When I was in college, I took a public speaking class. One of the last assignments of the semester was to make a 10-minute persuasive speech on a self-selected topic. While most other students chose to do their speeches on abortion and capital punishment, I chose the topic of “oppositional culture” in the African American community. For those of you who don’t know what that is, oppositional culture refers to the way in which black people resist conformity to many aspects of the dominant (i.e., white) culture to avoid being seen as “acting white” by their peers. It is a very controversial theory that has too often been used to overgeneralize the experience of black Americans and blame them for low social and economic achievement.
I delivered this speech to a mixed group of peers at a major urban university. It was probably the dumbest and most frightening thing I’ve ever done. On my list of life regrets, it’s probably in the top five, despite two black classmates thanking me afterward. The problem was, I had the wrong frame of context for truly understanding such a complex topic. At the time, I didn’t know about racial profiling or wage discrimination or redlining or “white flight” or the Tuskegee experiment or urban lead poisoning or historic attacks on black churches. If I had, it would have been a very different speech.
But as scary and offensive as it was, that speech was a major first step in my attempt to understand racism and race relations in America. I now believe that I had to stand up in front of my peers and let my ignorant words dribble out of my ignorant mouth so that the truth could find room to register in my brain. I had to rile people who would get in my face and say, “You don’t get it” in order for me to ‘get it.’ And to be honest, I’m still in the process of “getting it.”
With the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the racially motivated church shooting in Charleston, there has been much talk recently about race in America. And, per usual, there are many people in the white community who are employing the most convoluted mental gymnastics imaginable to deny that racism is still a big problem in this country. They don’t want to hear about it. “I’m not racist,” they say. “It’s not my problem. I’m totally ok with black people. Why is everyone so angry with me? It’s not fair!”
I used to be one of those people. I used to be one of those who thought as long as I wasn’t using the n-word or telling racial jokes, I wasn’t racist. I used to be one of those who got offended and defensive any time someone mentioned racism in America. It took a great deal of confrontation, education and listening to bring me to repentance. I’m still repenting.
To repent means to turn away from sin. Some sins are easy to turn away from. Someone catches you gossiping, and you say, “Oh, I won’t do that anymore.” Problem solved. But we live in a society that is often sinful in its construction. Sin is built into the system. You just don’t see the forest because of the trees. And in such a case, repentance becomes a labor indeed. Just like our earth requires 24 hours to turn completely on its axis, repenting of systemic sin becomes a turning on a cosmic scale. You may think you have turned completely away, only to discover months or years later that you’ve turned only half or a quarter of the way. Getting free means extricating yourself from a cultural anti-Christ mindset that is reinforced on a daily basis.
Three nights ago on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart illuminated the problem exactly:
“In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals, who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper.”
So maybe we aren’t using the n-word. Maybe we aren’t telling racist jokes. But how many of us are balking at the thought of changing the name of a street that honors the oppressors of our black brothers and sisters? How many of us are saying we should value a less-than-noble aspect of our nation’s history above the dignity of those who have suffered–and are still suffering–from that history?
Granted, those who do not study history are forced to repeat it. But in this case, we’re not learning from history. We’re calcifying it into the present. We’re still trying to live it, celebrating delusions of a grand political rebellion that stood on the right to enslave black bodies. And indifference is simply tacit approval of this status quo.
Repenting of a systemic sin like racism requires an ongoing effort. It is a deep work of continuous listening and introspection. It is an active resistance, a pulling down of strongholds, a cosmic turning. It isn’t easy. In fact, it is often embarrassing and uncomfortable. It means laying aside one’s pride and critically examining all of the ways in which we’ve been conditioned to think about race. But it is a necessary work if we are committed to healing the wounds of the past and loving our neighbors well.