Acknowledging White Fragility

You are not responsible for the programming you received as a child. However, as an adult, you are 100% responsible for fixing it.

Ken Keyes Jr.

Last week, I shared a meme on Facebook with a drawing of a young black woman and a message similar to this quote: “You are not responsible for the programming you received as a child. However, as an adult, you are responsible for fixing it.” I went back to read the meme and it was gone. The image had either been deleted by the person who originally posted it or perhaps they decided to make it non-public. I can’t help but wonder if there was too much backlash from white people.

I have been doing some soul searching since the recent racial protests, thinking about the ways we talk about racism, the ways whites continue to deny it, and about the price of silence.

Today, many whites are recognizing that racism isn’t limited to individual acts of discrimination based on race. In her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo described racism as a social construction, a system of advantage based on race, a system that privileges whites. She said that racism results when cultural prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control.

When I shared the meme, one of my sisters said she is grateful we weren’t programmed the wrong way as kids. I can only share my perspective and it is that I received mixed messages about race. We grew up in small towns with no blacks. At home, we were taught that racism is wrong and that we shouldn’t say the ‘n’ word but we obviously heard it somewhere. At church, we were taught that children of all colors are precious in Jesus’s sight. I remember only one lesson at school about prejudice and stereotyping. Although I was taught that racism is wrong, my impressions of blacks were based almost entirely on what I saw on TV and those programs often promoted stereotypes.

When I entered the real world as a young adult, I was uncomfortable and unsure of myself around the few blacks I encountered. I was on my guard around black men because the media too often portrayed them as threatening and aggressive. I worried that the blacks I met would not like me because I am white.

As DiAngelo wrote, segregation makes it hard for whites to see racism and easy for whites to deny that it exists. Whites have a very simplistic understanding of racial issues. Many of us are just plain ignorant about the inequality and injustices experienced by blacks. But we can’t understand racism if we don’t pay attention to group behavior and how it impacts us as individuals.

Unlike blacks, whites are not taught that our race matters. We don’t have to think about our race. Where ever we go, we are in the majority. White is seen as the standard or social norm. We automatically get the benefits of belonging. We automatically get the benefit of the doubt. We don’t have to worry that we won’t get a job because of our race or that people will assume we are up to no good because we are white. We are welcomed in every neighborhood. When a white person is admitted to a prestigious school or holds a prestigious position, no one is surprised.

At a young age, we are taught that it is better to be in one group than in another – male versus female, young versus old, straight versus gay. White children are taught not to mention a person’s race. With a shush from our moms, we learn to pretend that we don’t notice a person’s race just as we are taught to pretend we don’t notice a physical deformity. The subtle message is that there is something undesirable about being black.

I’ve always thought of “white supremacy” as the beliefs of the fringe “alt-right” members of society. But white supremacy is “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.” It is an erroneous but pervasive belief in our culture. The concept of white supremacy was created to justify unequal treatment.

White Fragility put a name to the defensiveness that I have been seeing in fellow whites. I see it in the response, all lives matter. I saw it when a childhood friend posted a picture of Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup (after Quaker Oats said they would change the name), saying she had the makings of a good breakfast. I saw it when another classmate shared a meme that said, among other things, “I will not apologize for being Caucasian.”

Those of us who were taught that racism is wrong may think that if someone calls you out for your prejudice, they are saying you are a bad person. We are all prejudiced and need to be reminded that we should avoid making generalizations about groups of people.

When Obama was the president, I spoke to my mother on the phone one day. She said that Obama was trying to force the affordable care act into law because that’s what “they” do. I told her, that’s not true. My mom wasn’t a bad person. She taught me that racism is wrong. She was one of the most accepting people I’ve ever known. After she and my father divorced, she dated men of other races. Yet even she needed to be challenged for repeating a racist message that she likely heard on TV.

In DiAngelo’s experiences talking to white people about racism, she sees two types of claims that whites make to exempt themselves from accusations of racism. One type of claim is color blindness. People who claim to be blind to color say things like, I was taught to treat everyone the same or I don’t care what color you are or Focusing on race is what divides us. DiAngelo calls the second kind of claims color-celebrate claims. I have people of color in my family. I work in a diverse environment or I live in a diverse neighborhood. I adopted a child from China.

I think that DiAngelo is a bit harsh on whites who honestly want to learn how to be anti-racist. Statements like the ones above are not equivalent to claiming to be exempt from prejudice nor are they necessarily meant to cut off discussions of race.

Why are whites so defensive about racism? Is it because we don’t want anyone to think we’re a bad person or is it because the system that privileges whites is too comfortable? Whatever the reason, it is hard for white people to talk about racial issues. But there are social consequences to being silent. When someone tells a racist joke or makes generalizations about people of color, silence communicates acceptance. Silence is not the way to stand up for what is right and it is not the way to resist the perpetuation of racial stereotypes and resulting discrimination.

I like to think of myself as open-minded and anti-racist. But I know I still carry around old biases I may not even be aware of having. I have to continually check my thoughts.

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

Lord, we were all created in Your image. We are all precious in Your sight. Search my heart and reveal any thoughts that are not pleasing to You. Give me the humility to face the discomfort of my own racial prejudices. Transform my heart. Give me the courage to speak out for racial justice. Amen.

A heart for justice is not enough

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

I have a heart for justice. I do not like to see anyone treated unfairly. I hate it when people get away with doing something wrong. I despise racism and bigotry. I confess that I don’t know what I can do about it. In a recent sermon about Moses, my pastor said that Moses had a heart for justice but it was not enough.

I really never thought about what it was like for Moses as a Hebrew boy growing up in an Egyptian household. He would have realized that he was different from his adoptive family. As a child he likely witnessed the oppression and mistreatment of his people by the people of Egypt. When he saw injustice as an adult, he took justice in his own hands.

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”

The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.”

Exodus 2:11-14

Moses was obviously angry when he saw one of his own people being abused by an Egyptian. When you have a heart for justice, injustice makes you angry. You want to retaliate. You want revenge. You may get so fired up, that you act impetuously, like Moses did, and do something you will regret later. When Moses took justice into his own hands, there were consequences. Another Hebrew witnessed him killing the Egyptian. When Pharaoh heard about it, he tried to kill Moses.

Years before God spoke to him from the burning bush, Moses had a heart for justice but it wasn’t enough. He needed to be shaped into the kind of person that God can use for His redeeming work. Moses fled to Midian and spent the next forty years living the humble life of a shepherd.

Moses spent forty years thinking he was somebody; then he spent forty years on the backside of the desert realizing he was nobody; finally, he spent the last forty years of his life leaning what God can do with a nobody!

Dwight L. Moody

As my pastor said, a heart for justice combined with humility before God prepares us to take part in God’s redeeming plan. When we are humbled, we realize we don’t have all the answers. When we humble ourselves before God, we are open to his guidance and direction.

If we want to be effective advocates for justice, we must listen to others and not just to the people who echo our own thoughts. We must exercise self-control and wait to respond so we can prayerfully choose the best course of action. We should ask God to reveal the action that we should take.

My pastor cautioned those of us who have a heart of humility to not get too comfortable and to not confuse comfort with humility. We should not stay silent. We must be willing to get out of our comfort zone.

Speaking out is a challenge for me. As an introvert, I am often too timid. I wait to find just the right words. I think too much before I speak and often talk myself out of saying anything because I worry about how it will be received or if I will even be heard above the louder voices.

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

2 Timothy 1:7

In this slow-speaking way of mine, I can relate to Moses. Moses said to God, “I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”

I am encouraged that God used an imperfect person like Moses to be an instrument of His justice. A heart for justice plus a heart humbled before God prepares even me to take part in God’s perfect, redeeming plan.

Lord, Your power is made perfect in my weakness. Thank you for giving me a heart for justice. Thank you for showing me what is good and revealing what you require of me. Thank you for giving me a voice and help me to use it for Your redeeming work. Amen.

A change is gonna come

As people have been gathering across the country to protest racial injustice, I have been cogitating. I have been listening. I’ve been reflecting on the cultural changes of my life time, wondering what Martin Luther King, Jr. would say if he could see the world today, and most importantly, deciding that I will not be silent.

I’ve been rereading A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. King said that the racial crisis of the 1950’s was precipitated by two factors – 1) the South’s resistance to school desegregation and 2) the change in the way that black Americans saw themselves. The world was changing. Blacks no longer felt inferior to whites and were no longer willing to accept injustice.

The world is still changing. Yet sometimes it feels like the more things change, the more they stay the same. Privileged groups still resist giving up their privileges. Privileged groups still resist change. Whites still make excuses for being racist.

Privileged groups rarely give up their privileges without strong resistance. But when oppressed people rise up against oppression there is no stopping point short of full freedom. Realism compels us to admit that the struggle will continue until freedom is a reality for all the oppressed peoples of the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today’s racial protests were precipitated by the viral video of a police officer’s brutality against an unarmed black man, which was preceded by a few other recent documented instances of racial injustices experienced by blacks. This time, white people get it. We get the anger. We’ve seen irrefutable proof that blacks are treated as if their lives don’t matter. Many of us are realizing it is not enough to not be a racist; we must be actively anti-racist.

Obviously, not all whites understand. When someone says “black lives matter” and whites respond, “all lives matter,” it’s clear that they just don’t get it. Black Lives Matter is a response to centuries of blacks being treated as if their lives are expendable. It is an affirmation of their worth. It is an affirmation that blacks are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

If King could see America today, I hope he would see the change in the way that many whites see blacks. Today, blacks occupy positions of power and influence in government, in police departments, in businesses and in other institutions. White people appreciate the contributions blacks have made to our cultural heritage. White people value the lives of our black friends, coworkers, and family members. They are a part of us.

There’s been times that I thought

I couldn’t last for long

But now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, long time coming

But I know a change is gonna come

Oh, yes it will

Sam Cooke

There has been much criticism of the protests, especially condemnation of looting and property destruction. The truth is most protesters are peaceful. As I read A Testament of Hope, I find inspiration in Martin Luther King’s rationale for nonviolent resistance.

  1. Nonviolent resistance uses the mind and emotions to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken. Although it is physically non-aggressive, it is spiritually aggressive. It is not a method for cowards.
  2. Nonviolent resistance seeks reconciliation and redemption. It does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win him over with kindness and understanding. Violent resistance results in resentment and bitterness.
  3. Nonviolent resistance is a struggle against the forces of evil and not against the evildoer. It is not a fight against people who have been caught up in the forces of evil. The tension is between justice and injustice, between light and darkness.
  4. Nonviolent resistance accepts suffering without retaliation. It turns the other cheek. Suffering has the power to transform the oppressor.
  5. Nonviolent resistance is powered by agape, a selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love. It avoids internal violence of the spirit (e.g. hatred and bitterness). Reacting with hate does nothing but increase the amount of hate in the world.
  6. Nonviolent resistance believes that the moral universe is on the side of justice. In the struggle for justice, we have cosmic companionship. Our God is a God of justice and mercy.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yes, sometimes it feels like the more things change, the more they stay the same. The ugly sin of racism still exists. People of privilege still resist change. I still have hope that change is gonna come. I believe in the redeeming power of love. I believe that truth and justice will prevail. God is on our side.

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Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

A Day of Lament

Heavenly Father, I was invited by Sojourners to participate with other people of faith in a National Day of Mourning and Lament to remember the lives of the 100,000 Americans who have died due to COVID-19. For the past few months, nearly every day, I have seen graphs and statistics showing the exponential spread of the virus. This virus has been truly devastating. It grieves me but another crisis grieves me more.

Lord, The New York Times honored the lives of thousands of coronavirus victims by printing their names on the front page, a tribute that powerfully illustrated that there was a life worth saving behind every number. Lord, You knew every one of the decedents by name. Please comfort those who knew and loved them. Every lost life matters.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy on us.

In the past week, news of the pandemic has been replaced with news of protests of the death of George Floyd, another black man whose life was taken for no reason. The sickness of racism has taken the lives and devalued the lives of people of color for far too long, from the abhorrent days of slavery to the hard-fought days of the civil rights movement to the we-should-know-better-by-now present.

The names of black men and women and children who lost their lives to the knee-jerk reactions of racism are written in our memories and our collective conscience – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor. Lord, You knew everyone of these victims by name.

God, this country is in crisis. I lament the senseless loss of life. I lament the violence. I lament racism. I lament injustice.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy on us.

Lord, I grieve for black parents who have to have “the talk” with their children, telling them that they must fear police officers. And Lord, I pray for the majority of police officers who serve honorably. Protect them and help them to make a positive difference in the communities they serve.

Jesus, my heart breaks for the message black Americans are hearing. One of my favorite columnists, Eugene Robinson, wrote a piece titled, Black lives remain expendable. As a black man, he was angry and rightly so. “Stop treating African Americans like human trash and start treating us like citizens.” Black lives are not expendable. Lord, I pray that every white American will start treating every African American as a human being. I pray that we will start treating every black person as if they matter. They do matter.

Lord, I can’t get these words out of my head: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. Sir, I can’t breathe. The words of a man who wanted to live. The words of a father. The words of a brother. The words of a son calling out for his mama in the last moments of his life. He did not deserve to die.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer. Amen.

Imagine a man

Imagine a man whose heart is far from God. He puts many gods before the one true God but the god who has a real hold on his heart is the god known as Self. The one true God is higher than any other god. He alone is all powerful and all knowing. He alone is worthy of all honor and praise. The one true God is the God of love and the source of all that is good. The man whose heart is far from God follows a god of hate. His god brings forth that which is evil.

The man whose heart is far from God expends an extraordinary amount of energy elevating the god of Self – boasting about how smart he is, how wealthy he is, how powerful he is. He exalts himself over everyone and everything. He knows more about any subject than anyone else. In his own eyes, no one is greater in all the earth. He never admits failure, never confesses a wrong, never acknowledges weakness or self-doubt. When he is not elevating the god of Self, he busies himself tearing down his enemies – anyone who makes the god of Self look bad. His greatest enemy is the truth and he fights the truth with a vengeance.

Imagine Narcissis gazing adoringly at Self in the mirror. Self-aggrandizement. Self-adulation. Self-importance. Self-indulgence. For the man whose heart is far from God, it is all about Self.

The man whose god is Self is a master manipulator, a master of deception, a conman. He belongs to his Father, the devil, the father of lies. He carries out his father’s desires. There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language.

No man is perfect. We all sin. We all fall short of the glory of God. None of us knows everything. We all fail. We all stumble. But the man whose god is the god of Self will never admit this. He will never repent. He lives in a world of make believe, a world of fantasy and unreality. When he looks in the mirror he sees a distorted version of himself.

His most consequential lie is a powerful self-delusion. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” He tells himself, if there is a god, I can deceive him just as I deceive people.

The man who worships the god of Self surrounds himself with oleaginous sycophants, toadies, boot lickers. They see his nakedness but pretend that the emperor wears the finest clothes. Convinced that the ends justify the means, they flatter and praise him to stay in his good graces and to trade on his influence.

The man who is his own god believes he is above the law. Many men have tried and failed to hold him to account. The truth is, every man will have to account to God for every wicked act, every careless word. Imagine the day when the man who has spent his life worshiping Self finally faces his Maker. He will not get away with lying to the Father of truth. He will not impress the omnipotent, omniscient God with his wealth, power or intelligence. He will not escape God’s judgment by deflecting and blaming others.

The man whose heart is far from God is not a figment of my imagination. He is real. He is an old man but there is a childlike quality about him. There is something sad and pathetic about his constant need for adulation. He is rich in material wealth but morally bankrupt. He is seemingly successful and yet a colossal failure. He is a powerful liar but he cannot change the truth. He presents himself as a savior but he cannot save his own soul.

I had a dream about this man a couple of months ago. I said one word to him. Repent. The man whose heart is far from God is not beyond God’s redemption. I pray that he will be humbled before the one true God before it is too late.

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By John William Waterhouse – http://www.allartpainting.com/echo-and-narcissus-p-16444.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7716057