Honest Thoughts About Racism
I Thought You Knew
I think a lot about racism. One of my deepest held beliefs is that all men are created in the image of God. Therefore, I believe that it is a travesty when anyone doesn’t live up to their God-given potential.
Four things happened in 2017 that changed my attitude and response towards racism.
1: Lecrae – Lecrae was criticized sharply and abandoned by many of his white evangelical fans because he started to speak out against racism. It really saddened me that people so quickly deserted him. My son is one of Lecrae’s biggest fans. We have been following his career since we heard Don’t Waste Your Life back in 2008. We have read his books, listened to his sermons and anticipated every new release. We were excited with each new album because things got a little more real each time. I was honestly surprised when people got so upset with him. He had earned my deep respect. I knew his heart. I heard his struggles. Of course I wanted to hear what he had to say about racism. He had earned my respect. Why were people abandoning him? I was honestly shocked. The abandonment and criticism shook me more than what he said.
- I read Braving the Wilderness:The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown.
This book taught me so much about learning to be true to myself and my beliefs over trying to fit in. I saw how our nation is divided into false dichotomies over ever issue, including racism, and these false dichotomies keep us from being able to solve anything. In chapter 5, of this book, “Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.” She challenges readers to quit letting all of the arguments in our country be defined by the people who are yelling the loudest.
- I read Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
This speech was quoted in Brown’s book and I had to read the whole thing. Here is an excerpt:
And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
That one phrase "silence encourages the tormentor" has been ringing in my ears everyday since I heard it the first time.
- A black student leader told my son “we just want to know that white people care”. My son, the Lecrae fanatic, heard Lecrae’s message and began asking people of different races what Christians should be doing to fight racism. When he shared one student’s heart-felt plea with me, tears immediately welled up in my eyes. My heart broke in that moment.
It all came together for me. The things Lecrae had shared; the challenge to stand and never be silent in the face of oppression; the challenge to confront the false dichotomies in our culture; all of the aggression, arguing, and pain on social media. All these things point to a need for change.
But what change? How do we change? In thinking about this, I have been trying to write this post for over a month now. I’ve written beautiful, impassioned pleas, blunt convicting letters, and sarcastic vent sessions but they were all lacking something. The issue of racism is complex. Nothing I say here is going to fix it. I hope to add to the dialog and lead us to better understanding. I hope to be a small part of the solution.
When I was a little kid an overly zealous relative told me that my dad was a racist because he was a Southerner, Southern Baptist and Republican. I was shocked that anyone could talk about my father that way.
You see, my dad is an amazing story teller. I grew up hearing stories about people from all kinds of cultures. And more than anything, the things I learned from his stories were compassion and respect for people’s history, culture and inherent value.
I was inspired by stories of slaves who, despite the horror of slavery, managed to be wise, brave, heroic examples for all of humanity. Sometimes we would listen to old spiritual songs and my dad would tell stories of the people who first sang those songs. I developed a deep sense of awe for the great faith and struggle that was expressed by slaves. I always thought they were the backbone of true faith in America.
I also remember my dad going out of his way to reach out to people of different cultures and offer a helping hand. He went into a poor community and became a big brother to a young black man. He felt right at home going into black communities and hanging out with people there.
One time, my dad, who is as squeamish as they come, (I mean I’ve seen him literally have to leave the room because someone was eating butter on a cracker and he was grossed out by it)… this squeamish man was volunteering with a group of people from his church and they were helping an elderly black man. The man was disabled and didn’t have running water in his home. He had been using the bathroom in his closet. This created such a health hazard that the home health nurse was no longer able to even go into the house.
My dad went in and cleaned up the mess. When it was over, people asked him how he was able to do it. My dad said, “I just thought about how much I loved this man and it gave me the power to do it.”
So, yeah, it still angers me that a relative felt it was his duty to inform me about the terrible racist my father was.
But I never quit wondering why. How could you see the love and compassion that my dad has for everyone and label him a racist?
Until this year, I just dismissed all such name calling as obnoxious and arrogant because of my early experiences. However, my deep respect for Lecrae, the hurt of the college student, and the other lessons I was learning, made me want to dig a little deeper. I realized that all those years ago, my dad was being wrongly judged because of the most offensive people in the three groups he was being lumped in with: Southerners, Southern Baptists, and Republicans.
I wish that everyone could hear the discussions that went on in my house when I was growing up. They’d know how much we disagree with all the racist and otherwise divisive comments that were made by people in those groups. Unfortunately, most of us who disagree have never been the loud ones.
And that’s the problem.
When I taught high school, I often had kids who were trying to be “good” come to me for encouragement. One thing that I would tell them to do was observe the quiet people. Sometimes in high school, kids feel like they are the only ones trying to do right. That’s because the loud kids come in and dominate with their stories of wild parties and defiance. The kids who don’t participate in these things usually remain quiet. After observing, the proportions of loud to quiet kids, students would come back to me a few days later with eyes wide open. “Mrs. Felkel! You were right! There are way more people trying to do right.” This little experiment helped them see how they were misjudging the very group they were surrounded by every day.
It’s kind of a life principle. The people who speak the loudest get to define what the group is judged by. Most people judge high school students by the loud obnoxious kids they encounter. Unfortunately, the same holds true for Christians in America. People judge Christians more by the very small but very loud people of Westboro Baptist Church than they do by the many quiet humble people like my dad.
Throughout my life, I’ve always just let the loud people be loud and controlling. I remember a youth pastor who kicked a student out of the youth group for wearing a t-shirt that supported the gay and lesbian club at her school. I visited the girl and told her I thought it was wrong. I gave her a Todd Agnew CD with the song My Jesus on it and told her that this man didn’t represent the Jesus I followed. The problem is, this man spoke for my church. His voice was the one I was judged by. I did not argue or confront because I thought I was trying to assert my own opinion. Now that I realize how much his arrogance hurt this young lady and many others, I wish I had stood against him. I’d rather have the rejection by a whole church than have young people think that I hate them because of their sexual orientation.
And this example transfers to everything, including racism. We let politicians and the media define every argument as us against them and it always hurts us all. We have a whole group in society that thinks they are hated because we are sitting by and letting ourselves be judged by the loudest people in our groups. I completely believe that most Republicans aren’t racist. They just don’t understand how much the racist comments of a few hurt us all.
Because, people outside our cultural or political group can’t know how much we hate groups like the KKK if we don’t explicitly say LOUDLY that we don’t agree with them. They aren’t at our dinner tables (but they should be!) hearing our true thoughts. We can’t just be silent and assume black people know we care.
Silence really does seem to support the oppressor, the obnoxious, the hater. I’m just beginning to see how this college student and so many others could feel like no one cares about their issues. And this realization makes me want to be different. I want to help things change.
As I move forward with this new insight, I am determined to be humble and know that I am not always right. I will listen to other people’s stories. I will be teachable. I will learn from others. I will grow. But I will no longer be silent. I will enter the fray and I will humbly yell that I care.