I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere on the North Carolina coast. Demographically, we are fishermen, marine biologists, factory workers at the veneer plant, business owners, wealthy retirees, people in the service industry, and the usual smattering of doctors, lawyers, and our version of real estate tycoons. Because of the different jobs that people had in my town, my public high school had a diverse socioeconomic background. The ethnic and racial diversity, however, was minimal. And so was my education in these matters.
When I went to college, we read The Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol. It was a book about the resegregation of schools and when I read it I realized I understood nothing about systemic poverty, implicit bias, the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration, and modern slavery. I had a conversation about the book with my boyfriend at the time, a heels-dug-in conservative, and made comments to impress him. Why don’t they just move? This is dramatic and biased. Why don’t they just get better jobs?
I believed what I was saying, not because I had given the matter much thought, but rather because I wanted approval.
When I think back on these comments today I’m ashamed. I feel the telltale symptoms of white guilt creeping in and I want to hide my ignorance. I want to do things to make up for it, to convince myself and the world that I am a good white person—and I want to do them publicly.
But I have to make a conscious effort to stop myself and question my motives. As much as I have learned about how I have fallen short, I have also learned that I am not the hero in this story. My motives for pursuing racial reconciliation prove that. Until I dug deeper, I didn’t realize that my heart was breaking more for myself than for the oppression of my brothers and sisters of color. I wanted to feel better about myself more than I wanted to actively contribute to healing, because wading in means having to see myself as something other than the hero.
Beware of Practicing Righteousness in Front of People
In her book I’m Still Here, Austin Channing Brown writes “If my feelings do not fit the narrative of white innocence and goodness, the burden of change gets placed on me.” I’m learning to take these comments personally, to absorb them and sit with my feelings, to see them as reflective of my own behavior and not pass the blame on to the most overtly racist among us.
With all of this stewing around in my head, I read Matthew 6, part of the Sermon on the Mount. In verse 1, Jesus states, “Beware of practicing righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your father who is in heaven” (ESV). I started wondering what exactly this “reward” entails. “Practicing righteousness” is a wonderfully broad concept. It can apply to racial reconciliation, our environmental impact, fair trade efforts, organic farming, gender equality, singles ministry, and so on. Our self-serving, half-hearted attempts at justice are everywhere.
It is relatively easy to throw our righteous practices in the faces of our followers, isn’t it? I can post a hipster picture of me reading a book by an author of color. But putting my money where my mouth is? Wading into an area in which I am actively in the wrong, in which I have to own not only my sins, but the sins of my ancestors that have directly benefited me? That is hard. That could break me. But it’s the least I can do—the least we can do—for our brothers and sisters of color.
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