Did you know that it is very very important to remember and to repeat ad nauseam that George Floyd, who was brutally murdered by police in late May, had a criminal record? I hope you didn’t, because that is actually not relevant at all. But if I were to listen to my white evangelical relatives, I’d have to conclude that Floyd’s criminal record was in fact the most important thing about the whole affair. The most important.
When you think about it, this is an odd position to hold, for people who claim membership in a religion that values, above all else, forgiveness. It’s also an odd position to hold, for people who claim to believe in freedom, and to abhor the idea of living in a police state, where people have no liberties and the state is always in the right.
I have been told by some readers think I express too much surprise at moments like this. Didn’t I already know that white evangelicals are like this? They’ve been doing this kind of thing for decades! I mean good god, it was white evangelicals who harangued civil rights leaders and yelled at black children trying to integrate their schools!
Yes. Absolutely. All of this is true.
And yet somehow this still feels like a gut punch.
Maybe it’s because when I was growing up, the racism I was exposed to had a more muted tone. It was more covert, less stated outright. I don’t remember how my white evangelical relatives responded to the Rodney King riots in 1992; I was only a small child at the time, and we didn’t have a TV. Or maybe it all just went over my head.
Maybe it’s because I grew up with relatives who loved me and showed me kindness—and even in cases where they didn’t (because families are complicated), they were still my family. I want them to be good people. I’ve seen them be good people. And isn’t that how we so often think of it? That there are good people, and bad people? So what does that mean, exactly? My categories stop working and my brain gets all gummed up, trying to sort it out.
Or maybe it’s because I was taught that we, as political conservatives, believed in liberty and freedom and small government and all these other things that the current conservative alignment with totalitarian police forces are putting a lie to. Maybe it’s because I didn’t see the lie, then. I believed the idealism. I thought it was real. I believed with all my heart in something I now see to be a blatant, abject lie. How does one make sense of that?
Realizing that the core of what you were taught growing up was a lie, and at the same time being hit with the reality that your relatives can be good, and kind, and loving toward you—and then turn around and in effect wish death on others—it’s the sort of shock you don’t quickly get over. Or at least I haven’t. I feel like I’ve been living this shock every day, in progressive, worsening stages, for over a decade now. Every time I think it can’t get worse, it does! And because, god help me, I can’t help loving them—they are my family, after all—I felt it every time.
This is not about white tears. I may sometimes feel like I’ve been punched in the gut, but I have Black friends who have literally been punched in the gut—by police. I may feel a twisting pain inside when my relatives send me yet another article or video baked in layers of racism, but I have friends who feel a twisting pain inside when their black adolescent sons leave the house—and fear that they won’t come back alive. It is not the same.
My pain feels little, and unimportant. Irrelevant, even.
I also always push back. I don’t let my relatives send me things like this, like that Candace Owens video dismissing George Floyd’s death because he had a criminal record, without sounding off a thorough rebuttal in response—even if I have to practice some deep breathing to lower my blood pressure first. Even if the adrenaline ruins my entire evening. Pushing back—telling my relatives that these views are not okay—is the absolute least I can do.
It’s true: I probably do express too much surprise, on this blog, at moments like these. I should have known. I should have seen it. I should have realized. I should not still be surprised by moments like this. But all of the “should have” in the world can’t master whatever element of psychology keeps me trapped here, wanting to believe better, wanting things to be different, only to find myself let down again, and again, and again.
Trust me—I’d like to make it stop! I sometimes feel like I should have become inured to this pain by now. But learning that you were lied to your entire childhood is not something one gets over in a day. I was a child. I was young, I was impressionable, I believed what I was told—isn’t that what children usually do, at least at first? We tell our children that the earth revolves around the sun, and they believe us. The trust of a child is such an incredible, profound thing. To take that trust and dashing it—those scars don’t just disappear.
Absolutely, I should see a therapist. That’s no sarcasm in that either—I should. I haven’t in a while, and I should. You would think that, after so many years, a single email or text message wouldn’t have the power to send my blood pressure through the roof, to rob me of my ability to focus, on anything, for a whole evening. And yet, here I am. Still in this space. Still shocked by what I probably should have come to terms with long ago.
I wish it were different. I wish there was a way I could turn this off, like flipping a switch. And here, once again, I worry am whining. My pain is nothing compared to that of Black people who are hassled, threatened, and arrested, all for “looking” suspicious. To live with that, always—I cannot even fathom it. The only thing I am living with is my white evangelical relatives’ willingness—eagerness, even—to share racist memes and chain emails. To be racist.
Having come to the end of this post, I’m sitting here wondering whether I should post it. It feels silly, really, and I worry that someone will see my words as diminishing the far greater pain of others. I’ve decided I’m going to post this piece because there may be others out there who have experienced their white relatives’ suddenly very visible racism in a similarly way—and who may not know why. At its core, I think it comes down to not wanting someone you love to be a bad person. I don’t think we have good frameworks for understanding this kind of thing.
Beyond that? I think I’ll have to work that out in therapy.
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