My upbringing was as lily white as they come. I recall one black kid in my entire grade in my public elementary school. My churches, my schools, my friends were all white. Educated. Wealthy. Privileged.
I also happen to hail from the mighty Capital of the Confederacy- Richmond, Virginia. Where Lee-Jackson-King Day was celebrated with school holidays and where statues revering Confederate heroes still stand tall and proud on beautiful Monument Avenue.
This is my context.
And, you know what? I did not bat a single eyelash at this until early adulthood.
MLK Jr. Days came and went, year after year, without me even taking notice. Because staying sheltered in my own cozy world had bred naivety. I was shielded from the inequality and profiling and snap judgments that my black and brown brothers and sisters had long known. I had made so many boxes and drawn so many lines and erected so many invisible walls out of my sheer ignorance.
It wasn’t hate. It was apathy. And apathy certainly was not love.
But God sent my angsty-privileged-teenage self to the streets of Jamaica and my equally angsty and privileged college self to the slums of Kibera and forced me to gaze outside of my own experience and consider the novel thought that “Oh, hey. My experience is not normative. And this life may not be all about me after all.”
But God sovereignly moved me and placed me in an entire community that was starkly dissimilar to mine. Blessed me with dear friends whose stories, in many ways, seemed so foreign to mine. While we talked of relationships and work and childrearing, we also talked of immigration reform and deportations and families torn apart. They taught. I listened. And I saw walls fall down as “they” became “us”.
But God, in his mercy and grace, allowed us to bring our African daughter home, welcoming a little black girl into our predominately white world. And I stumbled and fumbled and quickly learned that, if I was going to try to do this thing right, I had better slow down. Humble myself. Listen close and listen well to voices within the black community.
But God placed us in a church that highly values the importance of being multi-ethnic, making our previously-predominately-white world a little less so. Not for the sake of trendiness. Or to increase numbers. But because we believe that our church should reflect our surrounding community. That God created ALL, and ALL people are His image-bearers.
And, man, the more that I listen and learn, the more I want to speak up. Because I’ve been too naive and too silent for too long.
“Did you hear?” I feel like yelling to my white brothers and sisters. “Tamir! Michael! Eric! Trayvon! Sandra!”
“Have you read?” I keep going. “Have you read about the racial disparities in in-school suspensions? Death penalty cases?”
But then the voices creep in. “Catherine, people think you’re extreme.” “Catherine, you’re white. Just an average white soccer mom. Who are you to talk about these things?” “Catherine, just stick to cute kid anecdotes. This race stuff is making everyone uncomfortable.” “Catherine, you’re a broken record. Just stop already.”
And, maybe most of all, the question that is forever churning through my mind is this: “Alright, Miss Opinionated. Are you loving your issue, your cause, your stance more than you love Jesus Himself?” Always this self-check because I know myself. How I can be stubborn and prideful. My tendencies to hold MY opinions more tightly than those of God Himself.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
Y’all, we’re living in the days of presidential wannabes advocating for giant walls to keep “those people” out. Days in which wary glances are cast toward anyone donning a headscarf. Days of blatant courtroom injustices toward black men and women. Days in which God-fearing, gospel-preaching ministries are forced to defend themselves for preaching that #blacklivesmatter.
This idea of social stagnation is terrifying to me.
So, I’m going to keep on beating this drum. Because I believe that we are absolutely loving and honoring God when we’re honoring His people. When we hold high the truth that all people, no matter the shade of their skin or the nation from which they hail, reflect the image of God and should be treated as such. This isn’t just a hot-topic social justice issue- this is the heart of God Himself.
In that same letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote, “I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.”
And to that, I say to my black and brown brothers and sisters: I will never be capable of fully appreciating or understanding your experiences or stories. But this, I will do- I will listen, and I will groan right along with you as we long for justice and equality. And I will absolutely share that vision to see injustice outed, working and speaking to this end until Jesus returns and we see justice and peace fully realized. At long last.
There are lots of voices out there advocating for justice and racial reconciliation these days. Really influential voices on big stages, with large platforms. Those matter so much. And there should be more of them.
But this is my voice. Just the voice of an average white soccer mom. The voice of one who has been so naive and, in many ways I’m sure, is still so oblivious. But also one who cannot un-know what she’s come to know and un-see what she’s seen.
So, this voice of mine? You better believe I’m gonna keep using it.
I was helping my six year old get situated into a dingy truck stop toilet stall yesterday when she casually mentioned, “Hey, mom. Did you know my whole class can fit in our bathroom at school?”
“Huh?” I responded. “Why in the world would your whole kindergarten class go into that little bathroom at the same time?”
“Lockdown drill,” she responded in her innocent, no-big-deal six year old voice. “Why do we do those things anyway? Why would a bad guy ever come to a SCHOOL? I really don’t get it.”
I took a big breath as we washed and dried hands, knowing full-well that this particular child of mine would not be satisfied with pat answers. We talked about good and bad, sin and redemption, pain and hope. And, I’m sorry for being all braggy and stuff, but I think I handled it PRETTY OKAY. You know, for a frazzled, exhausted-from-Christmas mom in a reeking truck stop bathroom.
I strutted out of that bathroom toward the parking lot, hand in hand with Mary Grace, when I caught a glimpse of the TV just a few steps ahead. As I read the big, bold headline- “No indictment in Tamir Rice case”- I let out an audible groan. Clearly loud enough for Mary Grace to hear, for she didn’t miss a beat. “What is it, mom? What’s wrong?”
This time, I just couldn’t. I had depleted all of my resources back in that bathroom, attempting to put words around the horror of school shootings and the mess of this world. I had nothing left. While my soul felt the impact- but he was a boy! twelve years old! with a toy gun!- my lips uttered, “we’ll talk about it later, baby.”
She’s not one to forget. I’m certain she’ll ask. And I’m just as certain that this is not the last time a black boy will be gunned down as an “accident”. So, as parents, what can we say? When our children hear rumblings of these tragedies on TV or at school? When they catch glimpses of our shocked expressions and hear our low whispers and ask, “Why?”, how should we respond?
While I’m still figuring this out and am wading these murky waters right along with you, here’s my game plan:
- Start with the bad news. When man sinned and broke our perfect union with God, this world became a messy place. Broken. And this messed-up-ness isn’t limited to the “bad guys” who come into unsuspecting schools. Or those who kill black boys in a seemingly indiscriminate way. We have all sinned. Every one of us. We have all created this giant chasm between us and the holy God. A chasm that none of us can fix by our own good efforts or behavior.
- Don’t shy away from the uncomfortable. My kids are young- 7, 6, and 4. And still, we talk to them openly about racism. Sure, they know about the horrors of slavery, and they can rattle off the names of those instrumental in the civil rights movement. But they also know that today, in 2015, people continue to be treated differently because of the color of their skin. Race issues are never comfortable to discuss. But we’ve gotta go for it. Call a spade a spade. Racism is alive and well today, and it is evil. A sin that grieves our Creator God. Ignorance is never the best policy here.
- Teach our children that they have a voice. As parents, Matt and I try so desperately hard to teach our kids the power of words. We teach them that words can build up or tear down and that we must use our words for good. To advocate for the lives of others. We nail ’em hard when we overhear unkind and disrespectful speech in our home. We teach them to boldly speak up if they see a kid being bullied at school. And we pray all of this will set the stage for them to use their voices to advocate for justice and to preach the redemptive message of Christ Jesus as they grow into adults.
- End with the gospel. Yes, this world we live in is full of beauty. Joy. Moments in which God’s grace and mercy are so tangible that we weep in gratitude. But there is also unimaginable darkness and chaos and tragedy. We tell our kids that it’s okay to feel their feelings. When life gets hard, it’s okay to cry. And when pain befalls our neighbor, we weep with those who weep. However, it’s so crucial to remember that this is not the end of the story. Because, that giant chasm between us and God? Jesus came to bridge that. He came, lived the perfect life we could never live, and died an innocent man on the cross in our place. All of this happened so that we can be reconciled to God and have the hope of redemption. The promise that one day, heaven will come down to earth and there will be no more pain or tears or mass shootings or racism. But, in the meantime, our God is still in control. He is still on His throne, and His love for us has never, ever wavered.
This world we live in can be a crazy-scary place for our kids. And, heck, for us adults too. Sweet goodness, parenting in the days of headlines highlighting Tamir and Newtown and Paris and Nigeria is no joke.
At the end of the day, though, I can do everything that the world says is right as a parent. I can teach my children to be brave and to love and to speak up in the face of injustice. But if I tell them to love without pointing them to the God who IS LOVE, I have failed. If I teach them to use their voices for justice without first directing them to the God who IS perfectly holy and just, I have failed. And if I teach them to forgive without reminding them that they are first forgiven by our God who overflows with grace and mercy, I have absolutely failed.
Parents, let’s give our kids real answers. Let’s get honest with them and teach them the hard truths of this world, for ignorance helps no one. Let’s see them emboldened to bring truth and justice and grace to those who need it the most. But, most of all, let’s give them Jesus.
Truth: I am a white, educated woman living in middle class America, and it was only a few years ago that I began to really grasp how privileged this makes me. Why a few years ago? Because it was then that I became the mother to a black daughter.
I am not proud to admit that it took having a black child to look through the aisles of Target with critical eyes. “Where are all of the brown skinned dolls?” I suddenly wondered. Movie characters? Protagonists in literature? And WAIT. You mean to tell me that there are no “flesh-toned” Bandaids to match the color of my black child’s gorgeous tone of flesh?
It’s just not fair, I cried out. It’s not okay.
Then, there was Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. And for once, I paid attention to their names. And faces. And families. And stories. And I mourned.
It’s just not fair. It’s not okay.
And then Charleston. More lives tragically taken in the name of racist hate. Terrorism. And black church after church burned to the ground. In 2015. 2015, people.
This is not fair. And it’s not okay.
The pit in my stomach just grows deeper when I start getting real with myself. Would I care as much about these issues- about these lives and the racial divide that still runs so deep in our nation- if I did not have a black child? Would I be as emotionally invested? Would the tears flow just as readily? Or would the privilege I enjoy as a caucasian American cause me to avert my eyes?
These are the questions that have kept me up at night. The ones that then flow into the nagging “okay, so what now?” questions. I rack my brain trying to come up with some brilliant solution to the racism and hate and injustice, and I draw blank after blank. Until I decide to use what I’ve got. To use the very thing with which I was born and over which I had no control- my skin color and the privilege that it affords me.
The same privilege that has allowed me to go through the vast majority of my days without recognizing how few black faces are represented in media, fashion, and literature. The privilege that allows me to go without sitting our son down one day to admonish him to avoid hoodies. To always keep his hands visible when confronted by law enforcement. The privilege that allows me to even write this post without being labeled an “angry black woman.”
I’m going to use my white privilege, and I’m going to use my trembling fingers and stammering lips to speak. Because I believe that black lives matter. Yes, white lives matter too. Red and yellow, black and white- they. all. matter. But in light of the long history of systematic racism in our nation and the glaring reality that this racism is certainly not dead, I just don’t see evidence in our society that we really believe and act on the truth that all men and women and children are created equal.
So, I’m going to use my privilege to call a spade a spade. To call racism racism. To hopefully help some of us- myself included- take the blinders off. In doing so, we can look to our black brothers and sisters and say, “I see you. I hear you. You are loved. And I’m standing with you. For you.”
And I’m going to pray. I’m going to pray to the God who IS love. The God of justice. Trusting that he is wholly good and can do all things. That he weeps with those who weep. And that, when I am so caught up in myself that I fail to notice those around me who may be hurting, he is El Roi, the God who sees.
When I pray the words “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” I’m going to remember what we’re told heaven actually looks like:
“…I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9)
If I’m praying for THIS to be what earth is like, then things are going to change. They must. It changes what our churches look like. What our friendships look like. And, at times, it will be uncomfortable.
Just like writing about race is uncomfortable. And confessing my blindness to racism and injustice is uncomfortable. And thinking outside of ourselves and acknowledging our privilege is, yes, uncomfortable.
But, you see, sometimes stepping outside of ourselves and risking our own comfort levels is precisely what it takes for change to begin, and Lord knows, we should want things to change. I do so badly that it nearly makes my blood boil. I’m going to fumble around and royally screw up my words and ask really dumb questions along the way. I know myself well enough to expect anything different. It’s well worth the risk though. And it’s long past due.