I grew up in a relatively small town in the South. It was big enough to have traffic lights but small enough that you should check out a person’s family tree before dating. (If you think that’s just a joke, I can tell you a story about two people who found out they were cousins AFTER they made out at a party.)
My family lived just outside of town, close enough that it didn’t take us long to drive anywhere, but far enough that we had space around our house – a big yard and lots of trees so we could play outside. This makes me laugh as an adult, because I was afraid of pretty much everything that outside had to offer me. That hasn’t changed very much over the years.
Life was simple, at least from my perspective as a child. We had a routine of school, homework, dinner, baths, bedtime. When I washed my hair, I would crawl up onto my mom’s bed, and she would dry it for me. It took so long that I often fell asleep sitting up. I wore Keds and jelly shoes and Jams and slap bracelets. I liked Saturday morning cartoons and slumber parties. Debbie Gibson and New Kids on the Block played constantly on my pink cassette player. We made regular trips to the corner store so I could purchase (with my parents’ money) cigarettes for my mom and a brown bag full of Airheads for the family. (It was a small town in the 80s.) I spent lots of time with my grandparents, and one of my best friends was my cousin. I went to church every time the doors were open, even sometimes when they weren’t (the perks of having family members on staff).
Most places I went, the overwhelming majority of people – if not all of them – were the same skin color as me. When I was with family, everyone was white. At church, everyone was white. In my extracurricular activities as a kid, pretty much everyone was white. With the exception of The Cosby Show and Sesame Street, most of the TV characters I saw were white. Most of the books I read were about white people. People I saw in magazines and on advertisements were white.
I’m not sure when I noticed that God created people with different skin colors. My earliest memories of people who weren’t white are from elementary school. I remember having a few black classmates and several black teachers.
Ms. M. was my fifth grade teacher, and I remember her more vividly than almost any teacher I’ve ever had. We had similar first names, so I felt a kinship with her from the start. She loved to cook, and she brought that love into her classroom. We made peanut butter balls to learn fractions, and, for Halloween, she made a ghost cake that had eyes she lit on fire. Coolest cake ever! She was the first person I told that I started my period, so I’m pretty sure that bonded us for life. She had a beautiful smile and a full laugh, and she led us in prayer before we walked to lunch each day. (Again, small town in the 80s.) And I will never, ever forget the look on her face when I called one of my classmates the “n” word.
I don’t remember his name. I don’t know why I slurred such a terrible insult at him. I just remember wanting to crawl into a hole where no one could see me. As soon as I saw Ms. M.’s face, I was filled with regret. I wanted so badly to take back what I had said, but she assured me I couldn’t.
I don’t know where exactly I learned the “n” word, likely from many places. I knew enough about it, though, to know that it was a powerful punch, a quick, easy blow to my opponent, much like kicking a boy between the legs. It would be easy to plead ignorance or shout, “I was only 10!”, but I still cringe thinking about that moment in my fifth grade classroom.
I didn’t have many black friends as a child, but I remember one of my closest friends in fifth grade was black. I loved so many things about T. She had twisty braids with beads at the ends of them, a huge smile, and a contagious laugh that was uniquely hers. She had a big personality, a big voice, and big opinions. Much like Ms. M., my friend T. was one of the first people to know I started my period. I can still picture her looking into my little purse my first day back at school. She inventoried my stash of feminine products and let out a big belly laugh. I was equal parts embarrassed and delighted. She was also one of the ones who tried to teach me to Double Dutch. Bless her heart and mine. I was not born with the coordination for jumping two ropes at once! I’m also pretty sure she thought I was a little bit crazy, but she was friends with me anyway.
All of my memories of T. are bound within the property lines of my elementary and middle schools. That was where our friendship lived, never beyond there. We weren’t in Girl Scouts together. We didn’t go to church together. She wasn’t invited to my birthday parties. I think it was through my friendship with T. that I realized skin color mattered to some people.
Outside of school, I knew Mr. H. He was our church’s custodian, so I saw him a lot when I was there during the week with Grandmama Helen. I remember asking Grandmama why Mr. H. cleaned the building but wasn’t allowed to attend our all white church. She assured me that he was allowed, but he had a church of his own. I wanted to believe her words, but I was definitely a skeptic.
As I progressed in school, there were more black students, but I started noticing a sort of segregation, particularly in high school. I was in honors classes, and each of those classes had an average of 2-3 black students out of 20 or more students in the class. I would walk down the halls and see black students in the “regular” classes, but they were almost completely missing in the honors classes. At the time, I didn’t know to shout, “This is a problem! Why is this happening?” I just thought it was weird. I didn’t realize then, but that segregation was affecting how I viewed my black peers. Over the years, I viewed them less and less as peers. I developed a mindset that white students were smart and well behaved, and black students weren’t smart and caused all of the trouble. I was so incredibly wrong!
I need to pause and tell you that my heart aches confessing my thoughts to you. I wish I didn’t have these memories, those feelings and opinions as a teenager. I wish I could tell you that I’ve always seen everyone as equal in the eyes of God, as people created in the image of God and with equal worth. But I can’t, and that breaks my heart. Instead, I can confess with humility and a repentant heart that I was judgmental and a racist.
I didn’t realize I was a racist, but it was evident in certain statements or actions. I would see an attractive man and say, “He’s really cute – for a black guy.” (My dear friend C.L. called me out on that one! Thanks for your courage, friend!) If a black man walked by while I was sitting in my car, I locked the doors. I made assumptions about black people being on welfare. (CRINGE!) I made a whole lot of assumptions in general about black people – and people who were different from me in other ways, for that matter.
Over the last decade and a half, I’ve spent time in the Word, and I’ve been fortunate to sit under the teaching of many godly men and women. I’ve learned more about God and the people He created in His image. He has taught me that every single one of us has inherent worth, because we are His image bearers. That means that racism is a sin, a direct offense against Him.
My heart and my thoughts needed to change. That started in prayer and by taking every thought captive (see 2 Corinthians 10:5). When I saw an attractive black man and thought, “He’s really cute – for a black guy,” I changed my thought. “No, wait, he’s cute. Period.” When I caught myself locking my car doors, I asked myself WHY I thought I needed to lock the doors. Was the person walking by doing something that made me uncomfortable, or did the color of his/her skin make me uncomfortable? If it was the latter, I needed to repent. When I made assumptions about black people, I took those thoughts captive and asked God WHY I assumed certain things. I asked Him to help me get to the root of the problem and change the way I thought. This has been an ongoing process for years, and I know it may take many more years for God to change my heart completely in this area. It makes me so thankful that the One who began a good work in me will be faithful to complete it (see Philippians 1:6).
I’m sharing all of this with you because of everything going on in my country. People lost loved ones this week, both black and white, and social media is a bit of a mad house right now. Every day, I read post after post, comment after comment. People are hurting, scared, angry, sad, and everything in between. I’ve seen people engaging in healthy dialogue, and I’ve seen people insisting there’s nothing to talk about – all of this “racism stuff” is a fabrication of the media. I’ve seen people standing with one another, and I’ve seen people spewing forth hate.
Tonight, I was reading through comments regarding a local protest. Some of the comments were supportive. Some were respectful but thought there may be better ways to protest. Some of the comments made me sick to my stomach. Person after person said things along the lines of, “If I come across any protesters in the road, I will HIT THEM WITH MY CAR.”
I was shocked. It was bad enough when I read one person’s comment along those lines, but comment after comment agreed. They thought they were brilliant! And justified!
And they think the media is the problem, that racism doesn’t exist.
I may not know how to respond to the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, or Michael Smith, but I know I need to acknowledge there is a problem, and I need to ask how I may be contributing to that problem.
Since being married, I’ve had to learn a lot about conflict management and peacemaking. One of the things I’ve learned is that people feel the way they feel, whether we think they should feel that way or not, whether we think our actions or words should have caused those feelings or not. So, when someone shares how he/she feels, that’s the beginning of a dialogue. First, we need to acknowledge how the person feels, and then we can ask questions such as, “What made you feel that way?” or “What could I have done differently?” If we jump in and start saying things like, “That wasn’t what I meant, so you shouldn’t feel that way!” or “You’re wrong to feel that way!”, we invalidate the person who is hurting, and that damages relationships.
So, when my black friends say that racism is a problem, I want to acknowledge their hurt and start a dialogue with them. “I hear what you’re saying. I see your pain. Can we talk more about that?” (That’s something I still need to do. I’m, sadly, just coming to this realization after processing for a few days.) I can acknowledge the pain of police officers as well and enter into a dialogue there also.
At the end of the day, I grew up white, and I will always be white. I am a couple of shades darker than my childhood porcelain doll collection, and that will not change. I don’t know how my classmate felt when I called him the “n” word in fifth grade. I don’t know Ms. M. felt when she heard me hurting one of her students that way. I don’t know how it felt for T. not to be invited to my slumber parties (I acknowledge she may not have wanted to come to my slumber parties; my goal isn’t to sound like a snob). I don’t know what it feels like to be scared for my life when being pulled over for a traffic violation. Nervous about getting a ticket? Sure. Scared for my life? Never. I don’t know what it’s like for people to see the color of my skin and assume the worst about me over and over and over again.
I don’t know how it feels to be black.
I also don’t know what it feels like to be a police officer. The last time I wore a uniform on a regular basis was in Girl Scouts, and I never had to earn a badge for putting my life on the line for someone else.
When I look at my son, I acknowledge that he will not grow up white. He will have different experiences than his dad or I have had. I want him to be able to talk to us about those experiences. I want to be able to prepare him the best I can for his future. I don’t want to turn a blind eye to the issues and pretend everything will be fine for him. I pray he doesn’t encounter racism, and I pray I will listen and stand with him if he ever tells me he does.
There is so, so much more that could be discussed, but this post is already lengthy, and I feel ill equipped to have these discussions in a blog format. I was hesitant to write this post at all. I don’t want to add to the noise. I just had this overwhelming sense of people dismissing other people’s feelings or people projecting their own feelings onto other people, and that has been frustrating to watch. Also, I knew I had to begin with self-examination and change in my own life before I could step out and encourage change in our nation. I hope my post encourages other people to do the same, and I pray my post doesn’t cause harm.
“For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10, ESV).
Let’s remember that we are ALL God’s workmanship, regardless of skin color or career choice, and let’s walk in the good works God prepared for us. Maybe we’ll see change in ourselves, and then we can encourage change in others. Because of Christ, we have hope that both types of change can happen.