Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
Romans 12:2 NLT
“I don’t see colour.”
I cringe every time I hear this sentence. In most instances, people say it in an attempt to let me know that they are not racist, or that they value people regardless of their race. But I’m afraid it communicates something quite different. The alleged colour-blindness devalues me as a person of colour, and it does not foster the trust, healing, or intimacy that is needed within our churches and the broader culture. When I hear this statement and others like it, I wonder, “What are you afraid of?” What would seeing my colour say about me, and about you? I want the speaker to come face to face with that question. Then, I can share the truth that I know: God made us different on purpose, and that is good.
Because of course we see colour. We acknowledge its beauty when selecting fashion patterns. Colour contributes to our enjoyment of food, and it’s one of the many things we appreciate about nature. All able-bodied people see colour. So, if we claim that we do not, or if we refuse to see colour when we look at the body of another person, we are inherently acknowledging that something is wrong with our gaze. Something is indeed wrong, but it is not the colour of the other person’s skin.
The negative connotations and actions that are imparted because of the colour of a person’s skin is colourism. Colourism is one of the affects of racism. The idea of racism or being racist is what people are desperately seeking to avoid. Some Christians are under the false illusion that we will somehow all get along if we just ignore the issue of race, preach Galatians 3:28, and raise “colour-blind” kids. Ignoring colour or denying the fact that racism exists, however, will not solve the race issues in America, nor will it enable the racial reconciliation that is needed in the American church.
Black Lives Matter
Author Patricia Raybon is the product of the civil rights movement and Jim Crow era. She is also a black woman and the mother of black children. In her foreword to Amy Julia Becker’s book White Picket Fences, Raybon writes candidly about the toxicity, trauma, and terrorism of American racism on black bodies. She writes about the luxury allotted to families and children who do not live under this constant threat. It is a luxury that children of colour are not afforded, because too often black children and black bodies are targets for the violence of white supremacy, which is carried out in very visceral ways.
Within the last decade, the #BlackLivesMatter mantra has continually been raised in response to the senseless lives of those murdered for driving while black, playing while black, being big and black, worshipping while black, being black and outside, being slow to respond and black, or even illegally selling or stealing a box of cigarettes while black. The hashtag was created by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, now founders of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization and movement, to continue the conversation surrounding the murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. The murders of black bodies have continued. The most recent to gain national and global attention include Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks. Unfortunately, by the printing of this essay, there may be others.
Several of these murders have been a result of violent actions by the state on or in front of black children. These actions perpetuate racial terror and generational trauma. For African Americans specifically, this history is part of a layered narrative about the devaluing of black bodies that includes bounty hunting and raping slaves, lynching black bodies on trees, and now, the bondage of mass incarceration. “Thus, all children,” Raybon argues, “should see that racial terror exists—just as they’re taught that a stove is hot, a speeding car can kill them, and sadly so can other mayhem. Racism kills, too, and all children, no matter how young, should know about it. Then they can become justice allies and advocates, no matter how young.”
Herein lies the truth, but also the opportunity. You can say “Black Lives Matter” and not support or share all the values of the BLM movement and global organization. As I have written in my book A Sojourner’s Truth, “When the people of God collectively say, ‘black lives matter,’ it is a prophetic lament and cry for God to deliver, execute justice, and be a defense. . . . [It] is a prophetic message of freedom. When I say, ‘black lives matter,’ I am speaking about the truth that black people [also] bear the imago Dei.” Honouring the lives of humans, telling the truth, acting justly, and lamenting are sacred practices that will only occur when we renew our minds.
Renewing the Mind of Adults
Pretending that racism doesn’t exist and holding on to a colour-blind philosophy do not prepare us for truth-telling or justice work. At best, the “colour-blind” philosophy is irresponsible, and does not allow us to address the social construct of race and its impact on society. Race is a social construct created for the purpose of defining and classifying people. It is the outworking of white supremacy in America, because it is historical and systemic in its justification of determining who has legal rights—to freedom, land or property ownership, education, home ownership, quality health care, marriage, legal counsel, and so on—and who does not. In their classic work, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith report that we live in a racialized society. “A racialized society is a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships. A racialized society can also be said to be ‘a society that allocates differential economic, political, social, and event psychological rewards to groups along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed.’”
This social reality has historical context that affects our social conscious and creates implicit biases in our daily lives, personal relationships, and social systems. In her research, sociologist and author of White Kids: Growing up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, Margaret A. Hagerman reveals that “children develop ideas about race at a young age, whether adults talk to them about it or not. . . . Research also shows that although White parents often avoid talking about race with children, parents raising kids of color tend to employ a range of different strategies to help their children navigate a racist social structure—and that kids benefit from such conversations.” Hagerman’s research also found that children’s attitudes about racism were different based on their race or ethnicity and social or economic location.
Children’s perceptions about race stem from our adult problems. The Public Religion Research Institute has reported that “three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends,” and are very unlikely to have intimate relationships with nonwhite people in whom they have important conversations or consider the other person trustworthy. Therefore, it is not surprising that many white children of uninformed, misinformed, or do not trust people who are different from them. They are simply modelling the behaviours of their parents.
This is why it is critically important for Christians to intentionally grow in wisdom and knowledge about what and who we do not know, and to renew our minds concerning the myths, stereotypes, stories, and narratives that we have subconsciously believed about the other. If you believe that a black woman is sexually promiscuous, where did you learn that myth? If your body tenses up when a black man walks too close and your mind starts telling you that he is a threat, where did you get that narrative? If you believe that a person within the Latino community was accepted into your children’s college because of affirmative action, or received a promotion at work because of a diversity quota, who told you that story? If you think that undocumented workers are taking American jobs and do not pay taxes, how does that stereotype make you feel about them and about yourself? These are examples of implicit biases—thoughts that turn into actions that are often based on assumptions received and then believed as true—and we all have them. We must interrogate and challenge these assumptions because they have a profound effect on the ways that we relate or cause harm to the other.
Racism continues to cast clouds of darkness and division over America. The good news is, only light puts out darkness. If good people do not know the history, do not understand the times, and do not tell the truth about the darkness, and our light remains hidden, then, how can people see? Christians cannot simply accept or ignore the reality of our social condition. We cannot be silent. Our brothers and sisters of colour are constantly mourning over these injustices. The Bible affirms that the things which cause my brother or sister to mourn should also be of concern to me (Romans 12:15). We have a responsibility to renew our minds, to educate ourselves, to humbly confess when we are wrong, and unlearn harmful beliefs and practices. Only then can we intentionally teach our children to love their neighbour by being merciful, valuing our ethnic differences, naming racial injustices when it happens, and prayerfully taking the risk of responding righteously against this evil. This is what the Lord requires of good people (Micah 6:8).
Here are some ways that we can work toward the common good:
1. Educate yourself. Read books and watch movies and documentaries. Having a racial focus in the learning material is not necessary. It is more important to hear the voices and listen and learn from the experiences, convictions, life rhythms, and practices of people who are different from us. Seek material that is authored and produced by racial and ethnic minorities.
2. Intentionally pick your leaders and mentors. If you check the senior leadership of most organizations, you will often find white male leaders. Our institutions—especially the Christian ones—need the leadership of people of colour, and our organizational leaders and employees need mentors who are people of colour. Within Christian institutions, it is more important than ever for people of colour to have safe places to live authentically, serve humbly, and use their influence and experiences to shape our theology (what we know and believe about God) and our praxis (the ethics of our human behaviour or what we actually do). If your life’s purpose and calling includes marketplace work, then you have a responsibility to champion these efforts on your job as well. We need to honour the professional skills and expertise that people of colour offer to help us grow individually and collectively as a people, and in our work. It is an act of justice to financially support minority-led and minority-owned business, projects, and initiatives.
3. Embrace the other. Unity in the diversity of God’s kingdom is good, must be prayerfully cultivated for the sake of our Christian witness (John 17:20–21, 23), and is a welcome eternal reality (Revelation 5:9–10; 7:9). My black female friend Chaplain Khristi Adams recently posted on Twitter, “Just because you’re an ally doesn’t automatically make you an expert.” The most affirming thing we can do for our brothers and sisters of colour is choosing to see and understand the issues before we speak or act, remembering that small things done with great love can be a source of healing and redemption.
Given the tensions and racial trauma of our current reality, cross-cultural relationships must be handled with care. If you have safe and loving personal relationships with diverse people groups, it is necessary to discern your role and responsibility within those relationships. If you are a person of colour who has a diverse community of friends, be sure that you are caring for your soul and are clear about your boundaries as you seek to love yourself and others well. Be gracious while understanding that forgiveness is something that we continually learn and practice. We must also renew our minds as we grow in the discipline of holding space for righteous anger, while not falling into sinful practices.
It is also important for all people, and especially white people, to develop close relationships with those who are of a different ethnic background and/or socioeconomic class. These actions are more than having minority co-workers as associates. For the renewal to really take place in our hearts, some radical decisions must be made. We must commit to being a loving and safe person for people of colour to be around. This means that each of us must be committed to our own work of dismantling our knowledge and gaps in understanding regarding the social, historical, and theological effects of white supremacy. This is not a burden to place on our black or brown friends. It is hard work, and one that we must all consistently commit to. It means that we willingly show up in places where we are not in the majority or where people who look like us are not always in charge. It requires humility and a willingness to listen. It means going back to points 1 and 2 again and again, submitting to the leadership and mentorship of people of colour, paying people of colour for their expertise, and supporting their organizations and businesses. If you really want to embrace the other, you must prove yourself trustworthy as you seek to learn from the life experiences of people of colour.
4. Fight for justice. The unjust social reality in which we live is systemic in nature, and can’t only be overturned by individual transformation alone. While our personal relationships are important, we must also seek to understand how our social structures affect the lives of people who are not like us. Jesus offered good news that had spiritual and physical consequences (Luke 4:18–19). Seeking the common good requires that we commit to and become like God, who is love. Seeking the common good means becoming people of justice who like Jesus, are willing to lay down our lives and privileges for the sake of others (John 15:9–10, 12–14, 17; Philippians 2:5–8). Justice is our love in action.
Mural: Under the Same Sky by Kevin Ledo, Portland, Oregon. Photo credit: aptART.