Tag Archives: race

Waking up to Whiteness

art credit: Catherine Clark

I remember the first time it really registered with me that I was white. We had been living in South Asia for a few years by then, and I had gradually grown accustomed to being stared at constantly whenever I ventured out into public. My response to the unrelenting looks, comments, and stereotyping treatment had gradually shifted from overwhelmed to annoyed to humorous to tuned-out. I had finally integrated enough to speak the local language, develop my personal style within the cultural milieu, and feel like I fit in with my local friends. One day we were in a sari shop together, and I turned to the mirror with a potential purchase draped across my shoulder.  I almost dropped the sari with shock over the lanky white woman staring back at me. I don’t know what I expected to see, but this woman stood out like a sore thumb from all the delicate brown faces around her. No amount of linguistic or cultural adaptation would be able to hide her very white features. The incessant reactions from strangers in the marketplace were simply a reiteration of my irreconcilable “otherness.”

Years later I shared this story with an African American friend. He laughed and welcomed me to the club. Racial un-consciousness, he pointed out, is the luxury of the dominant group. When you are a minority, you can never forget that you are different. The moment you do, someone else will remind you.

Racial un-consciousness is the luxury of the dominant group.

And he was right. Sometime later I was sitting by this same friend at an elegant dinner party in honor of the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Around our table were prominent leaders, clergy, and academics, of which he was all three. If anyone didn’t belong there, it was little old me. After scintillating conversation around the lecture we had just heard, someone at the table asked my friend a subtle question. At first I missed it, until my friend’s deflated expression clued me in to the fact that he just been the subject of a racist joke. My guess is that the joker was simply trying to be funny, but his insensitivity to someone who has endured a lifetime of demeaning treatment effectively communicated that despite his degree, position, and invitation to the table, he was irreconcilably “other,” excluded from being one with the rest of us. 

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. …
Matthew 8:5-8

The Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant must have lived with a profound consciousness of his race and the way it affected those around him. On one hand he was the despised outsider, the “dirty Gentile” whose very presence in Palestine represented and enforced foreign oppression. On the other hand, he belonged to the race with superior power, affording him authority, legal rights, and military rank that were denied most Jews. It meant that he had to constantly calculate how his actions would be interpreted and what impact his words would have on the situation around him. In the midst of such a racially charged situation, he did not have the luxury of throwing around a careless joke or of assuming that the cruel behavior of other Roman soldiers bore no connection to how he was seen by the Jews. Like it or not, he was a part of the system that had hurt a lot of people, and as kindhearted and well-intentioned as he was, he had to tread carefully in the way he approached Jesus.

Similarly, white people in America represent systems and individuals that we may disagree with, but which our racial heritage inextricably connects us to. It is not enough to abstain from racist comments or discriminatory practices. In the eyes of those who have been repeatedly hurt by people like us, we represent a system of historic oppression that has continued to break trust in its treatment of its African American citizens. We can point to the times that our system has gotten it right (like integration of schools, equal opportunities legislation, and African Americans in the highest levels of leadership), but we cannot ignore the many ways in which racism continues to rear its ugly head, even in the actions of “crazy” individuals or “fringe” groups. Each time an unarmed African American is unjustly killed by a white American, the scab gets ripped off of a deep wound in the community of which he or she was part. And that wound was inflicted by one of “us.”

As followers of Christ, the onus is on us to go the extra mile in affirming the culture, ideas, and leadership of those “our people” have hurt.

We need to learn how to handle our whiteness. In the South Asian context, my whiteness represented a history of colonial oppression. As a follower of Christ, the onus was on me to go the extra mile in affirming the culture, ideas, and leadership of my brown neighbors. Even in situations where my position or experience may have “earned” me the right to take charge, I had to learn how to intentionally make room for people who “my people” had treated as inferiors. We both had to work at this, learning to speak openly about our differences and laugh together at the things we had once assumed when all we had known of each other was “white” or “brown.” I am amazed at the level of grace my brown neighbors were willing to extend to me, but it also took a lot of needed humbling on my part (a humbling which, I might add, did not always feel nice, especially when my friends took me at my word and treated me accordingly).

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 8:10-12

The Roman Centurion humbled himself, showing a deference towards Jesus that even His fellow Jews did not, and was commended for his faith. We, who have now been included “at the table” along with him, would do well to follow his example.

Narrative Wars and the Way of the Cross

I did it!
art credit: Catherine Clark

Everyone loves an overcomer story. We cheer for the underdog, holding our breath as they persevere through obstacle after obstacle and booing the advantaged one simply for the fact that he expected to come out on top. But what about those moments when life casts us in the overdog role? “I didn’t sign up for this!” we may be tempted to whine. “I’m just doing my best to live my life and do good by all. I didn’t ask to be written as the oppressor in someone else’s story!”

Race killings and race riots in the United States have awakened many white Christians to the prevalence of racism. But with that awareness comes a deep discomfort as lifelong assumptions about how the world works and who we are within it are suddenly overturned. I wonder if much of white angst in America today comes from fear of being cast as the bad guy. If I listen to the cries of my African American brothers and sisters, my version of the story—the one in which I am the “little person” who worked hard, came from behind, and made it despite all the odds—comes under threat. Instead, I’m suddenly that privileged, arrogant “champion” we all despise, enjoying the luxuries of monogramed equipment and expert coaches to give me every advantage in the game of life.

Since when is pride compatible with the cross?

I don’t like that second version of the story, and even when I am pushed to admit that it is true, I don’t like the way that it makes me feel about myself.  I’d rather rehash stories of the American Revolution in which “my people” fought off the colonial oppressors with bare feet and raw grit.  I at least want the luxury of largesse, to think of my people as the liberators who brought down the Nazis or brought aid to suffering populations around the world. But when I stop to consider the story from the perspective of a Native American who was driven from her land or an African American who was imported to the land but denied equal status, “my people” come out as the bad guys. Add to that generations of mistreatment and social positioning in which my people continue to come out on top, and the pride I feel in my heritage—the heritage which forms much of my identity—starts to crumble.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews…
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
Philippians 3:4-7

Perhaps that is exactly what needs to happen. It may not feel nice, but since when is pride compatible with the cross? The reason we love the underdog is because God Himself has a heart for the disadvantaged. Scripture is replete with statements about what He does for the humble and how He treats the proud. The fact that I am holding on to my pride reveals which side of the narrative I actually am standing on. As a follower of Jesus, I get to lay aside anything in which I formerly found gain, including the advantage of my whiteness.

“I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.

But how can I help that? Perhaps a second cause for white angst comes from the sudden sense of helplessness in the face of finding ourselves on the wrong side of history. I want to jump the fence to the other side, distancing myself from the racism around me with claims of #NotMeToo. “I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Philippians 2:1-4

Examining myself for areas of implicit bias (while assuming that they are probably there) is a good start. Where do my impulses betray an internal sense of being better than, or perhaps deserving better than, people of a different race? These may surface in the respect I demand for myself or the treatment and opportunities I expect for my children. Am I equally incensed when these are not afforded to my neighbor from a different “community” or her children? Am I equally invested in looking out for her interests as I am my own? What have I done (or not done) to change the systems that make it hard for them to flourish?

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.

…“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks…”
John 4:9,21-23

Confronting the areas of bias within myself not only benefits Black lives; it also helps me become more like the Jesus I adore. I adore Him for His meekness with the Samaritan woman, absorbing her defensive reactivity over the way her people had been treated and extending to her a listening ear, a willingness to consider her side, and a friendship that broke all the social rules. I adore Him for going out of His way to seek out her company and sit with her on her turf, neither lecturing her for making a mess of the opportunities that had been afforded her nor insisting that she adapt to His cultural ways in order to be accepted. It can’t have been easy to listen to His people being framed as the bad guys, yet He acknowledged their privileged position in history while also considering her too valuable an asset to leave out of the new integrated community He was forming.

And perhaps it is in Jesus’ example as a privileged Jewish male that I find a way forward as a privileged white woman. Try as I might, I can’t stop being white. And I can’t undo the parts of my heritage that I am ashamed of. But I can humble myself, reach across the racial divide, and use whatever advantage is mine (though I may need help in being able to see it) to my neighbor’s advantage. After all, is this not what Jesus did for me?