I don’t usually publish more than one post in a day, but this one won’t rest. I can’t get it out of my head, and so, I write. Today, my heart is breaking, not just for the people of Charleston but for black people everywhere. Because, yes, America, racism still exists.
When I read that a shooting had occurred and people were dead, I immediately picked up my phone. Heart pounding, fingers shaking, I dialed my mom: “Are they home? Are they home yet? There’s been a shooting.”
Hours before, my husband, girls, and I had left my extended family in the Low Country of South Carolina and headed home. Around the same time we drove toward North Carolina, my brother, sister-in-law, and two of my cousins started toward downtown Charleston, Calhoun Street.
My mom calmed my fears and let me know they were home, safe.
But my family members were never in danger that night: They are white.
My parents taught me that we are human. That someone having a different color skin is no different from someone with blond hair versus someone with red hair. That God’s human creation is made up of a myriad of beautiful colors. That we were all created in His image.
I grew up with very little knowledge of racism.
I spent my childhood in predominantly white Christian schools. My sister had one little black girl in her class, Clarissa. Clarissa and Shannon were best friends. My parents, Bob and Becky, enjoyed friendship with Clarissa’s parents, Jim and Sarah, too.
Clarissa and her family didn’t seem any different from our family. They laughed. They cried. They played. They loved God and each other. Jim and Sarah were entrepreneurs and in the ministry as well. They worked hard to provide for their family.
One of their businesses was a predominantly black Christian daycare center. The summer I turned 15, they gave me a job.
The kids called me Ms. Boyd (my maiden name).
“Ms. Boyd, are you black?” they asked.
I laughed and shook my head.
“But is your Mama black? Is your Daddy black?”
I got the same questions from Hispanic children when I taught ESL in a Memphis suburb as a newlywed.
“Mrs. Odom, are you Mexican? Is your Mama Mexican? Is your Daddy?”
Back then, I found it humorous, but the more I’ve considered it, the more I’ve realized that, perhaps, to them, I appeared black and Hispanic because they didn’t see blue eyes and red hair and ghost-white skin. They saw love.
The little black children at the daycare center saw a teenage girl who hugged them, praised them, sang silly songs with them, and taught them Bible verses.
The little Mexican children saw a teacher who spoke their first language, who ate their food, who asked about their families and country.
It wasn’t until I spent five years of my 20s right outside of Memphis, Tennessee that I experienced true racism for the first time.
It’s not that it doesn’t exist in my home state of North Carolina; it does. But my parents sheltered me from it. Racism exists everywhere, but I experienced for the first time in the Memphis.
In the Deep South, racism still hangs thick, choking the culture like the humid heat there suffocates the breeze out of July.
Memphis is the home of the blues, tasty barbecue, Elvis’s Graceland, and the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot to death on April 4, 1968.
It’s been nearly 50 years.
But Memphis hasn’t forgotten.
My husband grew up about 45 miles down the Mississippi River from Memphis–in a small town in northern Mississippi. His high school prom was segregated–in 1995. That is right, friends. 1995. He attended a white prom, while his classmates attended a black one.
“I don’t know why we had separate proms,” he says. “We liked each other and hung out at school, but the proms were in different locations.”
He’s asked often how he made it out of Mississippi without being racist.
While living in that suburb of Memphis, I heard the “n” word used for the first time.
I cringed incredulously and filled with anger when I heard black people spoken of derogatorily. And in the five years I lived in the Deep South, I cannot count the number of times I saw whites and blacks feign warmth and cordiality in public only to go back to their racist lives in private.
Real relationships between those of different races is, sadly, not as common as it should be. In the Bible Belt, Sundays are still the most segregated day of the week.
Racism’s roots run deep.
Wednesday night, June 17: Another high-profile violence against black people. This time, it was in a church.
And this time, we can’t deny it. This wasn’t an accident. This wasn’t a random mishap of the police.
This was a premeditated act of hate against a specific group of people.
Yes, America, racism still exists.
Pretending that it doesn’t does not help the issue one bit.
The comment I hear most frequently from my fellow white Christians in the Bible-Belt South after an incident like the one in Charleston is this: They are going to make it into a race issue.
Who are they anyway? Black people? Liberals? The media?
Friends, what if it is a race issue?
And as a follower of Jesus, I am called to this: I am called to stop pretending that the there isn’t a man lying on the side of the road.
I am called to stop walking past him. I am called to bend down, help him up, and be the Good Samaritan–even if he despises me because of my skin color too.
I don’t care about guns laws or politics. But as a Christian, I am called to care about people.
It’s time to stand up, Christians. White Americans, we cannot continue to pretend that this is not an issue in our country. We just can’t.
My black friends grew up with stories of their parents and grandparents drinking out of separate water fountains, using “colored” restrooms, riding in the back of buses, dodging hate crimes.
Can we blame them for their suspicion?
My little girls still know nothing of racism, but I know a day will come when I will need to explain to them that some of their friends are disliked because of the color of their skin.
One reason we are taking our girls to Costa Rica this summer is because we want to normalize inter-racial friendships and cultural diversity for our children.
We want them to experience relationships with those who look different from them.
There was just one little black girl in my firstborn’s kindergarten class this year. She attends a predominantly white Christian school–just like I did.
My husband and I have enjoyed just a few interactions with this little girl’s parents, but my hope is that we can get to know them more.
Because how will racism truly end in this country?
It starts with Jesus. It starts with the love that he has called us to. It starts with friendships.
It starts one conversation at a time.
In our last interaction with this family, the father said: “We need to get together and break bread.”
I liked that–break bread.
Jesus broke bread with his followers. He didn’t set up fancy dinners or organize polarizing political gatherings. He simply broke bread.
Maybe it starts with acknowledging the fact that racism still exists.
And maybe it starts with breaking bread–together. One beautiful black family with one beautiful white family at a time.