My first reaction when my teacher said this was a sort of pity. How could she have been convinced to adopt such a self-loathing posture? It is clear that she loves, respects, and often defers to people of color. She shouldn’t believe such a nasty thing about herself.
Besides, if she’s a racist, I’m a racist.
At its most benign, I gravitate towards people who look like me and away from those who don’t, on the bus, in the store, and at church.
At its most shameful, I wonder if black men in hoodies are drug dealers; I feel contempt towards black teenagers being loud on the train; I try to avoid the teller at the post office who I assume to be from India.
Are those things my “fault”? No. It’s human nature to want to associate with those who are similar to you, and even, perhaps, to be wary of those who aren’t.
Are those things still shameful? Are they still racist?
When I learned about the civil rights movement in school, it seemed a lot of people bent over backwards to demonize racists. Racists were those who wanted to segregate hotels, buses, and schools, and they were evil for believing that others were inferior based on the color of their skin. These lessons made it seem that the struggle was over and the racists had disappeared as soon as they “lost” segregation. Even for a room full of white students sitting one block from the site of a lynching that spurred the forced exile of every black person from the county, the lessons made it easy to feel proud of ourselves for not thinking slavery or segregation were good ideas.
In their attempts to teach us the right answers, our schools taught us half-truths. Of course racism is deplorable and unacceptable. But of course also, tragically, it dwells within all of our hearts. The problem is, there’s no right answer on a multiple-choice test for facing the sickness inside ourselves. Our schools thought we could bury it and it would never make its way out of us; but that only shoved it closer to our cores, intertwined it with every piece of us as we grew. This happened not least because it was intertwined with everything else we were a part of, too: neighborhoods segregated through tradition and economic barriers; stereotypes as shortcuts for cheap laughs and cheap thrills; a culture that rewards values of white people like quietness, rationality, and procedure; rhetoric that convinces us the safety of white people depends on the surveillance and punishment of black people. We didn’t know these things were making us feel superior to others. It was just the way the world was. Meanwhile, outside our town that many black people still feared, perhaps we couldn’t know, as children, that black people were suffering from the legacies of concerted efforts to make and keep them unemployed, uneducated, poor, and imprisoned.
The grown-ups couldn’t bear to believe, let alone tell us, that the sickness was all of ours. Now we are the grown-ups, and we are deeply ill-equipped to deal with our sickness and theirs, the sickness that infects everything; but we have to try.
A thing about sickness is that it is never, ever, fair. It’s one of the main reasons we resist the diagnosis of racism. No one deserves something like that, twisting up their insides and skewing their well-intentioned lives off course.
I’m glad I had an education outside of my school. All my life I’ve been wrestling with the idea of original sin and the words of preachers who said I couldn’t be saved until I accepted my own depravity. It never struck me as a nice way to look at the world. I prefer the thought that Jesus, by “saving” me, just wants to make me even better than I already am. He isn’t here to mess up my life or my society too much. He likes me just fine and he wouldn’t make me feel bad about myself. That’s the line they took at school, after all: developing character is about improving yourself and being nice, not, like, examining things too deeply. Sin is “out there” and your job is just to not be a part of it.
Sin, too, in school, is something you either did or didn’t do, are or are not responsible for. This left us totally unequipped to talk about what it means to share responsibility for something you didn’t do. We don’t know how to talk about the ways we are all connected to one another by the ways we organize ourselves—the systems we live under—as well as the actions we directly take towards each other. We would rather believe that evils we didn’t personally create are someone else’s problem. We won’t face the fact that the someone else is the person who’s dying as a result.
I am grateful now to believe in confession, repentance, salvation, and the hard work of healing. Here it is, y’all, here is the good news about racism: we were all born to be better. We were made to receive the love of God and to be with other people. There is no limit to the goodness you and I are meant to behold and to reflect, no end to the joy and love we can spread. And at the very same time we are born into a world that makes this impossible for us. One moment it threatens us and turns us ferocious out of self-preservation; the next it flatters us and makes us bloated with greed. Now we know we are victims of unfairness but we also know, in our moments alone, that we have become perpetrators. We remember moments of pure cruelty, cowardice, selfishness, and deceit. We think of them, and we hide.
But God comes for us. God always comes for us. She sees and she weeps for the destruction we have wrought, but she also sees through the mud we’ve crawled in and the pathetic armor we’ve built to who we really are: she knows our little lights, dimmed, flickering beneath so many layers of sin and despair. And this God is not some princess, gingerly pinching her prize by the nape of the neck to lift it out of the mud. This God still loves the whole swamp and once she is invited, she wades, swims, without hesitation straight through the sticky mud to embrace us: no lectures, no punishments. Only a whisper: this will hurt. But I am with you. I am always, always with you.
But you have to call out from where you are. You have to know that you are drowning in the swamp. You have to let it be true that you will always be both sinner and saint—always rooting out that illness.
Our light could flare out, pierce through the dim, and our patch of the swamp could become a garden. We could live with joy and without fear and without condemnation. But there is no healing without pain, no growth without humility.
We can go on drowning in inequality, violence, and an utter failure to exercise compassion or understanding for one another. Or we can cry out for rescue.
I think it will look like one small, brave, wavering voice at a time.
I am a racist, and I want to be healed.