The current events around the murder of George Floyd have brought a lot of attention to racism in America and I want to share my story of how I became aware of my own whiteness and the ingrained racism that comes with it.
As a white person, I had the luxury of growing up without ever thinking about my race. This is one of the greatest privileges of being “white” – never having to feel like an outsider in my own country, never experiencing an act of racism or being called a racial epithet, never being in a situation where my race was not represented. In fact, I lived in a totally white world and my concept of race and racism was always in the context of other people.
My journey to racial awareness began in 2017 when I read Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King Jr., which was the first time I really confronted the issue of racism and began asking questions. Shortly after reading the book, I watched an episode of Netflix’s docuseries “Explained” entitled “The Racial Wealth Gap.”This sixteen-minute show was the first time I really saw how unfair our current system is and I could not believe it. I began talking to all my white friends and family about race. I was amped up. I could not believe that no one had told me how unfair our system was. No one told me that there really was legitimate injustice embedded in our policies that has caused the wealth gap and ghettos and mass incarcerations and other forms of oppression that still exist today. I immediately began telling everyone that we had to do something. My understanding of the problem was very limited at the time, but I told my white friends and family that we [being all “white” people] had to correct this injustice by #1) apologizing to the black community for allowing this to continue and #2) providing reparations in the form of money or housing or land or whatever is necessary to right these wrongs.
Let me tell you, I was met with such a strong and powerful resistance from my white community. I have had many white people – God-fearing, Bible-believing, good white people – sit on my couch and tell me that there is no such thing as systemic racism or white privilege. That we don’t owe people of color anything. That slavery was unjust, but it is in the past and we don’t have to pay for the sins of our ancestors. That giving people handouts just makes them lazy and not want to work for anything. That handouts are what has caused the problems for poor communities to begin with. That people claim to be oppressed because of their race, when they are really just wanting special treatment. That reverse racism is the real evil in the world.
In my opinion, these statements are just excuses that we [white people] make to protect our wealth and interests. I believe that if white Americans took responsibility for the injustices that continue to oppress the black community, we would have to make sacrifices in order to right these wrongs – sacrifices that we, as of yet, are unwilling to make. If there is anything that I know about America [and maybe all of humanity], it is that we base our social, financial, and political decisions on protecting our wealth. If the love of money is the root of all evil, then America has to be the most evil place on this planet.
There are so many white lies [and by “white lies” I’m talking about lies that white people tell themselves] that are purely for the purpose of justifying our selfishness. For example, white people love to tell themselves that they are not wealthy, despite being in the top 1% of the wealthiest people on the planet. White people love to tell themselves that they have worked hard for what they have and are entitled to it because of their efforts, completely ignoring the 400 years of slave labor they received which created their wealth in the first place. White people love to tell themselves that if other people worked as hard as they do, then they would also have plenty, despite the overwhelming evidence that all of our current systems work to assist white people and hinder people of color. But the most heinous of all the white lies is that racism doesn’t exist and the white community is not responsible for the suffering of the black community, when our success is directly related to their oppression.
These are the lies that I heard from the white people I discussed race with. And it simultaneously broke my heart and pissed me off. I can only imagine how infuriating it is to be a person of color in this country where racist ideas are so deeply ingrained that the majority don’t even believe that they exist. That is when I discovered that racism runs much, much deeper than just mean-spirited acts of racism or overt racist jokes and slurs. Racism is a much more subtle, insidious disease that affects even the most well-meaning white person.
Turns out, before I could even deal with what racism means for people of color, I had to confront my own whiteness and discover what racism means for me.
Growing Up White
I have started my own racial healing, by way of the book, The Racial Healing Workbook by Anneliese A. Singh. The first exercise in the book asked me to think about my own experiences of “race” and “racism.” It took me a while to even think of anything, but over several days, memories began coming out of nowhere to remind me that I was not isolated from the affects of race and racism. I am sharing these memories with you now in the hopes that you will see that even good, Christian white folks have experiences that shape their understanding of race and often times, though not mean-spirited, these experiences perpetuate our culture of racial prejudice rather than putting an end to it.
My first memory of recognizing a different race was when I was a little kid I saw a picture of myself as a baby being held by a black man. I was told that I loved this man, which surprised everyone. They had expected me to be afraid of him because he was “so black.”
Later, as a kid, one of my favorite movies was the Disney film, Polly, which [I’m horrified to admit] we always called “Black Pollyanna.” I didn’t even know the real name of the movie until I was an adult trying to look it up so I could revisit some of my favorite songs from the film.
In seventh grade, my private school performed the play, Helen Keller, and because there was only one black student in the school [a problem in and of itself], I was cast as one of the “servants” in the show and they literally painted my face black.
In my Christian High School and my Bible College, there were only one or two black students and everyone talked about them being the “token black kids” who were always called on for the school photo shoots to give the impression of a multi-racial campus life in the school brochure.
When I was growing up in Flint, Michigan, my church was all white, except for one family who attended for a short time. My father, the pastor of our church, told me how he had to ask a greeter in the church to stop wearing a confederate flag pin because it was offensive to this black family. What I don’t remember was him using that opportunity to explain to me all of the hatred and oppression represented by that one symbol. Then, just three years ago when I moved into my current home, I complained to my mother that my neighbor proudly hung a confederate flag. My mother defended him saying “Maybe his grandfather fought for the confederacy,” as if that makes it ok. [Side note: my neighbor’s flag has since been taken down.]
My grandfather, the wonderful man that he was, was apparently “uncomfortable with having a black pastor,” which is a nice way of saying that he was racist. But this was excused because he was living in Flint during the time of the race wars.
I have Native American heritage on my mother’s side of the family, but no one knows who or when or how. It’s as if this part of our family history has been completely expunged, my grandmother preferring to be proud of her Irish ancestry. I find it ironic that the most American part of my heritage is the part that no one wants to talk about.
I don’t share this to give the impression that my family or schools were “racist,” because they were not. I could give you a list of a million memories to prove that they were kind, well-meaning people who taught me to love my neighbor and give generously and not judge people based on outward appearances and all of those important lessons about inclusion. However, whether it was unintentional or not, these experiences of race and racism definitely affected my worldview.
Besides my family stories, I also had to admit that I have made many racist assumptions and remarks due to my own ignorance. I have asked people “where are you from?”, minimized black experiences by doubting their truthfulness, been unnecessarily fearful around people of color, made assumptions about a neighborhood based on the race of its inhabitants, and even claimed that people of color use “the race card.” There was a time when I was against affirmative action and reparations and didn’t believe that black kids my age had it any worse than I did.
Look, I am ashamed of all of this. I feel really badly even writing it. But this is the truth of the subtle and insidious way that racism seeps into our culture. It’s small things, like an off-handed comment about babies being afraid of black men. Or growing up surrounded by all white people so that other races are always viewed as different. Or not feeling safe in a community of colored people.
As I’ve thought over these experiences, I can clearly see how my whiteness has informed my view of the world and impacted my beliefs about other races – whether I like it or not.
And I do not like it. Not one bit. I have gone through the first three stages of grief regarding my own participation in this racially unjust society. I spent the first thirty years of my life denying that racism existed. Then, when I discovered that it did exist, I was really angry about it. Then when I realized that I am a contributing part of it, I was overwhelmed by shame and grief. Now I am on way toward accepting my whiteness so that I can take the appropriate action against racism.
From Grief to Action
Thus far on this journey, I’ve been spending my time trying to learn and understand and become racially aware because these are things that I wasn’t taught. I mean, to me, Christopher Columbus was a hero, and Thanksgiving was when the pilgrims and Native Americans sat down for a happy meal together. I have had to literally go back and relearn history through a more inclusive lens. But despite all of my reading and listening and watching, I’ve only been passively anti-racist. The more I learned about the problem, the more I felt overwhelmed by how massive it is, how insignificant my contribution would be, and how isolated I felt in my own white community.
In March, I read Waking Up White by Debby Irving, which was the first time I had heard a white person confirm that systemic racism and white privilege exist. I felt such a deep appreciation to Debby Irving for helping me to not feel so alone. Then I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and I felt terrible for even being white. Then I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and my heart broke for all of the unspeakable crimes against black people throughout our country’s history. Then I read about the wrongly convicted “Central Park Five” and I was livid that this type of injustice is possible during my lifetime.
And then I heard about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and I was so upset that I couldn’t sleep that night. I was enraged and devastated and so frustrated that something as heinous as this crime could happen in my country let alone go unpunished for so long.
And then, I was sitting on my brother-in-law’s couch on the evening of May 26th, when Brett said to me, “You’re going to want to see this.” He sent me the video of George Floyd’s murder.
In that moment, I – like so many other people in this country – had finally had enough. I had to put my foot down. I could not be passive about this war on colored bodies any longer.
Since George Floyd’s murder, I have immersed myself in the voices and stories of people of color. I have soaked in the music, the podcasts, the posts, the articles, the movies, the documentaries pretty much non-stop. I went to my city’s protest, which was one of the most powerful and inspiring things that I have ever experienced. I watched Oprah’s two-part special called “Where Do We Go From Here?” I watched the movie Selma and the Netflix mini-series, “When They See Us” and the documentary 13th. I have been so upset that I sat down at my computer and typed away long into the night. I have had passionate discussions with family members and friends. I have been overwhelmed by sadness. I have been uncomfortable and upset about every new heartbreaking injustice that I have learned about.
I have been sitting in this grief for several weeks now. But all this grieving – though it has an important place in healing – isn’t changing anything.
Now it’s time to do something.
Tomorrow I am going to talk about how I have chosen to support the important work of racial equality and justice – and how you can too.