Why does it matter to the world if we are an authentic peacemaker? Is it even possible? Can we truly get into another’s shoes? Can we get to a place beyond empathy to a true understanding of how someone very different from us views and interprets the world?
I’ve been pondering these questions as cultural, gender, ethnic, racial and religious tensions have risen in the U.S., and around the world.
Here, I'd like to grapple with the issue of race.
Specifically, how much am I, as a white female, able to grasp when it comes to how an African American experiences life in the U.S.? Is it even remotely possible?
I have lived overseas, mostly in Asia. So I have experienced being a minority. I have been on the outside. So, I get that piece. But it’s more complex than that.
As a white, well-educated female, I cannot deny I’ve had privilege. Even while living abroad in Asia, the stereotypes associated with me were, on the whole, positive. I didn’t carry “baggage” of being violent, unstable, a threat.
Growing up, my family was middle-class. Most notably, we were intact. My parents loved each other and their children. They gave us a loving, supportive upbringing. Everything was not perfect, of course. But I was gifted with a firm foundation.
I cannot deny my privilege.
How Can I Relate?
So how can I even begin to relate to a young African American male, raised in single-parent household in a poor urban setting?
My conclusion: I cannot. Not in my own strength. For me, it is only in an appeal to God to give me a heart desire to at least try. To try to have a heart of compassion, empathy and love.
But I also think a key element in all this is admitting and understanding America has a race problem. This is not new. But, I think people like me have been raised – trained, if you will – to believe we don’t even have one. It is the issue of “colorblindness” many are talking about these days.
What is That “Colorblindness?”
I see it on two dimensions. The first one is generally positive. Namely, it means that you see all people as equal, truly equal. Skin color does not make a difference. All are children of God. In thought, word and behavior, you interact with people the same, no matter what their skin color.
The second dimension of colorblindness is less obvious. It is a failing to see the inherent differences in life experiences due to skin color. It is not fair. But this is the reality of our world.
For me, as a Christ follower, I recognize this element of colorblindness to emerge from our sin problem. In other words, our world is imperfect and broken. It is this very brokenness that leads to the different – and usually unequal – ways people of different skin color experience life.
What Went Wrong?
Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act did much to advance the cause of racial equality in the U.S. and inspire movements around the world. But it didn’t do enough. As MLK admitted, “There is still so much more work to be done.” His "I Have A Dream” speech remains one of the most inspiring oratories ever, but successive generations have only been able to take the movement so far.
I would argue that what stands in the way is the condition of the heart. As long as we remain unyielded to genuine change brought about (in my opinion) by a Higher Power, we will not have the full capacity to respond to our “better angels.” Nor will we, as a nation, be able to bring about MLK’s dream.
Back in 2008, some might have argued that Barack Obama’s ascent to the U.S. presidency meant race was no longer an issue in the U.S. Sadly, we now know better. Our nation is rife with strife over this issue, as the spate in police confrontations and killings of African American men, women and children attest.
Sure, we’ve seen many African Americans rise to amazing heights in entertainment, sports, business, and now, the presidency. But, in truth, these are the few stars. Most African Americans still struggle daily living in a system of inequality.
In her challenging book, The New Jim Crow, Stanford professor Michelle Alexander contends that what exists in America today is, in many respects, part of the slavery–Jim Crow continuum to control the lives of African Americans.
She argues that the “new Jim Crow” is mass incarceration. This mass incarceration of a disproportionate number of African Americans and other people of color began with the early 1980’s War on Drugs and continues through until today.
Not only does this system control those behind bars but, labeled as “felon,” it impacts and controls the lives of thousands of men and women long after they are freed. Alexander purports that the released prisoner becomes a member of the lower caste (and yes, she contends American has a caste system), locked out of many rights and privileges, blocked from potential for advancement.
This is, in many ways, the plight of Jean Valjean, the released convict in Lés Miserable. The country and times have changed, but the outcome remains eerily the same.
I long for the first version of colorblindness without the curse of the second. The second has largely made an entire generation – not only of whites, but of people of all colors – believe there is no problem.
In reality, we first need to acknowledge the problem. Even if we don’t believe it exists in our own hearts (we may or may not be right), it remains an issue in early 21st Century America. One we need to confront and engage.
How do you deal with the issue of racism in your heart, life & community?