I don’t usually publish things like this, but this one won’t rest and can’t be ignored any longer. I can’t get it out of my head, and so, I write. Today, my heart is breaking for my dark skinned brothers and sisters everywhere. Because, yes, America, racism still exists.
Note: This post was written about the shooting in Charleston, SC in 2015, but it still resonates with me today.
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 different 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 a few years outside of my sheltered life that I experienced obvious 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.
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 over 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 is often asked about racism in Mississippi and how his views have changed over the years. He’s even been asked how he got out of Mississippi without being racist (but that’s a whole separate discussion that needs to be unpacked).
(Note: This is no way implies that people who live in certain state or area all think the same way or act the same way. It has just been his experience with questions he has been asked. He is quick to clarify that it’s not just a Mississippi problem.)
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 there, I cannot count the number of times I saw people 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. Many people believe that 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.
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, it IS a race issue, and it’s past time for racism to die, especially among Christians and in the Church.
I’m not just referring to blatant racism like the KKK, burning crosses, or using the “n-word” or other slurs. That’s how many people define racism. It’s easy to see those forms.
I’m talking about the more subtle hidden prejudices and biases that we all have. I’m talking about racism that is veiled and covert, so it’s harder to uncover.
I’m talking about refusing to admit that the color of my skin (and perhaps yours) affords me certain advantages.
I’m talking about not worrying about walking into a house under construction without being hunted down and shot. I’m talking about refusing to recognize that some may judge other cultures or ethnicities based on language, dress, etc.
I’m talking about friends who are told not to speak Spanish because we speak English. I’m talking about students being bullied. I’m talking about my friends who are worried about their kids’ futures and having conversations with them about their futures.
And as a follower of Jesus, I am called to this: I am called to stop pretending that there isn’t a wounded 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.
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.
My Hispanic friends have been told to stop speaking Spanish because we speak English here in America. They have been asked to leave restaurants because they were speaking Spanish.
My friends who have dark skinned or biracial children are having conversations with their children about how people may make assumptions about them based on their skin color. They are discussing the dangers and difficulties they may face purely based on pigmentation.
It’s not fair, and it breaks my heart!
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 took our girls to Costa Rica one summer was 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.
Because how will racism truly end in this country?
In one conversation I had with a black 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.
And maybe it starts with breaking bread–together. One beautiful black family with one beautiful white family at a time. Listening to each other and sharing each other’s experiences. Don’t try to solve the problem or have all the answers. Just listen.
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.
It starts with acknowledging the fact that racism still exists.
It starts by taking action and standing up for others.
It starts by asking ourselves hard questions and being willing to examine our own issues and challenge our own preconceived notions.
Be open to acknowledging your own biases and acknowledging that there have been injustices towards our minority brothers and sisters.
The vast majority of them are not trying to blame you for what is happening or accuse you of supporting racism. They just want to know that we recognize what is going on and will stand with them to stop it.
Will and I have discussed this in great detail recently. He told me that he has wrestled with this over the last few years. “I’ve had to be brutally honest with myself and reframe much of my thought processes. I’ve had to read, question, understand, and reconsider many judgements,” he said.
“Most of all, I’ve had to listen,” he continued. “Listen to others’ perspectives and expressions. I’ve had to dig into Scripture and allow the Holy Spirit to change me. The discomfort was real, and it was exhausting. But it will give way to empathy, compassion, awareness, and action. It’s the the first step…it’s difficult…it’s painful…but it’s absolutely necessary and worth it.”
It’s a difficult process, but it is so well worth the work to get to the end result. Once we begin, there are layers of assumptions and thoughts that we must examine in ourselves. It will be uncomfortable, but we need to get uncomfortable and allow the Holy Spirit to sanctify us.
I will never be able to understand exactly what racism feels like to my dark skinned brothers and sisters. But I don’t have to. I can listen to them, empathize with them, love them, and walk along side them to take action.
It is something each of us must do on an individual basis working with our brothers and sisters to stop racism.