I was racist.
It would have been almost impossible to have not been in the culture in which I was raised. I did not grow up in the American South before the 1960s; I grew up in the Upper Midwest in the 1980s and 1990s. Civil rights legislation had existed and been enforced for over 15 years. I lived in a diverse urban area with (in principle) integrated schools; throughout elementary, middle, and high school I was able to count some people of color as fellow classmates, even fellow compatriots, and felt proud of that.
And yet there remained expectations and ideas, stated and unstated. We thought little of telling jokes playing on racist themes. We presumed our lives and our experiences were normative. When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of all charges, the response in our school fell upon racial lines; we white people could not understand how justice was not done in the case. I chafed at the possibility that I would not be able to get into certain colleges on account of affirmative action programs. Even though no one said anything explicitly, I imbibed the idea that I should date within a given parameter of race that did not include black women. I was taught the Western canon of literature and the Western view of history. “We” had reached a great pinnacle of civilization, and “we” were the descendants of Western Europe. The less fortunate parts of Western history, particularly as it related to their engagement with the rest of the world, were not entirely dismissed but framed in terms of how Westerners have better learned to live according to their ideals and aspirations, and indeed centering Western ideals and aspirations as universal and thus to be normative.
And yet, in the midst of all of this, I did not think I was racist. If you had called me racist, I would have strongly protested! I had Black, Latino, and Asian classmates I respected and appreciated. When I sat in my grandmother’s living room and heard her and her neighbors complain how the neighborhood was going downhill because “the blacks were moving in,” I cringed. My generation represented America’s promise, and I was proud of having grown up in an environment in which not everyone looked like me and we were able to interact as equals.
Or so I thought.
I lived for many years without feeling any need to question any of my assumptions or perspectives on life. And then we adopted our youngest child. One of our good friends, as part of her congratulatory note and present, told us that we would never look at things the same way.
She was already correct.
Within days of leaving the hospital I noted how many black women wanted to come and see our child and love on her. When we had our older children we had been out and about with them as well in integrated spaces, but black women had not come up to see the children and love on them. I deduced it was not because they did not think the other children were any less valuable or would not have wanted to love on them. I recognized that they had not done so because they did not know how well we would have received it. They did not know if we were safe.
I had never had to wonder if anyone else was “safe” in that regard. The question never had to come up in my mind.
Soon after we drove through rural areas of the South at night, and I realized that it might not go well if I had to stop and certain people saw the constitution of my family in the car. I had never before had to wonder such a thing in any circumstance.
I was beginning to have the experience of being seen as “the other.” The stares; the whispers; the blatant signs of disapproval (and not just from members of only one race): all testified to a very new and humbling experience of life in America and even life among the people of God.
I was compelled to re-assess everything I had ever been taught about history in the United States of America. The story does not look nearly as optimistic and dynamic when one considers it from the perspective of people who did not look like me. In that story, the people who look like me prove much more oppressive and savage. Even if some of the ideas and values of America were powerful in their working, the treatment of other people left much to be desired. So much of it was neglected and not dwelt upon for any significant amount of time.
I searched out different perspectives. I read various books. I had the opportunity to speak to fellow Christians who did not look like me and they proved willing to share their experiences. I critically assessed my biases and inclinations.
And that’s how I perceived that I was racist. It had never been my intention; and yet it was part of the framework which I had received from those before me. It was a category distinction I was trained to make, to see “them” as different from “me”/”us.” The bias was implicit, not explicit; the attitudes more under the surface than explicitly stated. And yet the attitude would be perfectly obvious for those who had eyes to see it; to that end I had not been “safe.” I had centered myself and my fears and anxieties and proved deaf to the pain and disadvantages of others.
I am sorry for my racism. I lament it deeply. I acknowledge the many privileges I have received: part of what has been the “majority” American culture; two loving parents; a middle class lifestyle; post-secondary education; a deep support system among friends and the people of God. In truth, I was born on second base; I did not hit a double. Many others, through no fault of their own, were comparatively born at bat down 0-2. I cannot undo my birth or many of the privileges I have obtained, but I can seek to advocate for and empower those who have not enjoyed the many benefits I have received; such is the responsibility enjoined upon all who have received blessings (Luke 12:48).
But have I ceased being racist? I have learned that racism does not work that way. Racism and the legacy of white supremacy in America work like lasciviousness, covetousness, deceit, and many other transgressions: they remain temptations and must be actively resisted. It will always be tempting to return to those comfortable categories from the past, especially in moments of deep anxiety and fear.
To my friends who are people of color: I am sorry for my racism. I am sorry for all the times I centered myself and proved blind and deaf to your challenges and pain. I am sorry for not valuing and honoring you as I should have. Please forgive me for the bias I manifested. I strive to be better and do better. I want to be safe for you and to support and encourage you in any way I can.
To my white friends: I understand these matters are difficult. We were taught racism and white supremacy looked a certain way, involving explicit acts of prejudice and hostility toward people who do not look like us. But that was only one level of racism and white supremacy; it goes deeper than that. It is hard for us to understand because we do not experience the difficulties which come on account of the legacy of white supremacy in America. There is a systemic component: it is part of the framework which we are given as part of who we are as Americans. The system works for us, and that is why we do not notice how it does not work as well for others as it does for us.
As long as we look at racism and the legacy of white supremacy as things which are so shameful that they should not be mentioned, and thus something in which we cannot imagine ourselves participating, we will remain blind to the suffering and pain of others and deaf to their cries. We ought to strive to have the mind of Christ regarding these things, to be swifter to hear than to speak, and to give consideration for the perspectives and experiences of others before we insert and introduce our own (cf. Romans 15:2-3, Philippians 2:1-4, James 1:18). We must prove open to a deeper prevalence of racism and white supremacy than we might have originally imagined, and to be willing to see it in ourselves, as painful and uncomfortable as that might prove.
We cannot center our own anxieties and fears and truly love and care for those among us who do not look like us. To us these matters might seem “political”; but for others, they are matters of life and death. The Scriptures have something to say about racism and the legacy of white supremacy, just like they have things to say about abortion, pornography, homosexual practices, and the like. For those who are more politically conservative there is a tendency to be contrarian regarding any issue which political liberals seek to uphold in order to press a political advantage; even if it is more academic for you, it is not academic for others, and a contrarian posture might well go beyond what is appropriate and lead a person into transgressing the will of God in calling evil what God has commended as good, and trying to justify something which God has condemned as evil. In these issues we do not turn out to be the good ones or the heroes. We are indicted in the ugliness of these issues. But until we confess and lament them we will not be able to heal or glorify the God who has not proven blind and deaf to the pain, suffering, and cries of people of color.
I understand many other objections. Yes, things are better than they were before; but like the layers of an onion, we had to undergo what happened in the past to be able to now address this new layer. Yes, God holds those guilty of sin accountable, and does not hold accountable those who have not committed the sin; but we must be careful before we so quickly assume that we have entirely cast off the sins of our fathers. We remain the children of our fathers, and we have obtained a patrimony and legacy from them. Much of that patrimony and legacy is healthy, good, and worthy of praise; but part of it is white supremacy, and we must disavow it, lament it, and root it out of our lives. Yes, there are many who would make much of this and make a totalizing philosophy out of it; but every philosophy is totalizing and we must be skeptical of all of them according to Colossians 2:8-10, and do well to find what is commendable in Christ and reject what is contrary to the ways of Christ. Recognizing the existence of implicit bias and systemic and structural aspects of sin is very consistent with what God has made known about the world: the deceitfulness of sin, the corruption of humanity, the work of the powers and principalities (Romans 5:12-21, 8:17-23, Ephesians 6:12, Hebrews 3:13).
I was racist. I still struggle with racism. If you also are an American in the early 21st century, you probably struggle with the same legacy of white supremacy whether you wish to recognize it or not. May we all recognize the legacy of white supremacy in the United States of America, confess where we have proven complicit in it, lament it, and seek to love and care for everyone in the name of the Lord Jesus, and embody Jesus to a lost and dying world!
Ethan R. Longhenry