Seeing Further on Issues of Race

Gina Butz culture, truth 26 Comments

Seeing further on issues of race and privilege

photo by Freddy Marschall

So, I’m white. I’m the kind of white where people make jokes about how blinded they are when my skin shows. Hilarious, really. Keep those jokes coming cause they never get old.

I grew up in a white, affluent town. I know there was one black kid in my elementary school, maybe more. There were a few Asians – two of them were my closest friends. As far as I could see, they weren’t treated any differently than me. As far as I could see.

The problem is, I couldn’t see very far. Racism was something that happened somewhere else, but it didn’t touch me there. I assumed that because I tried to treat people equally, I wasn’t part of the problem.

In the last few years, I’ve been involved in more and more conversations about race. It pains me that as a church, we are not the ones leading the way in talking about diversity, or in fighting to break down systems of racism. We should be. We are the ones who know that each of us is created in the image of our beautiful Creator. We are called to justice and freedom for the oppressed.

I’ve realized that we need to see further. Here’s how I’m learning to do that:

First, it doesn’t serve anyone to say, “I don’t see color.” I understand the sentiment behind this because for a long time I said the same myself. But I think of my Asian friends and how often they are asked where they are from, or are told how good their English is (though they were born in America). I think of my black friends, who get pulled over for driving in nice neighborhoods and asked what they’re doing there, or complimented for being “so well spoken” (as though that’s a surprise). I think of the stories I have heard from people of color of not being seen because they are in the minority, of imbalances of power and opportunity due to the color of someone’s skin. I need to know these stories, and enter in to the heartache of them. I must see what other people experience.

It doesn’t serve anyone to say that because I have lived in another country where I was a minority somehow I understand what it feels like to BE a minority. I spent 13 years in that position, and never did I feel I was treated poorly because of my skin color. If anything, I was envied. And if I did live in a place where I was hated because of my skin, I would have the power to leave. That’s a choice so many cannot make. It’s not about being the majority or minority culture, but about what culture dominates. Being white brings privilege. I must see my privilege.

Yes, we have privilege. It doesn’t serve anyone to deny the existence of white privilege. The very fact that we can ignore its existence is, in itself, a privilege. I never have to think about the fact that I am white. I never have to wonder if someone is treating me differently because of the color of my skin. Seeing my privilege reminds me that all is not equal. It helps me see where things need to change.

It doesn’t serve anyone to say, “If you just stay on the right side of the law,” or “if you just work hard and make the most of your opportunities,” you’ll do well. I’m seeing more and more that people can do everything right, but if you have the wrong color skin you can get pulled over for minor infractions and be killed. It is hard to admit that we have a system that has for compounded generations been biased toward the white majority; even harder to admit that I benefit from that system. I must see what that gives me that others do not have.

Racism grieves the heart of God, because all of us are created to be a reflection of His glory. We are all image bearers, every last one of us. He sees it all. I want to see what He sees.

We cannot stand at a distance and condemn obvious acts of racism, thinking we are absolved from the issues. We have to come close, to see how we are part of the problem, to hear the real stories of how racism impacts our brothers and sisters, and work for justice.

Silence is not neutrality. Silence is complicity. We can opt out of this conversation, but so many cannot. We need to opt in because God wants us together. We need to see further.

 

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Comments 26

  1. Great thoughts Gina. I love your perspective in really wanting to be a learner. As an African-American woman, I too was challenged at the staff conference to become more of a learner and to embrace my ethnicity in new ways. Joining the journey with you.

  2. Gina, I’m still processing, too. I agree that it’s hard to admit I’m part of the system when I know in myself I don’t treat people differently because of their skin color. But your comments about needing to see further in these issues as a sister in Christ really resonate with me. Thank you for giving voice to some of my struggles in this area. And for showing me I’m not alone in the desire to grow.

  3. Julie-yes, that was a hard idea for me to own. I read a great article called I, Racist, that I highly recommend. He talked in it about how those of us with a position of power in this system need to use that position to speak out against it. That really convicted me.

  4. U have captured what happened well, I have been lacking how best to describe what happened from my perspective. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    I have been helping in my churches ESL program this last year, and as a result, we now have two couples in our home group – one from Ecuador and the other from Mexico. They add much richness to our community.

    I like your suggestion of learning Spanish, and I believe I will start as well.

  5. Thanks! You put things together better than most of our speakers. I need to admit that it was a discouraging time for me because I kept hearing “you need to enter in” but then “you can’t really enter in because you are white.” Or “seek to understand” but then “who are you, white person, to think you you can understand?” How do I become more like Christ, in emptying myself of privilege to humbly serve, love, give, when those I want to love apparently can’t see past the whiteness of my skin? Many of my best friends are not white, so I will be asking them, “Would you please help me see what I am missing?” Maybe I missed that piece of the conversation this summer.

  6. Karen,
    I’m sorry you were discouraged this summer! I don’t think that was anyone’s intention. At times I did feel like my “voice” was being taken away-like there was nothing good I could say, so it was better to just be silent. I didn’t feel like there was anyone telling me I can’t enter in, but that I need to realize the freedom I have to opt out at any time. In that sense, I can’t fully enter in because I can’t fully understand what it’s like to be in the minority. I can still seek to understand what I can though.

  7. Such great synthesis of multi-faceted ideas. Love your ability to let Jesus enter parts of your heart, to process what happens and then to articulate. Re: books — my favorite on race the past year is “A Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. Also enjoyed a creative book of poetry/prose on the African American experience called “Citizen”. Two very different approaches (left brain / right brain) that have made their mark on me in 2015.
    Grace.

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  8. Thanks for that. I’ve learned a lot from Jesus’ approach to privilege (that is, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”) While we all do our part to raise up the underprivileged in concert with those Christians leading human rights efforts throughout history, it is nice to know that God has the whole matter covered.

  9. Insightful article that helps me, again, realize I’ve only touched on the surface of my personal journey understanding what it really means to be another race. I live in Charleston, SC, and worship just a few blocks away from Mother Emanuel. Until that awful evening – when everyone’s world changed – I, too, thought my silence was acceptable. Those events drove home a phrase that I will never forget – tacit approval. When we hear the term “tacit,” it’s never followed by “objection.” We cannot afford to remain silent when we witness acts of racism; I’ve done that all of my life regarding the Confederate flag, wrongly believing that if I didn’t subscribe to that symbolism, that was okay. Until that awful night, I never understood the genuine pain and fear that symbolism invokes among my friends.

    Keep writing and posting your thought-provoking blogs. They make a difference.

  10. Faye-thanks for sharing! “Tacit approval” is a good phrase. Thanks for your encouragement-I do plan to keep writing as God keeps teaching me on this journey.

  11. Thank you for sharing. It’s great to hear your heart responses and to talk about what we white folks can do. I have been so blessed by reading– it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn without burdening people of color to be always teaching. I think as white Americans that learning our own history breaks open many of the assumptions that we have been taught, and truly changes the way we look at present issues involving race and culture.

  12. I commend you on your honesty, bravery, and compassion (to name just a few.) I have sadly lost a number of people I thought were my friends due to the issues of the world today and their need to be re-victimize the victims as well as nastily turn a blind eye to the realities of the world we live in. I must admit it was angering to read/hear their opinions on the topics, but more so hurtful and disappointing. You wholeheartedly think you know people until you realize you really don’t. My heart remains heavy, but I don’t regret any of those decisions.

    I continue to shed light on the issues at hand, repeatedly posting topics you have discussed here and then some. I believe that if we continue to speak further about race in a mature, open-minded manner, we can grow together. It’s very frustrating to speak with people who are immediately on the defensive or take what you are retelling as a personal dig against them. At that point, we get nowhere fast and you almost want to leave the conversation, but I choose to continue to listen as well as discuss what I see/feel from my vantage point. Trust me or not, their choice.

    It’s tiresome being that one (or one of three) Black kids in the school or grade. That scenario quickly helped solidify the thought that racism is taught. At 8 years old, we were bombarded daily by bigoted and racists adults, but also a large percentage of fellow classmates as well. My big heart and my “trust until they give me a reason not to” approach” led me to believe that through the years, those I went to school with grew with me out of that hate which was taught to them. At 43 years of age, I find that not at all to be the case. In the world of social media, you really get to see people for who they are and often how they feel regarding difficult and/or ugly topics. It’s like being back in the 3rd grade in EP all over again. So much so to where our class reunion this year will not see my face. I have no desire to co-mingle with so many who I once cherished as “friend.” The crazier part is that I was part of the planning committee for the last reunion, but can’t bring myself to attend five years later.

    Your words sit in my spirit as faith that we can all move forward together more peacefully as long as there are those willing to try. That means we not only must hear each other out and trust the stories told, but REALLY LISTEN. It also provides me with validation that my time spent trying to educate others along the way is not wasted and not always falling on deaf ears. My hope is that many more speak up and speak out like you, join the fight to equality in all aspects for all people, and have the bravery to be the same in public as they are in private. Learn. We must learn from one another. Our world needs to be a better place for our children.

    1. Danielle – thank you SO much for sharing your story! It breaks my heart to know it. It must be so tiring and hurtful to know that so many will not respond well to your story, but people need to hear it. I’m glad this encouraged you, and I do hope to keep pressing forward on this issue. Like I said in my post, I have already been surprised by the pushback I get from other white people; I naively thought they would respond the way I did when I started seeing more and hearing more. Sadly, not the case. But when I think about what you and so many others have had to go through, trying to help others see for so long, I know that I have to keep speaking out too. Whatever pushback I get is nothing in comparison.

  13. Gina, this is awesome. I could almost say I wrote this. I saw at the end that you live where I grew up from young years to 21. I too felt I lived in another world. There were no black kids in school or on our streets. There was a black area, but I did not go there until years later on a visit home. I just didn’t really know about it back then. I flew for a while out of Memphis. There were only 2 black girls and they were very ostracized. One was one of my good friends, lots if fun. But mostly my thinking has been as yours. Last year we began going to a sister black church in our PCA to a Bible Study and really being blessed. Our studies recently have been on Racial Reconciliation. Some of these same thoughts have been brought up and I am being really taught some difficult truths. My eyes have been opened to a world that I did not know about, was ignorant to, and now feel very troubled at what to feel and say. It’s all been very heart-wrenching. I love these people and cannot image their being treated in such ways, even today. I go in stores now with a totally different eye-view of people. I’m beginning to SEE some of what they have said and I hurt because of that. And, yes, some Christians I know are sadly the most hurtful. I agree silence for me now would be complacency and continuing the evils that have been “status quo”. It’s scary for me to think, but I will be involved and engaged where I need to be.

    1. Carolyn,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your story! It sounds like you’re experiencing a great environment where you can learn and grow. I hope to find myself in more similar situations as I continue on my journey.

  14. Thank you Gina for articulating much of what I desire to see, but like Karen, feel stymied at nearly every turn. I’m leaning into to this and listening more than before, still not connected in a way that makes the difference I believe Jesus would want to me to be. Praying for eyes that see and a heart that responds.

    1. Tom, I was just reading one of the books I mentioned above and was feeling the same thing you mentioned – I want to move into this, and educating myself is important, but what tangible steps will I take in relationship? Praying that God leads me to opportunities.

  15. This is such an important issue. This, especially, resonated with me: ‘“Silence is not neutrality.” Silence is complicity. I can opt out of this conversation, but so many cannot. I need to opt in because God wants us together. I need to see further.’ Thanks for the invitation to do just that and sharing your steps toward seeing further.

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