Dear Church, Refuse to be in Denial

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Dear Church,

I write to you to admit that I am a recovering racist, working to overcome the lies ingrained in me by white supremacy and a racialized society. I share this to be transparent with you, to own up to and change the ways I’ve bought into the illusion of race and white supremacy, and to challenge you to do the same.

I am a white American woman, born and raised in a country that was built on white supremacy and expanded by institutionalized racism. The cultural messages I received were products of a racialized society, communicating to me the supposed meaning and value of whiteness versus colored-ness. I have always been a beneficiary of white privilege as a person that fits our culture’s physical appearance standards of “white.”

I admit that given my context, these realities are inescapable; I cannot ignore them out of existence or pretend they never touched me. My proximity to people of color (or overall niceness towards them, or relationship with one or more of them, etc.) does not exempt me from being a recipient of this inheritance and consumer of these messages informed by racism and white supremacy. So I confess that these issues are not exclusively other people’s problem – they are my problem, too. They are my family’s problem, my neighborhood’s problem, my church’s problem, my workplace’s problem, my city’s problem, my political party’s problem, etc. am a part of each of these groups.

Until we can admit that we are people in need of recovery from racism and white supremacy—and stop checking out of the conversation because “at least we aren’t those angry bigoted people”—we will never make progress in racial reconciliation; we will never heal the wounds and cancer of white supremacy. I must look at myself and ask Jesus to “search me… and know my heart” to uproot false beliefs and assumptions, give sight to my blindness, and forgive my lie-informed thoughts, words, and actions [1].

I intentionally use the words “admit” and “recovery” in relation to these issues because I see a useful parallel between the traditional recovery process in the personal life and overcoming white supremacy in cultural and societal life. I see it because of my own journey of both spiritual/emotional recovery and racial identity awakening.

Many readers are likely familiar with 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or the Christ-centered Celebrate Recovery program. In September of last year, I joined a Celebrate Recovery step study, which focuses on allowing Christ to help you overcome life’s “hurts, habits, and hang-ups [2].” The first step in the program—and that which must precede all others in recovery—is stepping out of our denial, acknowledging that we are not God, and accepting that we are powerless to control our tendency to do the wrong thing without Him.

Though I joined the program for spiritual and emotional reasons, I came to see how recovery principles are also directly applicable to “waking up” to and undoing white supremacy and institutionalized racism. While I worked through my own personal recovery and further educated myself on racial justice in America, I realized that my list of “hurts, habits, and hang-ups” also includes my life-long absorption of racism and white supremacist beliefs.

One of the reads that resonated with me the most was the book, White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to be White, by Daniel Hill, pastor of a multicultural church in Chicago, Illinois. Having gone through his own racial awakening journey as a white male and church leader, Hill describes seven stages to the white Christian’s awakening to racism and whiteness in America: encounter, denial, disorientation, shame, self-righteousness, awakening, and active participation [3]. Similar to recovery program models, Hill describes the first steps as having an encounter/awakening moment to racial inequality and white supremacy, and from there confronting and overcoming our denial about them.

I found the overlap to be so profound that I wanted to see if racism recovery programs are actually out there. I looked it up, and sure enough, there are “Racists Anonymous” meetings. Rev. Ron Buford, the founder of the “Racists Anonymous” recovery program, rather humorously points out, “everybody knows a racist, but nobody’s racist themselves. [4]” I’m sure folks in recovery can relate to this “beginner” sentiment: everyone else here definitely has a problem, but I’m not so bad, I’ve mostly got this under control. Denial is our biggest hurdle to recovery, both personally and systemically!

Leaving denial behind by admitting that racism is my problem is to admit my brokenness, passivity, and blindness. I can’t walk away from the fact that White America has abused its power, wrongfully assigned different values to different skin tones, and tried to justify our race-based crimes of the past and present. Without my awareness of this reality and my repentant heart, I am a part of the ongoing epidemic of racism and white supremacy—even if I am objectively a moral and good person. It’s not enough for me to say, “I’m not racist,” and think that my work is done; I do not and cannot escape my American whiteness.

As a white Christ-follower in the United States, I must step out of my denial and face the meaning of my whiteness. This is a tremendous move and it is definitely not comfortable, but Jesus never called us to the comfortable life in which we remain unchanged. My recovery process was never comfortable, but it has set me free from false beliefs, spiritual blindness, and harmful behaviors. We must be open to uncomfortable surrender to Jesus in order to shake ourselves free from the lies we have absorbed about race and whiteness.

We cannot do this without Jesus, just as I believe that true and lasting recovery cannot occur without Jesus. The horrendous baggage of white supremacy is too overwhelming of a weight for any of us to carry on our own. Many more of us know this than we are willing to acknowledge, which I think is why so many of us bristle with anger or defensiveness in response to others’ claims of racism. As those of us in recovery know, it is much easier to blame others or be in denial than it is to take up our cross. This is why we must boldly turn to Jesus to give sight to our blindness, refusing to be in denial about who we are, the harm we’ve caused, the race myth we’ve ascribed to, and the privilege we’ve been given but never earned.

As recipients of Jesus’s completely undeserved, redemptive power, I challenge you and I to humbly fall to our knees before God out of the sorrow that we, too, are a part of the problem of racism and white supremacy; that we, too, are passive or active oppressors and inhibitors of justice; that we, too, are recovering racists in desperate need of repentance and a Savior. The undoing of racism starts with me, with you, and the only God who can help us change. I hope you will join me in stepping out of denial and into this humbling challenge.

In Christ,

Melissa

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