I grew up in a white bubble. I was born into a middle-class family of Irish, German, and Czech descent, both sides of my parents’ families settled in the USA for multiple generations. We lived in a middle-class white neighborhood in Colorado Springs, and we went to a PCA church with more than a thousand pasty-pale members. The only person of color I have any memory of in that church was the adopted daughter of white parents. I was homeschooled, and my family’s participation in homeschool co-ops, piano festivals and competitions, and speech and debate clubs and tournaments, put us into contact with people who looked just like us.
The first time I had any regular interaction with a black person was when I worked as the receptionist in a small for-profit college campus. That was when I got to know Carl, who worked as one of the admissions officers. There were a lot of AOs, and one of my jobs when I answered the phones was to direct callers interested in the school to the right AO. Though even at the time I questioned the ethics of for-profit colleges, and I still wonder if I was wrong to work for one even if only as a Desk Ornament, I am thankful for the little bit of exposure it gave me to something besides my white bubble. Carl was always friendly and had a greeting or a joke for me when he passed by my desk. I can remember one day he stopped at my desk after a teacher had come by. This particular teacher always smelled so strongly of cigarettes that he left his aura behind him, and it lingered for a good five minutes. Carl wrinkled his nose and asked if it was that teacher. I said yes and we exchanged a conspiratorial grin. Carl also smoked, but he explained how he hated the smell, and always took extra care not to smoke in any confined place so that it wouldn’t get into his clothes. Carl had kids whom he talked about with great fondness. He was working on his own education. He was kind.
I married at twenty-two, and since my husband was/is an Air Force fighter pilot, I was back in my white bubble. The fighter community is overwhelmingly white. In the ten years since my husband started pilot training, he has known one black pilot. Nate has worked very hard to get to where he is, but he is the first to acknowledge that he has experienced privileges and opportunities to help him get to where he wanted to go, privileges and opportunities that people of color rarely have.
Our first active duty station was at Shaw AFB in Sumter, SC. For the first time in my life I was living in the American South– the deep South– and I am ashamed to admit that I went on living in my white bubble. We went to a small, PCA church that was filled with white people. There was one older black man who sometimes attended and sat in the back. Other than him, the only non-white face in the congregation was the adopted son of a white couple.
I started a book club with some of my church friends and the first book we read was To Kill A Mockingbird. I remember getting hot under the collar when one of the women in the group said that, “most black people nowadays create their own problems, and I have a black friend who says the same thing.” I sharply protested the comment. I remember the feeling of outrage, remember the satisfaction I took in my contradiction. I’m not a racist. I speak up against those kind of comments.
Being homeschooled, I learned a lot of history. I learned a lot of whitewashed history. I knew that slavery was wrong– I read the “Addy” series of American Girl books, but I don’t have any other memories of historical fiction books told from an enslaved person’s point of view. I do remember us reading Across Five Aprils, which is the story of a white farmer family during the Civil War who has sons who fight on both sides of the war. The emphasis was on the sufferings of the soldiers and the white men, not the enslaved people. I can remember the idea being present in the study of slavery– I don’t know if it was explicitly stated in one of the Christian history books, or if it was more subtly implied– that if it wasn’t for the slave trade the Africans would never have learned about Jesus. This wasn’t exactly presented as a justification of slavery, but there was an underlying vibe that said, “see, God works everything out for good! All those African people would have gone to hell if they hadn’t come to America and encountered Christianity.”
I did not learn about any of the aftermath of the Civil War. In my mind, the Civil War ended slavery, the black people were free, and now everything was all right. I don’t remember learning much about the Civil Rights movement, except a little about Rosa Parks and a little about Martin Luther King Jr. I didn’t learn about lynchings. I didn’t learn about Emmett Till. I didn’t learn about the KKK as anything more than a footnote. I didn’t know about apartheid until I took an African voices class in college. I thought racism was a thing of the past.
My husband went to a high school in a highly privileged Atlanta suburb. Out of 3,000 students he estimates about 10% were black. He has told me stories multiple times about his history class, taught by the football coach. This “teacher” taught his class that the South had no choice but to go to war to protect state’s rights. (I asked, “Was slavery mentioned at all?” Nate said, in a sarcastic imitation of the football coach, “What did slavery have to do with it?”)
I was raised in an atmosphere where submission to authority was heavily emphasized. The protests against Vietnam were spoken of with condemnation. We were supposed to obey our leaders (though if our leaders were Democrats then the obedience was begrudging, and the leaders themselves were fair game for belittling and condemnation). The only discrimination in the United States that I was taught to fear was the fear of legal regulations against homeschooling. The only memory I have of any conversation about race was an article in my God’s World News, (a kid’s news publication that was put out by World Magazine, a heavily-right-leaning Christian publication) explaining how unjust affirmative action was. I was probably only ten or eleven at the time, and the takeaway I got from that was that black people had no right to expect special privileges. They had to work for what they wanted just like we did. Slavery was over, they got to vote, so why were they complaining?
What’s the point of all this? In light of the brutality and suffering which we have seen playing out in this desperately sick nation in the past week and months and years, what is the point of rambling on about my own white-washed childhood and adult life?
I think what I am trying to say is this. Maybe racism doesn’t just look like a white person shouting the n-word, or a raging white woman calling the cops on a black person who asks her to leash her dog, or somebody saying “black people cause their own problems.” Maybe racism is also about what isn’t there– the absence of positives, the absence of truth, as well as the presence of overt negatives. Maybe racism is as much an unconscious attitude and an oblivious atmosphere as it is a conscious embrace of a hateful narrative and actions. Or maybe that’s what white privilege is. Or maybe it’s both. I don’t know the answers. I am ignorant and uninformed and privileged. Perhaps I have never been explicitly racist in my actions or words but I am a passive racist by benefiting without thought or concern from a society skewed against people of color. I am a thought racist because when I encounter an expression of a non-white, non-Western culture that makes me uncomfortable, my default is to assume, even if only at a gut, non-cognitive level, that this cultural expression is “inappropriate.” I am communally racist because I have been content to stay in my white bubble where I am comfortable and unchallenged.
The thing that so struck me when I read Amy Cooper’s apology was that she started by saying “I am not a racist.” It’s an absurd claim, given her actions. But I think that her attitude is indicative of our entire whitewashed culture. We are so ashamed and terrified of our racism that we would rather deny its existence even in the face of overwhelming evidence. We fear that racism is the unforgivable sin, and in fear of being cast into the outer darkness, we will stop our ears and shut our eyes and keep up a chant that it’s not my fault, I’M not a racist!
But what if racism is not the unforgivable sin? What if it is a communal sin, a disease that is deadly if left untreated, but not incurable? And what if the treatment may be long and painful, both individually and communally, but the cure is gloriously beautiful and worth all the pain? But we cannot begin the treatment unless we are first willing to admit that we are sick.
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Thus spoke a brown-skinned man from Galilee, and the only people who thought they didn’t need healing were the people in power, the religious leaders, the people who benefited from the system. They killed the itinerant preacher rather than confront their own sickness.
I am a racist. Today I repent. I will have to keep repenting. I am ignorant and privileged and proud. I want to be humble. I want to listen. I want to learn. I want my life in the future to look different from what it has in the past. I know that I will not change overnight. Unlearning racism, scraping off the white-wash, getting outside my comfort zone, taking steps towards change– it is process. I ask the forgiveness and mercy of my sisters and brothers of color. You have already been so patient. I don’t deserve your patience. I know that, and I am sorry that for so long I failed to acknowledge it. I am sorry that for so long I failed to see my own privilege and your suffering. It was a failure borne both out of ignorance and choice, and I am sorry. I want to do better. I want to be better. I am sick, and I want to be healed.
I have been deconstructing my faith for some time now. My concept of God is very different from what it was two years ago. The God whom I (sometimes) believe in now looks almost nothing like the God of my PCA conservative white upbringing. That God was big on judgment. That God judged nations and individuals, condemning them for their sin. Hell was always a present, if unspoken, threat.
But now I wonder… what if judgment is just a different word for diagnosis? What if God’s judgment is simply a Divine shaft of illuminating light, a light so piercing and pure that our dissembling and pretenses and denial falters and you and I are forced to confront the truth about ourselves? Then judgment is not about condemnation or punishment– it is about choice. We are given our diagnosis: we are deadly sick. Will we choose to begin the long, slow, painful path towards healing?