So this past Friday I went out on a limb and decided to rejoin Facebook. I had pulled the plug four years ago when I felt like I was somehow closer to living more of my life online than living my actual life. (When you’re walking into work and wondering what people are posting while you’re supposed to be preparing for a busy day of interactions with real live people, its probably time to cut the cord.)
I jumped back on last week in an effort to feel more connected to our community here but within 24 hours I wondered if I had made a mistake. By Sunday, my entire feed was filled with news articles and blog posts about the events in Charlottesville and as someone who tries to regulate how much global news threatens her inner peace it was all a bit unsettling. Don’t get me wrong, I have STRONG opinions about whats happening in our country. I even posted a blurb from the President of Emory that I so appreciated on the topic. But sometimes I wonder if posting our deepest held opinions on a social media outlet ever gets us anywhere in the end. Maybe we’re just supposed to be fully present and compassionate in our daily interactions at work or in the grocery line and work our way towards unity that way.
Then I read this in a post by Tim Keller on the topic:
Twentieth-century fascist movements that made absolute values out of [“Blood and Soil”]—putting one race and one nation’s good above the good of all—also claimed to champion traditional family values and moral virtues over against the decadence of relativistic modern culture. Even though [fascists] were no friends of orthodox Christianity (see Adolf Hitler’s heretical “Positive Christianity” movement), they could and can still appeal to people within our own circles. Internet outreach from white nationalist organizations can radicalize people who are disaffected by moral decline in society. So it is absolutely crucial to speak up about the biblical teaching on racism—not just now, but routinely. We need to make those in our circles impervious to this toxic teaching.
Now to be clear, I don’t think I have the power to sway anyone’s deeply held beliefs on a topic any more than the next gal. But in reading this I felt a nudge that staying silent on the topic isn’t necessarily the answer either. We all become products of what we put our attention to and if anyone reads this post and feels nudged in any way towards compassion than I’ll count it all worth it. So here goes nothing.
I can remember a dozen or more instants off the top of my head when I realized the color of my skin bought me a type of privilege that I hadn’t earned. There was the time I overheard my black co-worker responding to an apartment listing on her lunch break and watched her slam the phone down after insisting angrily that of course she had a job or she wouldn’t be calling to apply in the first place. (No one’s ever asked me that in response to my questions about an apartment) There was the time a local donut shop wouldn’t allow a 45 year old black volunteer I was working with to pick up a box of donuts I had ordered in advance because they thought she was stealing them from the 22 year old white girl who had placed the order the day before (I’ve never been questioned incessantly when sent in to pick something up on behalf of another.) There was the time I looked at my “competition” for a job waiting to be called back for an interview that I had just finished and knew without a doubt that I would land it because my private school college professor had admonished me ahead of time to wear a skirt suit and no one told him that his short sleeved dress shirt didn’t go with his tie and dark sneakers. There are also the untold number of times that I introduced well meaning white volunteer groups to a group of leaders on a work site only to watch them shake hands with all the white construction team leads but ignore the black future homeowner I’d also introduced who was standing directly next to the team lead.
These instants all happened but the one that shocked me the most was the moment directly after the donut shenanigans. Jackie and I got back in the car after she had been told to find me and I immediately felt shame on Jackie’s behalf that she had to be a part of that entire scene. No middle aged woman wants to hunt down the 22 year old college kid who’s running an errand across the street to tell her that she’s not exactly what Dunkin Donuts had in mind. We silently grabbed our seats in the Habitat van with the four other African Americans that were in the car with us and started making our way to our destination when I broke the silence and apologized to Jackie for the whole ordeal. She shrugged it off with an “it happens” when one of the other ladies in the car shared a recent experience at a grocery store. She had handed a clerk a $20 bill to pay for her items and the clerk slid her change back to her on the surface of the cashiers desk. “It was like he didn’t even want to chance that he might touch me when he returned the change.” she told us. My internal jaw dropped and then followed quickly by my actual physical jaw when all five women in the van said in some form or fashion: “Oh, I HATE when they do that!”
I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that someone might not want to touch me because of the color of my skin. It hand’t occurred to me because it just simply had never happened. You pay for your food, grab your change from the cashiers hand and go. But that conversation with those five women changed me. From that moment forward I couldn’t help but see all the tiny gestures that all of us, myself included, made or didn’t make due to skin color. We defer to the white people in the room for their opinions more quickly than the black. We ask the white men in our church to consider eldership but overlook the black gentleman who’s faithfully served for years. I walk into a crowded room and say hello to the group of white friends seated at a table in front of me and completely miss acknowledging the black man who was so kind to OPEN THE DOOR FOR ME TO WALK THROUGH in the first place. (Emphasis mine because I’m 10 plus years into my journey of awareness on this topic and I did this approximately 6 weeks ago. I was kicking myself all the way home and at least aware enough to apologize for my rudeness and introduce myself).
Here’s the thing. Its all about intent, right? White supremacists are a whole other category of people with a severely twisted ethos. As the President of Emory University said in her email to students this week: “supremacist groups are not engaged in the difficult work of informed civil discourse… These groups seek to undermine the fabric of civil society through ignorance, fear, and violence.” This is truth and I think we need to denounce this activity with every cell in our bodies. My question is, what do we do when all we have left is to look at a facebook feed that’s filled with clamor and fear and a heart that’s wondering if that feed is total reality?
For me its looked a lot like acknowledgement, humility and connection. That day in that van I had to acknowledge truthfully that my experience has not ever been close to what those women have experienced. I have never once had to reconsider pursuing something because of my skin color and my friends in that car had. If the roles had been reversed and I was a 45 year old white woman told to go find the 22 year old black girl because I didn’t have the right skin color I would have promptly said “Excuuuse me” with all the sass I could muster and said “Either give me the donuts that my organization has paid for fair and square or you can do without our business and all of our friends business from now on. AND DAMMIT WE ALL LOVE A GOOD DONUT!” But for Jackie, the look on her face showed me that this was a common occurrence and she didn’t feel like making a scene. (which means we can also have a little more understanding next time we see someone making a scene too, right? Maybe they’ve just had it up to here with this crap. Can you blame them?)
After acknowledging the difference I found that a little humility went a long way. And hear me. I’m not saying white guilt. None of us tapped our mothers from the womb and said I’ll take white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes thank you very much. Feeling guilty doesn’t help anyone. But I do think it means we make amends when we notice that we screw up. I also think it might require an openness to the fact that success might look different than we thought.
A few years ago we installed a new pastor at our church in Galveston. He has an adopted African American daughter and I would assume has a similar stance on these topics that I do (though we’ve never discussed this). Within short time I noticed that the African Americans in our congregation were entering various leadership roles slowly but surely. One Sunday morning, Terry, a teddy bear of a black man with a booming speaking voice stepped up to the podium and read the scripture passage that the Pastor would be teaching from that morning. It could have just been me but I think I could have heard a pin drop. I closed my eyes and his voice sounded like an angel’s speaking truth about the God he and I both love. After he was done reading Terry closed the Bible and prayed the most eloquent and intimate prayer. With my eyes closed it felt like Terry and I and God in one room by ourselves, communicating.
I went up to him at the end of the service and thanked him for reading. He said he’d been nervous all morning because he’d not spoken in front of a crowd for a while. I told him that I hoped he would do it again because his reading and prayer blessed me profoundly. He thanked me and we went on to enjoy the rest of our Sunday.
Maybe this is what revolution actually looks like. Revolution after all is defined as “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” Well, the social order of our day appears to mean throwing our opinions on the moving target that is social media and saying RAGE and then going back into our churches and workplaces and letting all the white people continue to run the show. But what if the forcible overthrow of the dastardly tremors of systemic racism in our country starts with acknowledging the gifts and the very presence of the people of various races we encounter by saying with our words or our actions “You are stunning. I see you and you take my breath away.”
Is this not the Imago Dei in action? We can share articles and like posts until the cows come home but if it doesn’t work itself out in our day to day interactions then all of it is nonsense and all we walk away with are anxious and angry hearts. So perhaps today you’ll stop at a grocery store or walk through a park and meet someone who’s different than you are. I know I will. I’m praying in this moment that I can be present enough to acknowledge that person’s presence. If we’re exchanging money for goods purchased I am probably going to skim his or her hand before one of us takes our leave. I’ve done this since the day I left that van, a new person for the education I’d received from the other passengers in the car. I don’t know what its like to be overlooked or ignored because of the color of my skin but I do know what it feels like to be ignored for other reasons. It’s lonely. And I can stare at my phone and wonder what I can do to make a difference or I can leave my phone in the diaper bag and have a conversation with the other mom at the park who’s kids look different than mine. At some point along the way we’ll get past the awkwardness and realize that we’re a lot more similar than we are different. And the world will be changed a degree for the connection we’ve made.