrected even, before systems can change. So I encourage you to ask God to heal your heart before embarking on the monumental task of dismantling racist systems. Otherwise, the system will simply speak to and reinforce what you already believe and you will do nothing worthwhile.
Afterward, consider where you live, how your schools are structured, the demographics of your church, how you vote. Be willing to have the hard conversations with people in your sphere of influence that may not be aware or care about justice for people of color. It will be frustrating, no doubt. Risky, definitely. But it’s so very necessary.
A FB friend shared that she was walking in a park right after the Charleston shooting and an elderly White man walked up to her and said, “On behalf of the white race, I’d like to apologize for what happened in Charleston. The white race is not like that.” There goes that apology. My FB friend was so stunned by the man’s words that she, in her nervousness most likely, chuckled. The guy left her slightly frustrated. If I had to guess, he probably said to himself, “See. I tried. I can’t talk about this.” Her post got me to thinking: Part of seeking justice and racial reconciliation has to also include helping people…particularly white people…acquire the language necessary to express how they are feeling. It’s not just that people don’t have the I.Q. to understand what’s happening, it’s that people don’t have the E.Q. (emotional intelligence) to process what’s happening and their role in it.
I hope this post helps the journey toward emotional intelligence on these issues.
2 Replies to “What White Christians and Churches Can Do About Racism”
This is very insightful. Are you familiar with Terry Kay? He is a writer. He is an older gentleman and is white. Anyway, I saw him speak recently, and he said, “I always thought ‘We Shall Overcome’ applied as much to white people as black.” Anyway, I have thought about that a lot lately. And “overcome” implies action as you said (i.e. voting thoughtfully, leveraging privilege, etc).
I suppose when I ask an African American what should be done, I’m looking at it a different way than you describe. I’m coming at it from seeing how American missionaries often make situations worse in other countries by importing their own solutions to problems that often make the problems even worse. So if I ask what should be done, it’s not a cop-out (at least I hope not), but just an attempt to understand the problem better.