“And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:31
When my daughter was three years old, I found the perfect Christmas dress at a local store. Crimson velvet trimmed in white fur, I envisioned Maggie in the dress twirling around while singing “Jingle Bells”. As I ransacked the racks, I found every size but the one I needed. I clung to the dress as I looked around to see if the right size had been inadvertently misplaced. After looking down a few aisles, I despaired and put the wrong-size “perfect dress” on the nearest rack and walked away.
While I was checking out, the store owner approached me and demanded that I follow him and a clerk to the office. Within a few minutes, I was being interrogated in front of my daughter: they wanted to know where I had put the dress. Startled and confused, I tried to make sense of their questions, answering in a disjointed manner. They informed me that they had me on the surveillance camera holding the dress and now the dress was missing. My mind raced as I started to panic. What if they couldn’t find the dress? Would I be arrested for shoplifting? I immediately worried about my daughter, who was blissfully unaware of what was going on and humming a tune to herself. I told them I thought I remembered where I put the dress, so they followed me as I led them down the aisle. After grabbing the dress from the rack, they walked away without apology, leaving me feeling violated!
This incident left me feeling angry and frustrated! The owner of the store, even after a phone call, refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, with no words of apology or any explanation as to why he was so aggressive. I felt unheard and misunderstood! Although this was a traumatic incident in my life, nothing like that has ever happened to me again. It is a terrible feeling to be treated unjustly because you are absent-minded and simply put a dress in the wrong spot. Yet, I can’t even imagine how terrible it feels to be repeatedly treated unjustly based on the color of my skin.
These past few weeks have again exposed terrible injustices faced by African-Americans. We can sit back and debate about what happened, and whether or not these are isolated incidents. We can examine whether or not the protests and ensuing violence have fueled the situation, or have they come as a natural result of decades of frustration. We can discuss the responses of both political parties; are they defending, aiding, or helping create real solutions? Yet, none of this debating is moving us toward any resolution! It doesn’t examine the heart of the issue! More importantly, these debates deflect responsibility onto a larger group, and don’t move us, as Christians, to self-examine and grow as individuals!
For the past few weeks, I took a break from writing. I felt strongly that I should write a blog addressing racism; not because I have great insight, but because I have something to learn. I have spent this time researching by listening to different Christian podcasts dealing with the concept of systemic racism and how Christians should be responding. My very soul has been challenged, and I have come to some conclusions, which are by no means conclusive. In order for us, as a society, to begin effectively dealing with racism, we, as individuals, need to listen, learn, and grow.
First, let’s set the record straight. I am a white, Caucasian woman who grew up in a predominantly white community with little ethnic diversity. I attended a small, predominately white, private college. So, although I have worked in places where diversity was encouraged and celebrated, and I have a few friends that represent different ethnicities and cultures, the reality is that I have limited experience in this area. I cannot pretend to understand the experience of the average African-American or, for that matter, of anyone else of non-white ethnicity. I cannot fathom what it is like to live in a place where I am misjudged or mistreated because of my skin color. I have never had to explain to my children that the reason they were treated badly by an adult or by other children is because their skin isn’t white. I have no history of my ancestors being slaves and then being unjustly segregated after being told they were full, free members of society. I have never experienced the harshness of systemic racism, but I have benefited from being a part of the majority!
These facts from my background have shaped my view of the world and placed limits on my perspective. I can postulate all the opinions in the world about a typical African-American experience, but I haven’t walked in their shoes. As a result, I need to be open to hear stories of the daily prejudices they face, whether it be overt racism, or racial insensitivity. I need to listen with an open heart and mind. I need to let others grieve over the injustices and work through their pain. Not only do I need to listen, but I need to be willing to ask myself the hard questions. Have I ever been racially insensitive? Have I been as inclusive with others as I should be? How can I be a more sensitive friend and a more effective Christian?
The next step I can take to stop racism is to learn. Learning is an active process. I need to read materials by authors who are different from me. This will help me to understand, not only the challenges they face, but also the cultural histories that have shaped their lives. I need to actively seek the other perspective, even if it is not from a Christian world point of view. Trevin Wax, in his book “This is Our Time”, says, “…add to your news intake people who have vastly different worldviews. Read articles and listen to podcasts from people with whom you differ, not just so you can critique and counter them, but to hear where they are coming from.” He goes on to say that this will help you learn empathy. Empathy will enable you reach across the divide and “engage in good conversations”, showing them true Christianity!
Finally, I need to grow. For too many years, I have openly declared that I am not a racist and then shut down conversations about racism without really listening and learning. I exposed my children to some different cultures, but should have been more intentional in my approach. I denied the existence of white privilege without being willing to discover what that really meant, how I contributed to it, or even how I benefitted from it. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery need to impact me and force me to change as an individual! I need to search myself, examine my heart in light of scripture and repent! I need to do my part in creating an environment in my local church and in my community where everyone feels welcomed. I cannot remain silent when I see injustice!
This quote, in relation to the events of the last few weeks, has impacted me: “No single drop of water thinks it is responsible for the flood.” Initially, I saw the quote from a negative perspective: how have I contribute to racism? Yet, after listening to other Christians having tough discussions, I felt hope rising in me. I started thinking about the gospel and how it can change lives. After all, in Mark 12:31, Jesus declares that the second greatest commandment is this, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” If I can be one drop, a drop that demonstrates God’s love to all, regardless of ethnicity, I can be a part of a flood that impacts and changes our world!