White Friends, We Are Getting This Really, Really Wrong

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"We understand the curse that was slavery, white people do, and we say 'that was bad,' but we miss the blessing of slavery that it actually built up the framework for the world that white people live in and lived in.”—Fellow White Man and Pastor Louis Giglio

Disclaimer: this an article intended for people who are white-passing, identify as white, or (since this is a CRC blog) identify as Dutch. It also is written a bit conversationally, and I'm hoping if you are reading for tone, imagine that I am talking to you calmly and lovingly. If you don't imagine that, it might be a bit harder to swallow. If you are a person of color, you are welcome to read this, but you probably already have your own thoughts on recent racial events stemming from the murder of George Floyd and others, and may not find this particularly relevant. Perhaps you will want to write something for The Network as well on the subject … or already have. You get the point.

Dear White Friends, 

I notice so many of us rushing around in the wake of the racial unrest of May 2020. We are putting out statements on social media, adding #Blacklivesmatter to our social media posts, and organizing book groups, discussion groups, and even baking groups [1] (I try not to eye-roll because I think they are probably sincere, but it sounds so weird to me) to combat racism. It seems as if the progressive white world suddenly wants to do something about racism—and quickly.

We white people should know. We probably know (or are related to) other white people who still feel that racism is over-exaggerated, that Fox news is a non-racist new-source, that Donald Trump doesn’t engage in dog-whistle politics or … (gulp) worse. Probably all the people just mentioned would insist on describing themselves as “not a racist”, so talking about it becomes pointless. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read the comments on the Gospel Coalition’s Facebook page from the people upset that they are holding an upcoming virtual service of lament about American racism [2].  

I’m going to be honest. When I read those comments, I get seriously triggered. I am embarrassed by my fellow white people. I want to signal to the world that “we all aren’t like that”, that I’m more virtuous, that I am one of the “good” white people (this is a major thing for me that I’m working on NOT getting hung up on, but I kinda suck at it). I don’t think I’m alone here. As white people who care about racism, sometimes I think we do this by quickly “doing something” different than those “other” kinds of white peopleboth online and sometimes in person.

We white folks should try to do better. We know racism is horrible, but probably haven’t been actively organizing to do something about racism until right about… now. And that isn’t to say that we don’t care. We’ve just been busy. We white people are a busy bunch. It is kind of a thing we doespecially if we are a progressive kind of white person.

Maybe in the past we felt our white paralysis. We might have felt powerless to make any difference. Or maybe we champion another cause more, maybe environmentalism, abortion, animal rights, or vegetarianism. Or maybe if we are really honest (I’m a big one for being honest), we just never really think about it much, because as white people we don’t have to. It is part of what it means to be white, to consider whiteness to be standard and normal and never give it another thought. Let’s just be real and admit where we are on this journey.  

But some of us might have gone even a little deeper. We read some articles, perhaps even a couple of books and watched a few thoughtful documentaries. So we knew a few more facts,  and maybe even felt bad about the advantages and privileges we inherit because of our whiteness after reading a little about white privilege or white fragility. But we probably weren’t really all that active in learning, listening, or advocating (besides the occasional social media click to send an automated letter if we were especially feeling progressive). We want credit for having good intentions, but we haven’t really been doing much yet to make an impact, even though we may have been working up to it more.

So now, after the demonstrations (which maybe we even participated in) we can see racism and the manifestation of structural racism in policing. We are shocked that it is a bigger problem than we thought. Good work. I mean this seriously. We need to see this for what it is so we eventually can do something about it. This is actually a part of “doing the work.”  

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and try to take the lead in doing something about it. Let me be blunt: If you were not organizing to dismantle racism before May 2020, you should not be doing a lot of commenting on social media or trying to lead something now. This is a time to learn from the organizations and movements that already have been doing this for a whileand in particular listening to the voices of the people of color who have been serving in those organizations without fanfare or large audiences.  

People of color don’t get applause for being “woke”. Usually they get resistance. People of color tell me that it is routine that white people respond to anti racism efforts with arguments, confusion, indifference, trolling and pushback. It isn’t sexy work, and it isn’t trendy. It is hard, difficult work that ages people who don’t burn out.  

So my white friends. Black Lives Matter is not a fad, and not everyone has to "do something" or put out a statement to assuage our collective national moment of white guilt. If we white Christians have not been doing anti racism work for long, I believe God is calling us to do something very different than our white instincts tell us to do.  

Instead of being busy making statements, proclamations, and starting discussion groups, I believe we are first called to stop. Sit, listen to people of color, and stay silent… for way longer than we have ever done on any other issue. Our instincts will tell us to gather with our own, perhaps even ask a person of color or two to join our mostly-white discussion group, so that we can quickly rise to address the problem. Even those of us who have been doing anti racism work for long need to set a better example here as well by sitting more, listening more to people of color, and staying silent.    

My friend Libby Huizenga is one of the regular contributors to the Antioch Podcast with me where we record our conversations with a multiethnic team about Biblical Antiracism. She is young, but wise. She also is white like me. She had this conversation with me where she said that being a white anti racist has two seemingly paradoxical aspects to it. 

The first is to use our power to attract attention to the problem of racism. As fellow white people, we are naturally in a position to more easily get the attention of other white people precisely because of our whiteness, and are therefore perceived as “safe”. We are often in conversations about race in the role of the “unlikely messenger”, and can say exactly the same thing that people of color have said for decades. . . but when we say it, we are heard by other white people. This is very powerful, and can make us feel like we have special knowledge.

But, Libby would quickly move on to her second point with what we need to do with our power to reach white people. She insists that once we have attracted this attention, we quickly pivot to direct the attention elsewhere. She says, “I need to be what John the Baptist was for Jesus—pointing away from myself to someone whose words and message has greater power than my own.” As white people, we need to stop trying to be the saviors. We need to be the John the Baptists. We have a role to play in the anti racism conversation, but it is a supporting role. This is enough. 

Listening and supporting others is actually doing something, and in this case, it is more valuable because we help other white people listen to the people we all need to be listening and learning from in the first place. Because you know who knows something about racism? People of color, who live with it every day regardless of whether they have the emotional strength to do it or not. And for some reason, a few of these good people feel God calling them to explain racism to the very people who benefit the most from racism—us white people. These saints are missionaries to white people, to help us learn to be saved from the sin of racism [3]. Those who speak to the racism in Christianity are our modern-day prophets (and I don’t mean this metaphorically).    

These kinds of prophets have been around for hundreds of years in America. Our white ancestors needed to be listening to these prophets, but they killed them by lynching, shooting, running them out of the country, or locking them away. Like the Israelites, we white people didn’t like the messages the prophets of old spoke when they confronted their nations about their sins. Our spiritual ancestors treated their prophets the way we treated ours. . . and both groups remained sin-stained because it is really hard for people benefiting from a sinful system to do what it takes to change that same system. We need a savior to do it for us.

But for some of us white people, we have habits that are really hard to override. I certainly do. We may feel that we are leaders, and that we have something to say, or that we can say it better than someone else, or that we have unique insights into the conversation of Biblical anti racism. We may have something to contribute that could save the day, and make things better. Any of those things may actually be true.  

Pause.  

It is also quite possible that it is not true, and that what we think is the nudge of the Spirit may actually be our cultural conditioning kicking in, telling us that we need to comment on everything. That too has been true for me. I think this is a discernment issue that we need to take seriously. For myself, I find it difficult as a white man to follow the words of scripture in James 1:19 that “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry.”  

I tend to think "I already know this" and want to jump in with my comments because I am feeling frustrated and want to be heard. I don’t think I am the only one with a commenting addiction. And as a leader, I feel that I need to set the example, which means commenting on the moment. Likely writing this article is a great case in point—little old me trying to tell people what to do by following my example. 

The reason I am writing this, I hope, is more humble. This morning I read the news accounts of another white male leader, Loius Giglio, who stumbled all over himself in trying to speak with his authoritative white, male, pastoral voice into the outrage flowing in America in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Now I don’t know Pastor Giglio. I am writing this based on a story I am telling myself that I put together in the hopes of trying to understand why he said what he said (read the quote at the beginning of this article if you don’t know what I’m talking about here, or look at in the footnotes here [4].  

I think I understand Louis Giglio more than I would like to admit—because his words made me wince. I winced because I thought they came off as ignorant, centering his words on the discomfort that white people like himself tend to have with the phrase “white privilege,” instead of thinking first of how people of color would likely hear what he was saying.  

And if I am honest (remember, I’m really big on being honest) I see myself in his words. I’ve had more than my share of honest bumbles, ignorant statements, and downright hurtful comments that I have made about racial issues over the years. I edit a podcast where we talk about Biblical anti racism. Now when I say these things, I get to hear it while in the editing room, and have to practice making the choice to leave those cringe-worthy comments that I made in the final cut. Because that is what we do as white people. We are messy, because even the most educated and well intentioned of us are newer at this than our colleagues of color. People of color have a PhD in American Racism earned by being born and surviving in America, while for us white folks, this was at best an elective class.  

New drivers get in more traffic accidents. I am assuming that Pastor Giglio may be an even newer driver than I am on his anti racism journey. I am assuming this because I have, in all honesty, said things that were just as stupid earlier in my journey, only with a smaller audience. I honestly still make thesse kinds of mistakes, just with less frequency now. But making mistakes about something as weighty as racism, no matter how frequent or infrequent, is painful for people on all sides. 

For Pastor Giglio, this has to suck really bad, because like me, he gets to see this mistake over and over again on the video, and the video doesn’t go away. That mistake will come with a lot of wound-licking regret, and I really hope this mistake doesn’t keep him from trying again. And if he does return, I hope he tries to be more a John the Baptist than a “woke white guy" leader. He has a lot more to learn before he is in a position to show anyone else how to take this journey of anti racism. It was too early for him to try to contribute something meaningful to the discussion because he is not experienced in this area, he is a new learner. And like all new learners (myself included) we make lots of mistakes. We often are overconfident and under-skilled.  

I am a white man who has been involved in anti-racism efforts for 25 years. I still make tons of mistakes. I have not arrived, and it is also true that I am not where I began either by this point. It is my hope that when you as a white person have your own Louis Giglio moments that you don’t stop trying to learn. I have had many of these moments, and it is never easy.  I yelp, tuck my tail between my legs and scurry off to a corner somewhere to lick my wounds. Here is my personal rule for when I get it really, really wrong. I give myself 24 to 48 hours for self-pity before I walk back out and try again. Limiting my self-pity time helps me get sober, and I really, really want to get sober from this particular sin. I hope you do too, because we can do a lot of damage in the world if we ignore the problem and just focus on how this makes us feel. 

So I want to give this little bit of advice to you if you are brand new on the road of anti racism. If you want to hear anything from another white person who might have been doing this a while longer: this journey absolutely will hurt. Your feelings will be hurt, often, and especially at the beginning. You will feel self-doubt, shame, feel angry at people you think are shaming you, and probably will say or do some really dumb things before you stop reacting and try to make sense of it all. You might even feel a little paranoid, wonder if you ever even understood the world at all, and might cry or yell a lot. You will want to quit—often at first, but don’t do it. Stay on the road. There are lots of people on the journey with you if you would just lift your head up to see. But, if you are brand new, or nearly brand new like most of us are in this moment in history, that before you do anything else, just take a moment to stop. Sit, listen to people of color, and stay silent. As my wise friend and anti racism educator Laura Pritchard has said, “Anti racism is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself so you can do this long work.” Welcome to the team. Sit down and watch. . .we’ve got a lot to learn together here.

[1] https://www.bakersagainstracism.com

[2] https://www.facebook.com/thegospelcoalition/posts/10156812743807723

[3] PRO-TIP FOR WHITE PEOPLE: (From episode 90 of the Antioch Podcast) Many people of color have already been writing books, giving speeches, preaching sermons, recording podcasts, making documentaries, and publishing articles to educate white people about racism, and it is not hard to find either. When you have a question about racism, Google the question and use one of the plentiful resources on the internet one of these people of color has already made to help. Use the internet like we use for learning about every other thing we don’t know much about these days. Sit, learn, reflect. Ask another white person, perhaps, who has been doing anti racism work longer than you for a while until they cannot answer your questions any more. If your anti racist white friend is stumped by your question, and you can’t find the answer on the internet, THEN you may be ready to ask a person of color.

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2020/06/16/atlanta-megachurch-pastor-louie-giglio-sets-off-firestorm-after-calling-slavery-white-blessing/

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