In my experiences with racial reconciliation conversations, there usually comes a moment when superficial talk gets real. Often this comes about because a person of color takes the risk to share how racism and white supremacy have impacted her life. And then, almost invariably, in response to this vulnerable testimony, a white person begins to speak, usually through tears. This person shares about how overwhelming this experience has been, how he hadn’t known the extent of our racialized society and its racist history, about how sad, angry, or confused he is feeling now. I’ve watched this happen so many times that I can almost predict it: the move away from a person of color’s experience to a white person’s emotions.
I have experienced these strong emotions myself, but as Austin Channing Brown points out, focusing on white emotions rather than the experiences of people of color can be dangerous. She writes, “If Black people are dying in the street, we must consult with white feelings before naming the evils of police brutality. If white family members are being racist, we must take Grandpa’s feelings into account before we proclaim our objections to such speech. . . . White fragility protects whiteness and forces Black people to fend for themselves.” So I don’t want this book—a book focused on white Christians—to become another exercise in which the emotions of white people take priority over the experiences of people of color.
But it’s a delicate balance. We must lament the legacy of racial whiteness without succumbing to its emotionally consuming gravity. It’s not shame we are pursuing here, but responsibility.
And for what are we responsible? What provokes our lament? We have seen some of the ways that the narrative of racial difference, institutionalized by our society’s powerful structures, have created and enforced a racial hierarchy that impacts the quality of life of individuals and communities. This is not to say that white people in America do not face injustices, even systemic ones—only that we don’t face them because of our race. As white Christians, beneficiaries of this racial hierarchy, we are responsible to see things that our race works overtime to make us miss. We are responsible to see the inequities of our public school systems, the disparities in our criminal justice system, the yawning gap between the generational wealth of white people and people of color, the ongoing impact of redlining and housing segregation, the legacy of discrimination that runs through many of our law enforcement departments, and the inequalities in the realm of health. And, most importantly, we are responsible to see and understand that none of these injustices can be rightly interpreted without accounting for the presence of race.
White Christians must learn to see the visceral and embodied nature of these sins. Racism, writes Hart, is a psychological burden in which a person of color’s psyche is “routinely attacked and crushed in our society.” The end result of racism is to wreak havoc on the lives of particular people. It is an attack on the bodies and minds of women and men created in the image of God. It is dehumanizing. It is demonic. Therefore we must not look away.
While there are good reasons we often speak about the impact of race and racism on African Americans, given the insidious and pervasive narrative of racial difference, we should expect there to be detrimental impacts of anyone who cannot or will not claim the protection of whiteness. Yet those who are neither black nor white—Asian Americans and Latinos/as for example—often find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to finding a place within the nation’s complicated racial landscape. Author Jeff Change writes that, “On matters of race, America teaches everyone to think in binaries—zero or one, this or that. There is no in-between.”17 Yet from its American inception, racial whiteness impacted everyone. About Native Americans Hart writes, “The presence of the original hosts of the land constituted a threat to white identity and the sense of America as a ‘white country.’”
No matter whether your presence in this land preceded the European colonialists, your ancestors came here willingly, or your lineage is traced through people who were kidnapped into slavery, racial whiteness has thoroughly altered your life.
The damage inflicted by race and racism on the communities of particular people is incalculable. And this is where the damage done to white people and the wounds suffered by people of color begin to overlap. Once white people begin to understand the scope of racial injustice, writes Wendell Berry, “once you begin to awaken to the realities of what you know, you are subject to staggering recognitions of your own complicity in history and in the events of your own life.” And though the awakening is painful to those of us accustomed to slumbering through this racialized society, though we will be strongly tempted to return to our illusions of meritocracies and colorblindness, if we choose to make peace with the pain and resist the slumber, we will find ourselves waking up to the reconciled kingdom of God.
David W. Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church, a multicultural congregation in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. He helps lead New Community Outreach, a nonprofit that collaborates with the community to reduce sources of trauma, and speaks around the country on the topics of racial justice and reconciliation.