In the aftermath, I’ve been filled with sorrow and grief and disbelief at the callousness with which this act of racial terror was carried out. As a mother, I react in horror at the thought of playing dead, listening to my son die next to me. I feel physically ill and overcome at the thought of waiting hours for word of my husband’s death only to be told that it likely resulted from the very first shots I heard that caused me to cover my child under me as I dialed 911. And then, to tell my children that their daddy is gone, but “We are going to stay strong and we are going to get through this.” I know I couldn’t.
And then these people, these amazing believers, offered forgiveness in the middle of their grief. I am undone.
How could this be that in the year 2015, someone could be so filled with hate at people he lives among that he would kill them? How is it that we don’t recognize that he’s a product of our culture?
I want to point fingers. I want to rail against the talking heads and bloggers and politicians who assure my well-meaning, conservative, white, Christian friends that racism is long dead, white privilege is a myth dreamed up by liberals, and they are fine, good people with nothing to worry about.
I almost did. (Blog post half-written.)
But then I prayed. I cried out to God in my frustration and my pain and my grief and He answered me. With a sudden clarity and white hot horror, I saw truth. I saw the one responsible. I saw myself.
I killed nine people.
No, I did not fire that weapon, but I paved the way. I set the stage. I was complicit in this crime.
You see, I’m a forty-five-year-old white woman and I’ve only been introspective about race and my relationship with it for about a year. I became a follower of Christ as a child at the age of four. So, for forty long years, I pretended institutional racism didn’t exist. I liked to say holy things like, “I don’t really notice color.” In turning a blind eye, I set the stage for atrocities against people of color in spite of my professed beliefs.
I thought racism died out in our family with my grandma. She called people “colored.” I, in my childish wisdom, used to tease her and ask, “What color were they, Grams?” As an adult, I never told inappropriate jokes or said racial slurs. I had black friends and co-workers on and off through the years. I always treated everyone fairly. Of course, I wasn’t racist. That’s ridiculous!
And yet, one by one the memories came.
I remember saying things like, “It’s Black Expo, again? There’s no way they’d ever have a White Expo! Get sued for sure! That’s discrimination.” I remember having real animosity for the NAACP, the origin of which I have no clue. It just irritated me. I remember nodding my head in agreement when others said things like, “If they could just stay out of jail and be fathers to their children.” Even just recently, when confronted with the fact that while black children make up just 18% of those enrolled in a preschool program, they constitute 48% of those suspended more than once, I paused. I knew there’s no way black three-year-olds behave astronomically worse than white three-year-olds, and yet, I briefly wondered. (They don’t, of course. Here’s the truth.) I finally saw that I valued individual people of color in my world, but collectively as an ethnic whole, I viewed them with disdain.
And on and on the truth laid bare my calloused heart. The shame mounted. I want to point the finger at other people. After all, I’m enlightened. I get it.
But I can’t. Because it was me. I created an environment of hate.
- Every time I viewed myself, along with six out of ten other white people, as superior to blacks (even if I didn’t realize it.)
- Every time I uttered the words “race baiting” in the presence of real emotion, instead of seeking to understand from where the emotion was coming.
- Every time I became defensive and stopped listening when someone said “white privilege” because I worked hard to get where I am and I’m still broke, instead of learning that it’s not a moral indictment and “advantage” may be a better word anyway.
- Every time I stupidly thought racism ended with the passing of the Civil Rights Act, instead of actually learning history.
- Every time I didn’t think to ask questions about why so many black people live in the inner city, or why blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, or why they seem to assume the officer was picking on them.
- Every time I denied a black person her experience by picking apart her story and helpfully providing the correct perspective, instead of following the God-given mandate to weep with those who weep.
- Every time I chuckled at a racist joke so as not to make the teller uncomfortable, instead of calling them out and letting the chips fall where they may.
- Every time I accepted the narrative fed to me without first checking the bias.
With a wink and a nod, I was complicit. I violated the humanity of people with my ignorance and the image of God in which they are created with my strict adherence to the status quo. There is blood on my hands. And I am full of sorrow. How I wish it wasn’t me.
I will never be the same. I won’t do it perfectly, but I will do all I can to change our world, to change my world. I promise you my children will know. They will understand that while all people are equal, our culture does not honor that reality. We will fight injustice and we will work for equality. And we will be a voice for truth.
I cannot begin to undo my part or go back in time. There is no rewriting of history, no matter how much we try. Humility is the only way forward, the only path toward healing, my only hope of forgiveness. I am so sorry and it’s not enough, but it’s all I have. And so I ask you, people of color, with heart on my sleeve, blood on my hands, will you forgive me? Is there a place at your table for the likes of me? Can we work together to prevent more wrongs?