I returned to America swearing I’d never date a white man. In ten years, I’d come a long way from insisting white people could be trusted. My contempt for their inability to see both their privilege and the pervasiveness of racism was the imprint left behind from thousands of micro- and macro-aggressions—or what my heart knows as fissures and breaks. It’s just like me, though, to hope in defiance that one day my kids will succeed without the extra help of a white father, making their success all the sweeter. I didn’t want them to sail by as the beneficiary of privilege while refuting its existence. I returned to America, as it turned out, with much repenting to do.
I landed, for the first time in a long time, in a predominately white community. Having come from Seattle and Boston, I took for granted that all Christians were woke.
When I moved to Boston after being abroad and looked for a church, I settled on one where I experienced healthy discomfort. At that point, a lot of my church experience focused on either personal growth or sharing my faith. I had heard little of justice and even less about how race intersected with the message of Christ. I became aware I was a lopsided, misshapen Christian: like muscle imbalance, my theology of personal faith and evangelism were well formed, but my justice muscle had atrophied. I had ignored this part of what it meant to follow Jesus. In true Alicia fashion, I asked people for books to read on the topic, as though enrolled in a class called Remedial Justice.
As part of my search strategy for finding a church in DC, I scoured churches’ photo albums on their website or Facebook page for people of color. I came across a listing for a prayer event for Ferguson at one place and took that as a good sign. I checked out the church, liked it, and assumed that since they’d had that event that the pews were filled with folks who cared passionately about racial justice.
It felt kind of like a bait-and-switch. That year at fall retreat, the speaker talked about race and justice, reinforcing my impression that this community got it. When I went back to my room, however, one of the ladies asked, “Why are we even talking about this?”
A couple months later, I was ready to call it: I wasn’t in my safe and cozy liberal paradise anymore. And with that realization came a discomfort that I wasn’t sure yet was healthy or not.
Meanwhile, I’d go to work, another predominantly white space and we’d talk about race without any of the anxiety that plagued me when it came up at church. If my issue was with white people, why wasn’t it all white people?
I didn’t have to dig too long before I had one of those Usual Suspects Keyser Soze moments. It’s the part of the movie where they replay snippets of previous scenes to reveal clues you missed.
- Those two girls from my senior year: conservative
- The girl my ex dated right after me who said to him in my presence that she couldn’t believe he had dated a liberal: conservative
- Guy who asked how I could call myself a Christian and support a particular politician while we were on a mission trip together: conservative
- My ex who said my sister probably got into Brown because she was black: conservative
- Woman who said skin color had nothing to do with why white guys weren’t attracted to black women and blamed it on our personalities: conservative
I could go on but already a theme emerged. I connected the dots: I felt especially vulnerable around conservatives. I mentally went through a list of my white friends from Seattle and Laos and, regardless of their religious background, they were all liberal.
Just like images that could not be unseen, those dots, once connected could not be undone.
Or could they?
If the conclusions I’d come to, which I could control, couldn’t be undone, what hope had I that anyone’s could? This business of taking one dot at a time begins with the individual.
The discomfort, I decided, was healthy and, if I let it, it would push me into relationships that made me more accepting of people, less bitter and more understanding. With Jesus’ prayers that Christians be one in my ears, I accepted the challenge of resisting and overcoming the idol of ideology. I couldn’t just sit back and conclude friendships with conservatives weren’t worth it. I was half content to hold on to my anger, but my better half refused to capitulate to it.
It feels like race relations have worsened over the last two years. Sometimes I don’t even have time to process one incident before the next happens. A friend emailed last week to ask how I was doing with recent events and I told her given everything else going on in my life right now, I was trying to ignore them and would catch the next batch of senseless deaths. The next ones always come too soon.
Out of the many tragedies, the Charleston church shooting angered and saddened me most. Yes, as a mass shooting there were more casualties and, yes, it was horrific for something like that to take place in a church, but the thing that turned my stomach was a minor character in the story named Christon Scriven, Dylann Roof’s black friend.
I’ve long believed that all people need is exposure. Three out of four white people have no non-white friends. If that changed, maybe their views on blacks would too. Maybe then we could progress toward equality and justice. Dylann Roof, murderer of nine innocent black people, had a black friend. Not only did he have a black friend, but this friend said he’d never heard him say anything racist before and had never been treated differently by him. Meanwhile, his white friend, Joey Meek, said Roof had complained about blacks and said “someone needed to do something about it for the white race.” Meek even knew he was planning something. Scriven didn’t see it coming.
Now, I in no way think any of my white friends could be the next Dylann Roof. It’s unthinkable. But can you imagine what it’s like to sit down next to someone to worship and wonder if they are one of those white people who complains that protests against police brutality inconvenience their commute, or who thinks Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group or that Colin Kaepernick is a moron for taking a knee, or who feels that blacks shouldn’t protest at all but should just shut up and do better, or who considers implicit bias fantasy? Is this someone I can trust? Or will they smile in my face while hating—dismissing, devaluing, disrespecting, dehumanizing, lampooning, silencing, overlooking, hypersexualizing, failing to see as image-bearers of God, not loving as themselves—my people?
To cede that years of friendship—not just exposure, but friendship—are ineffectual in changing biases, implicit and otherwise, left me numb. And to think that even the knowledge of Christ couldn’t cut through it either made me feel defeated. I moved forward anyway making friends: conservative friends, white male friends, uncomfortable friends. Real friends.
There’s a scene in the Christmas movie Elf, where Buddy checks a pile of Jack-in-the-boxes. This is what friendships with some of these people are like, cautiously enjoying the music yet waiting for Jack, flinching before he even appears. When Jack is delayed, I wonder, “Will this box surprise me?”
There was one exception to my dating boycott of white men: if they could somehow, whether through life experience or supernatural empathy, identify with what it was like to be a minority. I just could not imagine tying myself for life with someone who couldn’t, not because of my anger, but it would exhaust me.
One night, I’m standing around talking with friends when one of the guys says, “You know, I really feel like I can identify with what it’s like to be a minority.”
Those words–like open sesame, abracadabra or some other incantation—woke me from my slumber. Turns out, he wasn’t my prince, but he unlocked the door for him.
As I befriended more and more conservatives and white men, I realized my hypocrisy. How could I be angry at the whole group when it wasn’t all of them? How could I hold an entire group responsible for the actions and words of a few, maybe even many, but not yet that one individual? Wasn’t my prejudice just as unfair and undeserved as I believed theirs towards me was?
One Sunday, during the part of the service where you can ask for prayer, I went up to one of the elders, a white man and said, “I’m not sure what kinds of things people usually ask for prayer for, but I’m having a hard time loving white people well.”
I thought the whole world accommodated them. My heart burned inside me the day a black guy gave up his seat on the bus for a white woman. “She has everything, keep your seat,” I thought. My anger was directed toward blacks as well. As I rode the bus, I saw black women and men who fit every stereotype I fought against. I cursed them in my heart for making things harder for me. For making me have to work so hard to prove I wasn’t like them.
I went to an event at Howard for black Presbyterians. The speaker, Christena Cleveland, covered two particularly interesting topics: privilege within the black community and the need for unity in the church. She had written a book on divisions in the church, Disunity in Christ, which I bought and devoured.
I also opened up with my small group about my struggle. It was awkward for me, because they are mostly white, but I felt it was necessary to share. Afterward, I emailed a good friend:
I shared the struggles with whiteness, my blackness, black people, Asian people that I’ve been dealing with with my CG. Actually, I’ve lost a bit of sleep this week or woken up and been unable to fall back asleep because I’ve been dealing with conviction about how I don’t love well. When I’m tempted to complain ‘how long am I supposed to forgive?’ I’m reminded of the verse that says 70×7. I thought, ‘But what about when they won’t even own what they do or don’t know what they’re doing?’ And Jesus’ words on the cross in Luke 23:34 remind me of Christ’s example. Matthew 5:39 and Luke 6:39 have also come to mind. One night 1 Corinthians 13 where it says love is longsuffering and kind, does not envy or boast, it’s not easily angered or resentful popped into my head and I just thought of how badly I fail at this when it comes to race issues recently. I was angry: so first I’m supposed to be treated unfairly and then I lose sleep convicted because I’m not loving?
I didn’t want to forgive. The second thing that had angered me about the Charleston church shooting, and many others, was the swiftness with which victims offered forgiveness. It shouldn’t have, but after a while forgiveness feels like an unsatisfactory response to injustice.
Grace came, among many ways, in the form of a good friendship with a white guy who has walked with me through my anger and disappointment.
Last spring, my small group was reading a book, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. After discussing the chapter on forgiveness, I sent an email to my close friend in the group I’d been processing through a lot of this stuff with who had missed that week.
I know you’re familiar with the story [of my ex’s mother calling me lazy]. It wasn’t until last week, though, that I realized how often I replay those words. I had an event at the museum last Tuesday and one of the visitors came up to me afterward and asked if I wanted to be a curator eventually, and I said no. I went back to the office beating my forehead thinking, “Great, now that guy probably thinks I’m lazy and unambitious like all black people.” It’s funny that you know me as an overachiever, because maybe even up until hearing those words in college, I wasn’t at all. Now, I am always replaying that woman’s words in my head, bristling at the thought of someone accusing me of being lazy again or finding me unworthy of love because of the color of my skin. In addition to her specifically, when I read this chapter [on forgiveness], I thought of how I struggle to love white men as well, or more accurately, how I have not extended forgiveness to them and the implications of that for my relationship with God and with others. There’s a great quote from the book: “An entrenched refusal to forgive is a sign that you have not known God’s amazing forgiveness yourself. Your ugly behavior reveals the ugly condition of your heart. In addition, holding onto an offense will make you a bitter and unloving person, and you will inevitably damage all your relationships.” I mean, you basically said it yourself a couple weeks ago: there’s freedom in walking away from the feelings that cause me to prejudge others—freedom from anger and freedom to give people a fair shot.
In that same conversation, I said that I thought God put me in relationship with this CG to grow me in repentance and faith, but I hope, too, that this community can also help me move forward with forgiveness as well. Part of chapter 9 explored how failure to forgive changes us. “You may not choke anyone, but you may shut someone out of your life.” I’m absolutely guilty of this. This morning, Romans 2:1 came to mind when I thought about last night’s discussion. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” For someone who bristles at the thought of being found unworthy of love or respect because of the color of my skin, it’s hugely hypocritical that I myself have been doing this to white men for years. In the section of the chapter that talked about the difference between forgiveness and forgetting, this quote really resonated with me: “…you will give in to bitterness without realizing it because you think that, since you have forgiven someone in the past, you are allowed to hold onto the vestiges of hurt in the present.” For me, shutting specific groups of people out of my life may be the vestiges of hurt I hold onto in the present. But the authors are clear: “This is non-negotiable. I do not have the right to withhold forgiveness and harbor bitterness in my heart.”
In addition to not extending forgiveness well, I have not sought it either. I thought about this earlier this year, what it would look like for me to seek forgiveness for judging others. I can’t go up to every white male in the world and say, “I may be wrong about you, I’ve made assumptions about you because I have been hurt by people who look like you in the past, and have come to care more about self-preservation and avoiding disappointment than I care about God’s example and mandate of love poured out on unworthy people.”
I have in the past, and even occasionally still now, judged you prematurely and I am sorry. Please forgive me. I am committed to giving you and others like you a fair shot and not being ruled by bitterness, anger, or assumptions. If you see evidence of these things infiltrating my relationship with you or others, please point it out to me. I will definitely need help to grow in this area.
To the white man reading this, here is my confession: When I look at you, I’ve learned to first see the worst of white men–a bricolage of past hurt, rejection, and disappointment. Trying to make out the real you is like trying to see the hidden image in a magic eye puzzle; with time, I’ll find you. And, I’m sorry.
I’ve thought, and even very recently, maybe I should leave my small group, maybe I should leave my church, maybe I should leave this city. Maybe I should return to my safe and cozy liberal paradise. But the imperfection of my love and the chance to make it better here won’t let me.
People ask why I’m always thinking about race. It’s like the app always running in the background draining your phone battery. Except, for me, as I suspect is the case for most people of color, it’s like Apple’s Stocks app before iOS 10, you can’t turn it off.