Culture & Race

What I do Wrong with Race: Confessions from a White Woman

Given the title, I feel obliged to begin with some qualifications. I am not, by most definitions, a racist, nor am I a well-intentioned but ignorant white person touting “color-blindness”. I have taught for years in diverse public school settings, where the majority of my students were African-American, Latino, and Asian. I am fluent in Spanish, speak a decent amount of French, have traveled on three continents, and am soon headed to a fourth.

To further qualify myself as an un-racist, my Masters’ Degree is in Multicultural/ Multilingual Education. Many significant influences in my life come from non-Western, non-white perspectives. I teach training courses for teachers of English to speakers of other languages, and regularly incorporate activities reflecting on minority and majority perspectives. On a personal level, my husband’s family comes from Sri Lanka, and my children are bi-racial.This makes me a “minority” in my home. My brother-in-law is African American, and he and his wife are some of our closest friends. Many of my most treasured, life-giving friendships are those with people from other cultures and races.

In contrast, the rural, Midwestern area where I currently live still harbors KKK groups. The lack of diversity in our region of the country contributes to an uncomfortable, and sometimes overtly racist attitude in many people. My husband and I have personally experienced this attitude – teenagers shouting obscenities at us while attempting to run us off the road; refusal at a local restaurant to serve black students from the university where we teach; antagonizing comments about our “half-breed children”; car bumper stickers demeaning Arabs in the name of Christ (“Give your heart to Jesus before an Arab gets you!”)

When I compare myself to some of these overtly prejudiced incidences, it’s easy to feel like I harbor no prejudiced perspectives. However, upon more honest introspection, I cannot deny that, even after years of living between cultures, I, too, stumble over prejudice. While slightly scary to record my prejudiced attitudes in black-and-white, ignoring these tendencies would be even more detrimental to both myself and the people from all races and cultures whom I love.

Here, then, are my confessions:

I use my experience with other cultures as a way to promote myself
One way I see my prejudice is when I use my personal experience within a culture to validate myself to others. A friend of mine who is married to a biracial man admitted once that she uses her husband as a “way-in” to be accepted within the African American culture rather than relying on her character to establish trust and relationship. She would quickly draw out her “I’m married to a black man” card, expecting a warm welcome in response.

Likewise, at times, I selfishly use my husband as a personal validation ticket. While my experience in an interracial marriage certainly provides me with a unique perspective, “using” him for his race to promote myself does not honor his inherent value as a person apart from his ethnic identity, it simply makes him a notch in my “multi-cultural belt”. This attitude itself is prejudiced as it enables me to believe myself better than those who have less experience with other cultures or more overtly racist attitudes than I.

In essence, when I utilize my personal connections to people of other races for selfish purposes, the internal ramifications of my actions are just as malicious as the external actions of consciously racist people – they simply wear a different mask.

I judge a group based on negative experience with one person
Another time I encounter prejudice is when I judge an entire group on my experience with one individual. When I taught in urban public schools, I worked closely with two African American teachers whom I’ll call Betty and Doris. Betty, a highly experienced, hard-nosed, old-school teacher, did her best to squash my first-year teacher enthusiasm. She yelled at me in front of students, talked to me like I was stupid, and made me cry on several occasions.In contrast, Doris, also a seasoned, talented teacher responded to me with an entirely different attitude than Betty. She embraced me, offering suggestions on how to most effectively work across cultures with students. Not only did she teach me about their families, their churches, their neighborhoods, she also took time to know me as a person, and valued who I was as an individual.While Betty had immediately written me off as an insincere, ineffective white kid, Doris had seen value in me apart from the group to which I belonged.

In discussing race issues with an African American friend one day, I recounted my negative experiences with Betty, bemoaning how demeaned I had felt, and how that experience made me feel very hesitant to trust other African Americans. My friend sighed and responded, “Well, yeah. She’s just got issues.” I realized after our conversation that I had completely forgotten the positive experiences I’d had with Doris. When I feel hesitant about my relationships with African Americans, it’s often because I’m remembering myone experience with Betty. In emotionally strained moments, my negative interaction with one African American causes me to lump a whole group into a negative category, even though I have spent years interacting positively with other African Americans.

I hide my convictions instead of sharing vulnerably.
When Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane, he took with him three sincere yet arrogant disciples who swore they would never forsake him. As he poured out his fear and sorrow to His Father; they fell asleep. If Jesus had my prejudiced attitude, he would have walked away from the disciples, dismissing them for their failures. He certainly would have been justified to roll his eyes and whine to God, “See what miserable failures they are?!? I can’t believe they’re acting that way.”

Generally, I respond two ways when I encounter both subtle and overtly racist attitudes: righteous indignation and fear of rejection. Jesus’ reaction to his disciples reveals the need for a further denial of my self, a willingness to see completely beyond my own understanding, and to vulnerably and lovingly risk sharing my heart in order to draw people into God’s passion for all people, not just powerful or predominant groups. By reacting in righteous indignation, I never let people close enough for them to catch a glimpse of His passion. By remaining silent for fear of rejection, I hoard the gift of diversity God has allowed me by focusing solely on protecting my reputation.

Yet, Jesus’ response could not have been more contrary to my own. In Jan Johnson’s Bible study on community and submission[1], she observes that Jesus asked his arrogant disciples to stay close in order to hear his grief. By transparently communicating his own feelings about the reality of the present situation, he draws them in, rather than pushing them away.

A time to speak
It’s not a pretty picture, I must admit. Paul, a recovering racial supremacist, must have felt this angst as he lamented being the worst of the sinners whom Christ came to save. I suspect there were many times when Paul leaned heavily on the mercy shown to his prejudiced perspective through Christ’s unlimited patience and sacrifice (1 Timothy 1:15-16). In the same spirit, I lean deeply into this mercy as I continue on my journey.

Several years ago, our church’s pastor, an African American from our predominately white church, resigned. Our pastor graciously offered various reasons for his resignation, slightly highlighting his disturbances over racial interactions in the church. Ironically, it was not a church in the racist, rural area where I currently live, but in a highly educated, progressive church on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. My heart sunk as I realized there was probably far more pain to his story than I would ever know. I remember sitting in the pew the morning of his announcement, weeping for myself, “Where can we go now?” I lamented to my husband, “If there’s no unity here, in an intentionally racially mixed community, will there ever be a place where we belong?”

My questions echo loudly as we continue to search for a community honest enough to recognize both conscious and subconscious prejudice, bold enough to confront the insidiousness of these attitudes within the Christian community, and humble enough to forgive one another for the ways we do race wrong. May this process first begin with me, a prejudiced white woman.

[1] Johnson, J (2003). Community and submission. Leicester, England: Intervarsity.


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