The conversation rose innocently in the ebb and flow of middle-grade, playground chitchat.
“Who were you talking about?” asks *Jessica. (*All names changed for privacy reasons)
“Naomi and Josh,” Lisa replies. Then in a softer voice, “They’re—I mean they have dark skin.”
“Oh, yeah, them, they used to come to our church,” adds Liz.
“I don’t know many people with dark skin. Do you Miss Lichty?” asks Jenny.
Before I can reply, Sheila interrupts, “Yes, you do, you know Kelly.”
“Oh, yeah, duh, Kelly. She’s my cousin, but I don’t even think of her having dark skin. She’s my friend,” replies Jenny.
This has been my experience. While I know few people with dark skin, they are respected and loved. If anything, their cute afros and smooth round faces gain extra compliments, because they stand out. It’s much like stories I’ve heard or read about blonde missionary children having their hair fondled and blue eyes adored by the Haitian, Grenadian, or Thai locals their parents serve.
Am I naïve, in a world that beats a different pulse?
* * *
Dr. Robin DiAngelo explains that we white people are fragile. (Read it here.) We don’t appreciate having our position of privilege shown as what it is—a privilege that historically cost the lives and freedom of other people.[i] As a Canadian, it’s easy for me to think that anti-black racism is an American problem. Afterall, I live in a town that run-away slaves formed. Canada, the land of black-eyed-peas, also promised freedom to our brothers and sisters in darker skin.
I don’t bother to investigate how those brothers were treated when they came here.
I try not to think too much about the way Indigenous peoples and the Chinese were treated in the founding of my nation.
I hear the words “systemic racism” and picture people being systematically targeted with Ku Klux Klan kinds of attacks.
A little investigation reveals my ignorance. Systemic racism is the subconscious filter that causes the attorney, lawyer, or police officer to prejudge those of another race by the most negative stereo-types they’ve absorbed about that race. It is also the subconscious choice the employer—particularly one in a position of leadership—makes when he chooses the colour white over any other.
Because white is a colour.
DiAngelo explains, “we move through a wholly racialized world with an unracialized identity. . . white people can represent all of humanity, people of color can only represent their racial selves.”[ii] Startling isn’t it? That I look at the Asian, the African American, the Middle Eastern as being of another race, but often forget that I, too, am of a race myself.
* * *
In that brief incident, when robbed of my bag in a foreign country, I resented that the robber assumed I was a rich person, because I was a white person. I didn’t feel rich. I stuck out in the crowd and didn’t like the label my difference gave me.
Most of the time, I look relatively normal. While my dress as a Mennonite turns heads, I’ve never lost a job opportunity because of it.
The assumption is becoming international. English is the world language and the white way is the best way. We neglect to see the errors in white culture, because we forget it is just a culture, not the only way to live.
Even in mission work, we tend to try to whiten the culture while we convert people to Christianity, forgetting that if we really lived the culture of the Bible, Christians would wear the traditional veils Muslims still wear.
We sing it young. “Red, brown, yellow, black, and white—they are precious in His sight.” Do we live like we believe it?
Would the other races feel robbed if we as white people called ourselves People of Colour?
* * *
Emily Smucker at “The Girl in the Red Rubber Boots” feels its time we stop bestowing condescending love and start respecting those of races other than our own. I want to ask her what she means.[iii]
* * *
Growing up, I visited my cousins in their old white farmhouse. It was the sort that had an outdoor entrance to the cellar, steep back stairs, and hidey holes that just said, “Underground Railroad” all over them.
Maybe our game was a historically modified version of cops-and-robbers, but I think it’s significant that we called it “Slave” instead. We had a few assigned slave-catchers, a few good people to hide them, and then the slaves. All of us wanted to be slaves.
We wanted to be the oppressed that rose above his oppression, threw off the cloak of victimization, and found the glorious gift of freedom.
Looking back, I know I cheered for the runaways in Barbara Smucker’s Runaway to Freedom: A Story of the Underground Railroad, but I don’t think I pitied them.
* * *
It’s still one of my favourite eras to teach. I even dedicated an afternoon of instructional time to re-enacting it with my Grade 1 students. (Read it here.) While researching to teach, I learned that the beautiful soul music I grew up calling African American Spirituals had a hidden side. Not only did the music reinforce spiritual truths and give the slaves a rhythm by which to work, it also conveyed messages of freedom and the secret way to get there.
Harriet Tubman, the revered slave-stealer of the South, sung a hymn every time she sneaked into the slave quarters in the muggy black of night.
I tell my students, “Those slave owners thought that the slaves weren’t very smart, but all the time they were sneakily passing on the code to freedom—in broad daylight under the nose of the slave master.”
Still, I wonder. Do my students and I know how to respect the African American of today?
* * *
We live in such a funny balance. We white people were born into privilege, and it’s not our fault. Ryan Douglas Martin wrote a letter to his children. Here’s a piece I think we need to hear:
Recognizing your good fortune and privilege over someone else is not the same thing as apologizing for it.
And this recognizing begins by showing the hurt people what you are for rather than what you are against.
Your mom and Dad are for people of color who are hurting. We are for the police who lay their lives down every day for people they’ve never met.
We want you to draw circles rather than lines. We want you to be willing to name the hurt that others are going through. You will never understand everything from other people’s point of view.
But you can always listen.[iv]
* * *
Listen. Katrina Hoover Lee shares three pieces of advice from her African American neighbour Mary. The first one is to listen and allow people to share their stories and pain.[v] I’ll admit, listening to the narrative of many African Americans makes me want to roll my eyes and say, “Is it really that bad?”
Ouch! That’s not like Jesus at all.
Listening to people requires giving them our time. Time is money. Time conveys value and respect.
Mary’s second piece of advice is to hug someone of another colour.[vi] A hug conveys our love, our sympathy, our solidarity with them. I don’t do hugs very well.
Her final piece of advice is to go to the house of a person of another race and eat their food.[vii] As a white person, I feel comfortable dishing out generosity, but it takes a whole new kind of humility to allow another race to serve me.
* * *
Why did I write all this? Why collect a few voices when there are millions more? Why bother trying to discern what’s right and true in all of this?
I have other blog posts started. It would have been easy to ignore the riots and other such drama as someone else’s problem and write about fun things like adventures in nature.
Initially, I began this search as a response to an article (read it here) by Keeshon Washington. I first met Keeshon at a month of teacher’s training years ago. He gave me a hard time about saying, “Sorry” excessively, and I smirked at his fear of bears in the middle of farm country. He’s from the hood of big city, PA, and he’s lived through anti-black racism.
Even as a Christian school teacher at a mission school—clearly not a bad guy—he is still targeted by systemic racism. In his article, he wrote about many unsympathetic, Mennonite voices. All he was hearing from the pews was racism.[viii]
I wanted to rebel and say, “That’s not how we all are,” but the reality is that all the “nice” voices usually stay silent in confrontation. I wanted him to know that not all of us are racist. That many white Christians try to treat everyone with their God-given dignity.
But I still didn’t quite have the nerve until–
* * *
The joke put me over the edge.
While waiting for staff meeting to start this week, a co-teacher shared a joke that went something like this.
Teacher: What is the difference between ignorance and apathy.
Student: I don’t know, and I don’t care.
I chuckled superficially.
I knew then, that while I am ignorant of so much of this racism issue to choose to remain so would be apathetic. Ryan Douglas Martin’s said it well, “It’s OK to not know what you don’t know — but it’s not OK to stay that way.”[ix]
In this day, to choose ignorance is to say to our brothers and sisters of a different colour, “I don’t care.”
So, I listen to the voices, trying to hear the truth in all the racket, and ask the hard questions, trying to dispel in my heart and yours the ignorance that so quickly leads to apathy.
I cannot understand the racial prejudice in our world. I have not seen it in person, cannot fathom the attitude that creates it; but being told how prevalent it is, I say, Lord, search my heart. Do I subconsciously categorize people and change my expectations of them based on the colour of their skin?
In accepting so-called stereo-types like the following: Asians are often highly intelligent, Africans are passionate, and Anabaptists of European descent are traditionally stoic, am I acting racist? I know these are stereo-types, that it’s not true for every individual. I am an emotional Anabaptist of European descent after all.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”[x]
Lord, give me empathy for those who have been treated unjustly. Give me wisdom to stand against justice in Your Way of peace.
Give us all the ability to lay aside our prejudices and listen with our intellect and our heart. Give us wisdom to hear the truth beneath the voices.
The devil loves to sow misunderstanding and elevated emotionalism. He seeks to divide and conquer us. May all the hosts of heaven stand against him, and may every saint on earth pray.
Teach us to love You, to hold precious our neighbours “Red, brown, yellow, black, and white,” as You do.
In the name of Your Own Son, Who wore the olive-skin of a Middle-Eastern Jew to redeem both Jew and Gentile of every race and nation under earth, I ask You Father to move. A-men
[i] Dr. Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People about Racism,” Campus Compact, 20165, https://compact.org/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism/.
[iii] Emily Smucker, “Stop Trying to Fix the World with Condescending Love,” The Girl in the Red Rubber Boots, 2020, https://emilysmucker.com/2020/06/07/stop-trying-to-fix-the-world-with-condescending-love/.
[iv] Ryan Douglas Martin, “How We Are Talking To Our White Children About Race, Rioting, Police, And The Church,” Medium, 2020, https://medium.com/illumination/how-we-are-talking-to-our-white-children-about-race-rioting-police-and-the-church-76a8c6c08a4c.
[v] Katrina Hoover Lee, “I Asked Our Neighbor Mary If There Is a Quick Fix to End Racism. She Said No.,” Katrina Hoover Lee 500 Words, 2020, https://katrinahooverlee.com/2020/06/i-asked-our-neighbor-mary-if-there-is-a-quick-fix-to-end-racism-she-said-no/.
[viii] Keeshon Washington, “My Voice in All the Chaos: How Concerned Mennonites Can Help,” Urbanite Musings, 2020, https://urbanitemusingskw.wordpress.com/2020/06/06/my-voice-in-all-of-the-chaos-how-concerned-mennonites-can-help/.
[ix] Martin, “How We Are Talking To Our White Children About Race, Rioting, Police, And The Church.”