I’ve been having a difficult time making myself write, because it seems inauthentic to write about anything other than what’s going on in the world around us, but it also feels exhausting and overwhelming to write about what’s going on in the world around us. I feel a weird mix of wanting to use my voice to speak up and speak out while also wanting to create space for black people to speak up and speak out. Their voices have been drowned out long enough, and I don’t want to be just another white person talking over them. I have been feeling a strong pull to write about my own journey to becoming anti-racist, though, because I think it’s important to not only recognize my privilege, but to use my privilege to try to knock down as many barriers as possible. And more times than not, those barriers are the thought patterns, inherent biases, and internalized racism of people just like me.
First, let me address that my journey to anti-racism aligns pretty closely with my journey away from conservatism, but I am in no way saying that conservatives are the bad guys and liberals are the good guys. There are plenty of racist liberals and plenty of anti-racist conservatives. This piece is not political. This piece is simply my truth and my lived experience, so I ask for you to read this with an open heart and a helping of grace. Anti-racism should be a bipartisan issue. I want to express the need to hold our worldview very loosely, instead of viewing everything with a rigid mind and closed fists. More than anything, I want my words to create unity over division.
Like most of my readers, I was raised in a notch of the Bible Belt, surrounded by conservatives, Christians, and comfort. My parents made decent money and were loving and attentive. My mom and dad taught me to love everyone, regardless of their skin color. One of my best friends in the neighborhood was a black boy who lived across the street. My parents never mentioned anything about his skin color, as far as I remember. In fact, race was never, ever brought up. I say all of this to say that even within an accepting and loving home, I was still racked with internalized racism.
I know that the word “racism” or “racist” is triggering for a lot of people, but I need you to hear me out. I specifically remember saying microaggressions as a kid, like “you’re basically white” and “she’s so pretty for a black girl”. I had a black friend or a black boyfriend here and there, but the majority of my social circle was white. My worldview was so incredibly shaped by my surroundings, as all kids’ are. I hated Bill Clinton because my parents hated Bill Clinton. I loved Bush because my parents loved Bush. When the 2008 election was happening, I hated Obama, because everyone around me hated Obama. I truly thought he was the Antichrist, because people around me were saying he was the Antichrist. His name sounded Muslim. He wasn’t white. He was a Democrat. He was “other”. He terrified me.
I’m not turning a piece about race into politics, but this part needs to be said so you can understand, so stay with me. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about his platform, what he was passionate about, his character, nothing. I simply hated him out of fear, because everyone else around me hated him out of fear, and I didn’t know yet that looking at different worldviews was even an option. We were comfortable, conservative Christians, and we were right. Everyone else was godless, evil, and wrong. God, I remember someone challenging my Christian beliefs in high school and feeling so victimized and persecuted. Embarrassing.
Chase and I got married in 2008, and he was stationed in California, so I moved out there a month before Election Day. Talk about culture shock. There were people on each corner shouting to “Vote No on Prop 8!” Proposition 8 was a ballot proposition in California that would eliminate the rights of same-sex partners to marry. My friend, Lindsey, flew out to visit me one time and asked what Prop 8 was. “I don’t know all the details, but I know that if you’re a Christian you vote yes on Prop 8,” I answered. God, I am so ashamed of that now. When you live your life with every single privilege afforded to you, it takes intention and effort to notice and connect with the plight of the oppressed.
I went from a town with churches on every corner – where it was rare to find a “nonbeliever”, where every manicured lawn had a John McCain yard sign in it – to an overwhelmingly blue state – where churches were still present but very spread out, where there were plenty of people with differing beliefs everywhere. I was shook. For the first time in my life, I felt like the outsider. The other.
I finished out my associates degree online, eventually decided I wanted to go into the psychology field, and began my social psychology degree in 2010. If you’ve never heard of social psychology, it’s the branch of psychology that investigates the ways other people affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Can you see how studying this subject made me examine my upbringing a little bit more and question my worldview that I always accepted as truth? I began living out my major. I did the uncomfortable work of having my beliefs challenged and my thought patterns shifted and stretched.
I vividly remember sitting in one of my classes, and we were discussing same-sex marriage. I still held the belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but I now carried that belief loosely. I could feel the sand shifting and could feel myself stretching and opening to the views and points that people were bringing up.
I had a really close friend who was a lesbian, and I couldn’t reconcile her humanity with the rigid, cold beliefs I was carrying. So I dropped those beliefs and grabbed her hand. It’s really easy cling to beliefs that hurt other people until you enter into a relationship with the person it’s hurting. Opinions and rhetoric and hypothetical situations never change hearts, but humanity does. Relationship does. Love does.
My husband got stationed in Virginia, so we moved there in 2012. Obama had been in office 4 years, and although the nation was split between people who liked him and people who didn’t, it turned out he wasn’t the Antichrist after all. My views on a lot of matters were slowly changing, but it was a gentle shift over the course of years. I remember thinking that I just don’t care enough to really pay attention to politics. I was so apathetic about so much happening in our world, and I never even realized that that is a sign of privilege. You can only be truly apathetic about things if they aren’t affecting you.
It was around this time that Eric Garner was killed. He was approached by a NYPD officer under suspicion of selling single cigarette from packs. He was put in a chokehold, said “I can’t breathe” 11 times, and then died. I saw something about it on the news, but again, I didn’t really pay attention to the news or anything that wasn’t outside of my bubble. Less than a month later, Michael Brown was shot 6 times and killed during an altercation with a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. This incited the Ferguson Unrest (also called the Ferguson riots).
The protests and riots in Ferguson caught my attention a little bit more, mainly because a lot of my friends on Facebook were talking about it. I had a very basic understanding of it all – a black 18-year-old was killed by a white police officer, and a lot of people were mad, so they were rioting.
I pretty much stayed away from all things political or controversial on social media, but I felt self-righteous enough to make a post about this.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I just don’t see how rioting and destroying property will get you what you want.”
I clicked “post” and looked out the window, feeling pretty smug and satisfied with myself. Until God whispered to me and brought me up short.
Have you ever heard the voice of God? More times than not, it’s a whisper and not a shout. I vividly remember standing in my living room in Virginia and looking out the front window, and out of nowhere I hear a whisper in my mind saying, “Thank you, God, that I am not other people.”
Uuuhhhh. That’s weird.
I stood there for a minute, wondering where the hell that came from and what it meant. I knew I had heard it before but didn’t know what it had to do with anything. So I googled it, and Luke 18 popped up. Here’s what it said:
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Now as I’m reading this, every time I read Pharisee, an image of myself would pop up in my mind. Every time I read tax collector, and image of the protestors and rioters (specifically the black protestors and rioters) would pop up in my mind.
OOF. That stung.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the Bible, Pharisees were the hyper-religious, self-righteous people who were more concerned with their appearance than actually living out their religion. Jesus called them whitewashed tombs – beautiful on the outside but rotting and full of death on the inside. Tax collectors were hated because of their perceived greed and their connection to the Romans. Jesus ate with and spent time with tax collectors.
“But I’m a good person! I don’t riot or destroy property when I’m upset about something!” I thought.
Then the whisper.
If an overwhelming amount of people who looked like you or your husband or your dad or your brother or your friends were being murdered, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you – after centuries of oppression and inequality, feeling backed into a corner like a caged animal – want to burn down everything in your path to stop the killing of your people? Can’t you just step out of your own little bubble for a moment and try to understand how they might be feeling?
Images of my family, my friends, the people I loved, being killed over and over again by people of another race, flashed in my mind. Thoughts of being terrified to get pulled over, to go into a store without buying something, to leave home… sometimes, to even be in your home. A feeling of despair, then helplessness, then fury welled up inside me. I fell to my knees and wept.
The coin had been spinning in the air for years, and it finally landed decidedly on Love. On empathy. On compassion. The gentle shift had turned into a forceful reckoning.
The scales fell off my eyes. My mind and heart stretched in such a way that they could never go back to their old dimensions. They were cracked wide open.
Now, do you see?
Is rioting and violence and destruction of property wrong? Of course. But can’t you see why it sometimes seems like the only option? Why are we so quick to cheer on the underdog in movies who finally says ENOUGH and responds to injustice in this way, but also so quick to throw stones when it is happening in the real world?
Doesn’t it make you want to work together for a world where injustice is met with justice so swift that no one feels the need to burn down the world so they’ll be heard? For a world where injustice and inequality are rare? Where we won’t even have to respond to these tragedies, because they don’t happen?
There’s so much work to do, you guys. We have so far to go. That happened to me 6 years ago, and I am still uncovering inherent biases that I have to unlearn. It’s a life-long unlearning, but I’m committed to it. It starts with love. It starts when we drop the judgments, the condemnation, the rigid beliefs devoid of love and compassion. We have to open our hands so we can hold them out and pull our brothers and sisters from the wreckage.
Will you drop your stones and join me?