Before I came to the United States to attend college, I had spent fifteen of my eighteen years in the global south, from my country of origin to my host countries, in cultures and countries where my brown skin did not draw unwanted attention, good or ill. My formative years were spent in contexts where multiplicity—of language, culture, country of origin, and experience—was the air that we breathed; it was normal, it was good, it was celebrated.
When I moved to the US at eighteen to start college, the experience of beginning to understand race and the racial constructs upon which American society is built and around and from, from its inception as a nation, began.
To understand life in America, you need to understand race. I resisted that fact and reality for a long time, because we had come from cultures that did not suffer from the social construct of race. We worked with ethnicity, we knew the strife of tension between tribes, we struggled with European colonization—but race and racism wasn’t in our life’s blood, not like in America.
At this point, as the dawn of August settles into the full rush of fall and everything back to school, we find ourselves sitting stunned in the wake of a blood-stained summer, both globally and nationally. In our country here, we find ourselves reeling from a summer of traumatizing video footage after video footage of police officers shooting and killing unarmed black men.
If I’ve learned anything about dismantling racism in America, it is that we cannot understand the pain of the black community across America, and really throughout the world—we cannot understand their anger and horror at their long-held knowledge and experience that their boys and men in the United States are disproportionately being killed by police; we cannot understand why Black Lives Matter is a movement borne out of protest against the reality that black bodies and black lives seem to matter less; nor can we understand how Black Lives Matters is a reason for such resentment and uproar and resistance among folks, largely white, who do not see police killings of black people as a systemic problem but as isolated events; nor can we understand how racism is the in the air that you breathe if you have been reared in and live in America—we cannot understand any of this if we do not understand the history of the United States; honest history that is willing to bear the pain and shame of a country founded on the principles of freedom and equality, yet did not practice it for all of its people.
A history that is willing to explore and tell the truth about what slavery was and did in the United States, with its creation of the social construct of race and whiteness and blackness; history that understands white supremacy as the result of the construct of race and ‘whiteness’, and that white supremacy is not just hood-wearing Klansmen burning crosses in yards, but the pervading thought that the white way is best, that white is normal and standard, and that ‘diversity’ is all else revolving around whiteness; that the anxiety felt when Black Lives Matters comes up, that the resistance to understanding police killings of black men, being pulled over while black, stop and frisk practices, and mass incarceration of black and brown men—that these are offshoots, the logical ends, the inevitable results of white supremacy and a racial hierarchy that privileges one race and disenfranchises all other races.
We need to understand that white supremacy is sin. It is an affront to God—the God of justice, the God of righteousness and mercy, the God of love.
If you are a white person and you are feeling defensive right now, I encourage you to look at that discomfort—to allow yourself to feel it and to stay in it, and to ask honest questions of it. When you find things you see on social media or by black voices that are hard to believe, or it feels better to not believe—in that the things in your world and life would align better if you didn’t believe these things—ask questions of that, too.
If you are a person of color, and you have been made to feel, implicitly or explicitly, or you believe that you, your ways, your culture, your people are less, are inferior—hear clearly: those are lies. You bear the image of God. God’s kingdom does not come in full without you and yours.
White supremacy and racism is a principality in America. And it taints all of us. As a wise minister once said, “Racism is the centuries-old demon of America that this country hasn’t been able to look fully in the face yet.” It is a tangible, body-and-life-affecting reality rooted in sin and greed and the desecration of the image of God in fellow human beings, and it is also a principality that goes beyond flesh and blood. As followers of Jesus, we are called to root it out, to change the systems and structures built with white supremacy in their marrow, because racism affects our bodies and our lives; and we are also called to fight the principality of racism with weapons that go beyond flesh and blood. Let us not make the mistake of taking the sin of white supremacy and racism to be merely one or the other.
[Image: Flickr user Lauren Powell-Smothers under Creative Commons license]