My black classmates were somber one morning in early February 2014 as my professor walked to the podium.
There were only two or three other white students in the course on African American literature.
“Let’s talk about it,” my professor said.
The entire classroom knew: she was referring to the incident that happened the evening beforehand on campus.
Two white men had draped a noose and an old Georgia state flag around the statue of James Meredith, the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Bystanders also heard these men yell racial slurs.
Black classmates raised their hands one by one to respond, but the hand-raising quickly turned into open conversation.
There was no “editing” for the white folks in that room. No, not that day. My classmates didn’t hold back any anger, frustration, exhaustion or fear about the statue’s defamation.
They were again reminded that we do not live in a post-racial society or attend a post-racial university where racism no longer exists. They were reminded that there are white people who still question their humanity and dignity.
I’m thankful that my teacher put the syllabus aside and created space for responses of any kind that day.
But I lament that it was the first time I was hearing them.
My classmates’ responses had one message in common: “Not again.”
If experiences of racism were so common among my classmates, why was this day the first time I was hearing unfiltered outrage and exhaustion over it?
That day in class is seared in my mind, and I know the answer to my own question now.
We live in a racialized society. What do I mean by that? I mean that we live in a society “wherein race matters profoundly for life experiences, life chances, and social relationships.”
As a child, I only had white friendships. (I wrote about this earlier in the summer.) Even though I attended a diverse high school during my junior and senior years and then a diverse university, my circles of deep friendship remained white.
This is why I never bore the burdens of non-white brothers and sisters in Christ, as Scripture commands in Galatians 6:2.
I didn’t know about my non-white Christian brothers and sisters’ burdens.
Sure, I had friends who were not white, but we never discussed race, even though it was obvious that our different shades carried different experiences and perceptions. We were probably apprehensive to approach our different skin tones and, therefore, different perspectives in a conversation.
This is why it was news to me in my African American literature class that racism is nothing new.
This is also why colorblindness—the sentiment that “I don’t see color”—sounds like an ideology that can eradicate racism but instead perpetuates racism. We must talk about race because racialization is the air that we breathe in this nation.
This is a fact. You might have heard people say that race is a “social construct.” When friends introduced me to this concept, I thought to myself, “I’m not buying that–race is clearly real because we can see race.”
What do I mean?
Ethnicity is certainly real and biblical—“ethnicity” comes from the Greek word ethnos, translated as a “tribe” or “people group” in the Bible—the concept of “race” is created by man to divide.
“In 1779, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German anthropologist and professor of medicine, divided humanity into five distinct races and assigned a color to each… Blumenbach supported the degenerative hypothesis, which purported that Adam and Eve were white, and that over time some people groups degenerated from whiteness into other races… Our country was founded within this context, firmly upon the principle of white supremacy…
“It’s important to note that the white Church endorsed these horrific practices, and white Christian leaders openly engaged in them, both before and after the birth of the United States.”
I’m afraid that we are blinded by the Enemy of our souls who longs to see the American church divided and segregated if we believe that this classification of race does not influence our interactions with people today.
Race is not only manmade, but race is complex.
For example, this is why citizens of color might push back about celebrating the Fourth of July. Although many Americans celebrate their independence from Great Britain, our country in 1776 was still considering a black person as only three-fifths of a human being and ravaging the homes of indigenous people.
This is why pictures of Jesus remain white although he was likely a brown-skinned Nazarene Jew.
This is why black children sit together in the cafeteria and “white flight” schools exist.
This is why Hollywood cast white actors in black face, brown face and yellow face in the early 19th century. In fact, the industry still casts white actors for roles that would be more true to the story if played by actors of color.
This is, in part, why I had not heard about my classmates’ frequent experiences of racism (whether explicit or implicit racism) until I was twenty-two years old.
In Michael O. Emerson’s book, Divided by Faith, he writes, “For relatively non-isolated [people], the race problem is neither a creation of the media nor does it persist only because some try to make it an issue. The race problem is real.”
A colorblind determination to “not to see color” excuses us from confronting the racial disparities of others in this country and around the world. It is also not biblical because God created color, and in Heaven we will retain our colors.
I am not proposing that white people crumble under a heavy weight of white guilt. That is also not biblical. God created different ethnicities and skin tones, and he deemed ALL of them “good.” But I am proposing that we see color for what it is (a unique reflection of God’s image in people) and we condemn what it is not (a means of oppression or racism in any form).
But what if I am not personally “racist?” Even though your or I might not consider ourselves “racist” (although we all wrestle with forms of prejudice and bias), we still live in a racialized society.
If God is just and longs for his Church to pursue justice, part of pursuing justice in our American context means seeking ways to end racism in all of its forms: from my individual relationships to institutional injustices.
Jesus does this. We see Jesus go against the grain of an ethnically divided society on many occasions.
In John 4, Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for water at a well. Then he proceeds to tell her that he can give her living water “welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
Samaritans and Jews actually hated each other during this time. Regarding John 4, Jennie Allen wrote, “Full-blooded Jews looked on the Samaritans as unclean half-breeds. By Jesus’ time, the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was so strained that most Jews avoided traveling through Samaria at all costs.”
Jesus did not submit to the dominant culture’s “other-izing” of Samaritans influence his interaction with the woman at the well.
The Samaritan woman also did not listen to cultural “should’s” and “should not’s.” Most women went to the well in the morning or at night, but she showed up in the middle of the day.
What’s even more beautiful about this interaction is that Jesus knew her. He really knew her. She even went back to her town and said to its people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did” (John 4:29).
What happens next is important. John 4:39 says, “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did.’”
The power of the gospel ultimately saved those in this town. But think about this for a moment:
If Jesus and the Samaritan woman had allowed the racialized culture around them to dictate their interactions with one another, would an entire Samaritan town have been changed?
There are countless examples in which Jesus refuses to accept “the way things are,” intimately entering into spaces and stories others said he should not.
Jesus’ cross further initiated this reconciliation. Ephesians 2 speaks of a “dividing wall” between people that is demolished through his death on the cross.
This work is not finished, and God has given the Church a unique role in this work of reconciliation. Claiming not to see color or dismissing discussions about race as “divisive” or “political” adds bricks to this dividing wall.
God calls us to a different way.
He calls us to enter into another’s story, extending empathy before excuses.
He asks us to sit in the discomfort of our exposure to others’ stories, perspectives and suffering.
It will be uncomfortable because it won’t always make sense side by side with our own stories, perspectives and suffering.
It will be messy because politics will no longer be so black and white.
It will be painful because God will expose and convict us of deep-seated prejudices and biases against our neighbors.
It will be purifying because God will sift our biblical Christianity from our cultural preferences.
It will be costly because some people simply will not understand.
But it will be worth it. I know this because God cares deeply that people are reconciled to Himself and one another through the gospel.
The refusal to acknowledge racism as a sin has evangelistic and eternal consequences.
May we as the Church denounce racism and repent of our part in its continuation.
May we follow the example of Jesus: meeting at the well, exchanging stories and then chasing justice together.
Someone recently asked me this question in reference to the increase in my social media posts and in-person conversations regarding race in our churches, communities, and nation.
I realized when she asked that I’d admittedly assumed people were just tracking with me.
So I’ve decided to address this fundamental and important question in a four-part blog series this summer. I cannot speak as a voice of authority on people of color’s experiences. But I can testify to my own experience. Please leave comments or questions, and let’s learn together.