Race is currently a hot topic, and I am a white woman married to a black man. Needless to say, I regularly learn new aspects of my whiteness, sometimes on a daily basis. The majority of the time, I learn new things simply by existing alongside my husband. Occasionally, he directly speaks to a blind spot that I am unaware of. This happened recently, and I thought I might take the opportunity to 1) continue confessing my whiteness and 2) share some insights about race that white people (especially white Christians) should really know.
I shared some thoughts last week about my whiteness that you can read here if you haven’t had the chance to read it yet. My confession of whiteness continues with another recent revelation. I am an incredibly independent person, and I seldom act out of a place of concern over what others think of me. As a child, I made choices in life that I wanted to make because I wanted to make them, and I rarely thought twice about other people’s opinions or the consequences involved in my decisions. Naturally, my preferences in life are self-generated. I prefer many things that are atypical of my predominantly white upbringing. I tend to prefer many aspects of black culture over white culture. I prefer black music. I love to dance and am of the opinion that my black friends have always been better dancers than my white friends. I prefer to talk back to my preacher when he is preaching. I have no problem adjusting my speech habits given the context of people surrounding me. I learned to adapt and take in black culture when I was surrounded by it, and I generally prefer it. For the record, I think cultural preferences are neither here nor there; no culture is “right” or better than another. Given my personal preferences though, I have been known to call myself black. For years, I have jokingly told people that I was black. I say jokingly because my skin color is obviously white.
Recently, I communicated to my husband all of the many reasons that I thought I was black and wanted to identify in this way. He did not say much in the moment, but he later came back and asked me a profound question.
“What if I said I was white?”
I will admit that my first response was, “why on earth would you want to be white?” My initial thoughts were all the reasons that involved my preferences. Black music, and dancing, and singing, and preaching, and food, and energy, etc. Then I began to remember all of the horrible things that I know that white people have done for centuries upon centuries. This further fueled my response to him because I was highlighting the horrible aspects of whiteness. It took a moment, but eventually I realized that I am in fact white. I am the race that has done the horrible things. I didn’t think my husband should ever want to be white, but I also realized that it isn’t exactly my place to call myself black.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, But its end is the way to death.” Proverbs 14:12
As a Christian and follower of Jesus, I think one of the most important things that I, and all white Christians, can do right now is to educate themselves in truth and history. Education is a key aspect that can influence our thoughts and actions. In my personal experience, I hear white people react to issues like black violence and continued segregation with generic racists responses. Oftentimes, they have no clue that their statements are racist; nor do they realize that their statements are the very thoughts that have allowed racism to continue. When all we do is simply repeat and reproduce thoughts, feelings, and actions that we were taught growing up, without investigating the matter for ourselves, we can often be blind to the implications. What is worse, white Christians have been a driving force in American racism for centuries. Complicity is a dangerous thing, whether it occurs willingly or unknowingly.
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, But only in expressing his opinion.” Proverbs 18:2
In America, it is incredibly easy to believe the myth of the American dream, and I often hear white people invoke the American dream as a racist jab. Unknowingly racist white people tend to believe that black people could do much better for themselves if they would simply try harder or get a better job or stop doing drugs, etc. White people love to comment on America being a free country and the land of opportunity. The reality is that this is only a free country and the land of opportunity insofar as the white lawmakers have allowed it to be for certain people. What I am getting at here is this: even though you, white person, may not have owned slaves or made racial laws in the past, you have been directly influenced by your own racial history. Not knowing and not choosing to remember your racial history can often cause you to continue walking the same path. Do you see? Your complicity is dangerous.
“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, But with the humble is wisdom.” Proverbs 11:2
One of the best things that has happened to me as a Christian in the last few years is the broadening perspective of racial history that I have learned through my doctoral studies because it has allowed me to gain further insight into the lives of my neighbors, of my brothers and sisters, who live a very different experience than I do as a white person. It has enabled me to learn more about people that I care about and has ultimately helped me to understand them better. When I can better empathize, I can better act, and as a Christian, this is incredibly important.
“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” 1 John 3:18
One way that white Christians can begin to better love in deed and truth is to learn more about racial history in America. Everyone knows that the United States of America did not see a black president elected until 2009. Statistically, black people have represented anywhere from 10-20 percent of the American population since 1700, yet black Americans were not even allowed to vote until after the Civil War in the 1860s, and even once Reconstruction came into play, white lawmakers continued to dominate the polls by enforcing Jim Crow laws and using brute force to remain in power when necessary (see the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898). Jim Crow laws forced black Americans to pass literacy tests in order to be able to vote, yet most black Americans were still denied the same quality of education as white Americans. White lawmakers were able to continually reinforce racism by creating impossible demands.
Historically, when black Americans have been able to achieve and live the American dream, they were often thwarted and torn down by white racism as a result. In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma saw one of the greatest devastations to black advancement when white people destroyed what was known as Black Wall Street. A community of black Americans developed intentionally in Tulsa and made significant headway in achievement, business, and wealth. This apparently threatened the surrounding white community and was therefore put to an end. Violently. White lawmakers did nothing to right this injustice.
The Civil Rights Movement is well-known racial history, but how often do we consider the fact that this was a twenty year movement fighting for something as simple as equality. White lawmakers were slow to listen and even slower to make any changes. These changes included issues like desegregating public schools (that have essentially been resegregated by red-lining the housing market and the formation of expensive private schools that are predominately white) and public life and generally overturning Jim Crow laws that included voting and marriage rights.
On a more personal level, I find it difficult to forget that Louisiana was one of the sixteen states that only overturned their interracial marraige laws because of the Supreme Court case, Loving vs. Virginia. Some states never had interracial marriage laws, but many that did began overturning those laws prior to the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia case. (It is also important to note that the first black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, was not nominated until 1967, though he was not yet a sitting Justice during the Loving vs. Virginia case.) With the 1967 Supreme Court case, the remaining sixteen states that had interracial marraige laws were then forced to overturn them. Note of interest: Louisiana’s interracial marraige laws only banned a black person from marrying a white person. Some states included other races in their interracial marriage laws. Again, only white lawmakers were in control of these decisions.
I married a wonderfully amazing man, and people that know my husband often make comments to me about how lucky I am or how amazing he is. I agree 100%, and it is difficult for me to think that 1967 was not so long ago because I cannot imagine the law forbidding me from marrying him simply because of the color of his skin. Yet, this was the law for so many years, and it was a law that white lawmakers put into place.
I think one of the worst comments a white Christian can make is to say things like “Well, I personally didn’t own slaves or make those laws.” I think they believe this allows them to be distanced from their own racial history. The reality, though, is that we have blind spots today and have had blind spots throughout American history. Consider that the Brown vs. Board of Education case happened in 1954, effectively desegregating public schools (for a time), yet the reason Loving vs. Virginia went to the Supreme Court was because the state court of Virginia “found that the right to an education on equal terms did not support a claim for intermarriage of the races” (Loving vs. Commonwealth, 206 Va. 924). In other words, ten years of equal education rights did very little to influence white Virginia lawmakers that equality should be across the board. In hindsight, it seems silly to me to reason one but not the other. My argument here is that the current racial situation is likely no different. White Americans tend not to see the whole truth because we are influenced by our experience of white privilege. We still have blind spots. Reexamining our history is important.
“The plans of the heart belong to man, But the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.” Proverbs 16:1
I gave a presentation last fall that pointed out the significant amount of time it has taken white Americans to see their blind spots. My presentation included the following in the introduction:
The presentation was not intended to take sides or be disruptive, but rather to get the attention of the audience in order to make a point. The point is this: white American lawmakers (sometimes even Christian lawmakers) have a history of making laws that intentionally oppress black Americans. To make matters worse, they have also been incredibly slow in realizing their mistakes and doing anything to change the situations that they have created. This trend is still happening today, in different forms or masked in different ways, but nevertheless, it is still happening. I’ve given you a bit of a timeline here and some external information to read up on if you are unfamiliar with some of this history. I wonder, though, how long it will take white Americans, and specifically white Christian Americans, to see the current blind spots in our thinking and laws.
For this reason, I think it safe to say that I should not go around boasting of my “blackness” because I am still party to the white race that still has the dominating political voice making and enforcing the laws. I know that things have changed and progress has been made, but that progress is far from over. I think that we all have our own personal blind spots to overcome as well as some cultural and societal blind spots. Let me encourage you, Christian, to lay aside your current thoughts and opinions and seek the Lord. If His word lines up with what you are currently thinking, then by all means, carry on. If not though, be willing to let the Lord be your guidance rather than the cultural circumstances you were born into.
“Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, But the Lord weighs the heart. To do righteousness and justice Is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” Proverbs 21:2-3