There are plenty of nuances to the situation surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. As Christians, regardless of where we stand on the Grand Jury’s verdict or our distaste for senseless rioting, I believe we are called to listen and show love to our brothers and sisters in the African American community. Their collective hurt is not just about one tragic death, though it is painful, too. It is about the context of history– long ago and recent, and racial issues that are still very real and present to those who have to live with them, and remind them of the many who have died because of them. Below, I don’t write about the specific issues relating to Ferguson, but about the racial implications I think this situation raises to me as a white Christian.
Though I’ve recently returned home to Kentucky, I spent the last year and a half in Atlanta. One of the highlights of this time was coaching a soccer team for 8-13 year olds at a local Boys and Girls club.
These kids are amazing. They taught me so much over the three seasons I coached them. They are also a blast to hang out with. All the kids on my team were also all black or biracial. I’m white. So were my fellow coaches. We didn’t plan for it to be that way; it’s just how it worked out.
One bright Saturday morning this fall, one of the parents was unable to drive and I was transporting several of the kids to a game. Somehow, while we were driving, the two youngest athletes got into a conversation about race.
“If I was president,” one of them said. “I would make it so all the black people are on top and all the white people are our slaves.”
“Yeah,” the other agreed, in complete seriousness. “They should be our slaves because they made us be their slaves.”
The older kids hushed them before the conversation went much further. I was speechless. I think I eventually gave them a coach-speech, stating that because slavery is wrong, no one should be enslaved. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked by 3rd grade rhetoric stemming from 3rd grade logic. But the mixture of thoughts and emotions I had at this moment was overwhelming. I was surprised they were openly saying these things with me in the car. I was horrified that racial tensions in this country and the repercussions of past injustice still go so deep that these kids I cared so much about were affected enough to voice such thoughts. I was sad that they felt that way about an entire group of people I belonged to when I was so focused on being a good friend. coach, and role model to them. I was concerned about where this opinion had originated, that maybe they had heard it somewhere before. I was sickened that while I could only imagine the “what ifs” of such a scenario, these kids had my “scenario” etched into the fabric of their own history. And I felt a simultaneous weight of both guilt and frustration; guilt that I am part of an oppressive majority that did truly horrible things and pretty much got away with it, and frustration that it appears I am somehow still responsible for acts of oppression I never committed.
That’s a lot to come from a short conversation between two 9 year old kids. And I think it shows how far the problem of racial tension still goes.
The truth is, I’m not responsible for slavery or Jim Crow or Mike Brown. But I am white, and even though I’m not responsible for that either, I am obligated to respond to it. White privilege isn’t just about middle- and upper-class white privilege. It’s about a system. It’s about basic treatment and basic opportunity. It’s about being the same shade as the group in power. And, as yet another white superhero says, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
I don’t know that I should feel guilty for American slavery. That would be a passive guilt, a futile response. I do know that I should feel shame when I think of it, and anger and passion against it when I see it in any form in the world today. And I have learned that I should not be blind to the consequences of it in the world around me, in the lives of my black friends, in the systems that perpetuate white privilege, in the rhetoric of those who just don’t get it.
No, I am not guilty of racial oppression. But I confess I am guilty of not using my power– my privilege– as a force to take up responsibility for seeing that racial oppression does not continue, that it is stricken from American culture and from the face of the earth.
I am guilty of remaining quiet when people I care deeply about say or do racist things– subtly or not-so-subtly.
I am guilty of being insensitive to the concerns of the black community and not bothering to look at situations from perspectives other than my own.
I am guilty of saying some racist things when I was younger, mostly out of ignorance, but sometimes out of plain sinfulness.
I am guilty of profiling people based on the color of their skin, of stereotyping and categorizing people in my mind.
No, I am not guilty of slavery, but I am still guilty because I have been a slave to sin. Thankfully, God not only forgives the mistakes of our forefathers, but He forgives our mistakes, too.
Here’s another thing about living in Atlanta and being a part of a multi-ethnic church that has helped shape my view on race: I can empathize better than ever before. When the black community bewails the killing of a young black man because they see their own sons or brothers or friends in him, I can see my own friends and brothers in Christ and the older versions of my soccer kids in him. When they rally against a system that makes them feel victimized and hopeless, I can see how the system is hurting people I love.
I had black friends before I moved to Atlanta, but, in most cases, not to the depth of relationship or breadth of scale I have now. Suddenly, anyone saying or doing something racist is exhibiting racism towards many people I care deeply about. So when someone I care deeply about verbally perpetuates oppression toward someone else I care deeply about, it becomes all the more difficult not to say something about it.
Sometimes people will give you flack for “playing the black friend card,” but having black friends– especially close friends– does enable you to sympathize with the black community on a much more personal level. And being part of a primarily black community in some way will push that compassion and understanding even further. Justice does not have to be personal for you to stand up for it, but you are so much more likely to fight for justice if it is personal. I don’t think you should go out looking for black friends merely to expand your ability to empathize, but I do think its imperative for white Christians to be eager for opportunities to interact with the racial diversity within the body of Christ.
If all this doesn’t seem like a big deal, think about it like this. Because people, especially Christians, looked out for themselves instead of standing up for what was right, slavery became the status quo in our country. It took over 200 years to dismantle it as an institution and we are undeniably still reeling from its consequences today. We are not responsible for what happened then, but we are responsible for what happens now. Every generation and every individual has a choice with the time they’re given. Will they run from the responsibility of their place in history, or will they take up the burden, set it at the feet of Jesus, say, “Lord, what do I do with this?,” and then do what he says?