My heart is so broken for our country right now. The pain and anger reflected in protests and social media posts is tragic and so painful. As I’ve been watching news coverage about Ferguson, I’ve found myself staring at the screen at disbelief while tears sting my eyes. It’s sobering and disheartening to think about the eruption of hate spewed in our society since the grand jury results were read.
I think one of the reasons the events of the last 48 hours hit me so hard is that they serve as a reminder. They remind me of the journey I’ve been on as I’ve sought to understand what it’s like to be black in America. I’ve been trying to understand how it feels to be consistently stereotyped, discriminated against, and profiled. I’ve been trying to understand the fear that mothers have that their child will be the next victim, because there have been many, many victims.
The journey has been painful. I grew up sheltered. I didn’t know anyone of a different race until I was in sixth grade, and I remember not knowing what to think. Race was not a discussion in my family, because we were surrounded by people who were just like us. But the underlying messages that society spread were there. They permeated my understanding throughout childhood and adolescence. And the offhand jokes and comments about minorities made in my presence were ingrained in my consciousness throughout my life. I think deep down I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t really know what to think.
There were several turning points, but one stands out as a painful and shameful wake up call. It was about 7 years ago (or 6, or 8- I really can’t remember the date). I was headed into Old Navy. As I walked across the parking lot, a young African American man was walking to his car, headed towards me. He did not act intimidating, he wasn’t dangerously close to me. But for some reason, my grip on my purse tightened. Or, maybe I shifted it to my other side. I don’t remember what went through my mind, it was almost instinctual. And perhaps my thought process wasn’t centered around race at all. But I’ll never forget what happened next.
The young man smiled at me as he passed and said “Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything to you.”
The memory of that encounter still brings tears to my eyes. I haven’t shared it with many people, because I felt so much shame after the fact. And like I said, maybe race wasn’t an unconscious factor in my mind. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the young man noticed what I was doing, and he assured me that I didn’t need to be afraid. He likely noticed because more than likely, it had happened before. It’s quite possible that he was even used to the fear and suspicion that his presence evoked in people. I wish I could find him, give him a hug, and apologize.
I think the journey really took off at that point. I’ve struggled with grasping the concept of white privilege- the reality that by simply having white skin, I have privilege that I truly can’t fully understand. I found myself bristling during difficult conversations about poverty, race and privilege in grad school. “It couldn’t possibly be true” I’ve thought. But it is true. I’ve watched fellow students in a Christian Community Development class say to African American students in response to their claims of profiling: “I hear you, but that can’t possibly be happening.” I watched firsthand as two African American men were the ONLY ones in a van full of social workers who were questioned when our group was stopped at the US Mexico border. When I expressed my frustration at the blatant discrimination of the action, one of the men (who happened to be a DC Police Detective) shrugged and said “I’m so used to being profiled it just doesn’t bother me anymore.”
This is not okay. None of these things are okay. But they are the reality. Even if we take Ferguson out of the picture, these issues are still real, and they are still happening. I imagine none of you reading this were in Ferguson when Michael Brown was killed, so we don’t truly know what happened. And as sad and tragic as his death is, to me, it is a moot point to pour over details of that case. What isn’t a moot point is the opportunity to have raw, honest, and productive conversations around the issue of race and discrimination in our country. These emotionally charged situations are an opportunity to band together and move forward. I’m especially talking to my fellow Christians. We are all in the body of Christ, and we must work together to be peacemakers.
But peacemaking won’t come from social media posts, news reports, or even blog posts like these. Peacemaking comes from sitting down and breaking bread as we delve into those conversations that must happen. Peacemaking comes over a cup of coffee or tea as we look each other into the eyes and say “I don’t understand, but help me understand.” Peacemaking comes when we pause, take a breath and listen. And then, we join together to speak truth over our communities and our nation.
I feel like I’ve been silent about this issue long enough. There are too many people around me in pain to continue in my silence. It’s time to have those conversations. I, along with a couple of my friends, have a plan to get some conversations going. If you are interested, please email me or comment on this post and I’ll share information as we develop it.
We can create change. We’ve come so far, we just need to continue to move forward towards peace and equality, one small step, one small conversation at a time.