In June 2015, members of our church joined with Christians all over the world to lament the murders of nine precious brothers and sisters in Charleston, South Carolina. We prayed together:
We stand with our sisters
We stand with our brothers
We stand with our families
We stand to bear their burdens in Jesus’ name
And this past week, we dedicated time to lament the ridiculous actions of white “supremacists” (a term I hate, since there is no such thing as the supremacy of any race) in Charlottesville, Virginia. Again we prayed, again we vowed to stand with our brothers and sisters.
In the wake of such tragedies, it’s easy for me to get on my high horse and rage against the evil of racism, to decry the lack of justice in the world, to insist that something be done.
But as I’ve thought deeply about the events of these days, I realize that for the most part, any raging I would do is really a cover for the real something that still needs to happen in my own heart.
I came by my racism honestly.
I was born in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1960’s. Memphis was well on the way to being racially integrated before I arrived on the scene, so I didn’t know that Candace, my dark-skinned friend in Miss Haywood’s first grade class, would not have been allowed in my classroom just a few years earlier. I didn’t know that Mrs. Bell wouldn’t have been allowed to be my second-grade teacher. I didn’t know about the April 1968 shooting at the Lorraine Motel. I knew that the Safety Patrol at my school conducted riot drills along with fire drills, but I didn’t know why.
My parents did know all about those issues, and when the authorities in Memphis decided to further enact school integration by busing students, they joined thousands of others in what’s now called “white flight.” We moved out to a neighboring county, well away from the jurisdiction of the Memphis City Schools.
Because, of course, my parents were law-abiding citizens. Had we stayed in Memphis, they would have complied with the law. Laws may change a person’s behavior, and sometimes that’s an important and necessary step. But they don’t change a person’s heart.
At heart, we were racists. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were. So were most of our friends and neighbors.
Don’t get me wrong. I was blessed that my folks were good people. My family was Christian, and at church we sang about how people of all races were precious in God’s sight. I think we believed that, at least in theory. So far as I know, my parents treated all people well, regardless of race. I’m grateful for that.
What I’ve come to realize, though, is that no matter how seemingly mild a form of racism may be, it’s dangerous. Our kind of racism wasn’t overt, but it was very much part of our idea of reality. The thought of one race being superior to others was one of our underlying assumptions, whether we realized it or not.
Here’s the thing about underlying assumptions: once a false notion is accepted as truth, it changes the way we think. It alters the way we perceive what’s happening around us. Almost as though we were wearing glasses of the wrong prescription, we see distorted images–but we don’t realize that we’re not seeing clearly. Those distorted images appear to support what we assume to be true, and our false notions are reinforced.
At least that’s the way it was for me. I’ve had my racism challenged and partially defeated by knowing many wonderful, talented, brilliant people of races different from my own. I thank God for this.