Dear White People,
For the last 10 years I have led a church mission trip to Edisto Island, South Carolina. For me, it’s one of the best weeks of the year. I take a bunch of kids from a Chicago suburb to run an educational day camp for children on the island.
One of my favorite things about Edisto Island is Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church. We attend worship at Allen during the beginning of the week. Before we even enter the doors of the church, we are greeted with warm and welcoming smiles and hugs by black members of the church. When we walk through the doors, the pastor stops whatever he’s doing and greets us with open arms. After worship, the church invites us to lunch in their dining room.
Rarely do I experience a greater presence of the Kingdom of God than when I’m at Allen AME.
The warm greeting and abundant hospitality shows a spiritually healthy and loving environment. It is exactly what church should be. And it’s exactly how Emanuel AME embraced a 22 year old white man who came to their Bible study on Wednesday evening. They greeted him, accepted him, and loved him during the hour he spent with them. After receiving such hospitality, he murdered them.
In the face of such terror, it is tempting for white people to claim the terrorist is an aberration. That he’s not one of us. He’s the racist one, not us.
But that would be false. White America is racist. I’m racist. And so are you.
I can already hear my white brothers and sisters objecting, “Don’t generalize white people! Stop scapegoating us! I’m not a racist. I even have black friends!”
I don’t want to scapegoat white people. I want white people to take responsibility for the racism that infects us and our culture so that we can break the cycle. The fact is that white Americans live in a society that benefits from the racism that has permeated the United States for nearly 400 years. Because we benefit from racist structures, we are blind to them.
My good friend David Henson challenged white people to be honest in the wake of the Charleston terrorist attacks. Here’s my honesty.
I’ve been blind to racism because I live in a white world. I live in a white neighborhood. I go to a church that’s 95 percent white. I watch television where 90 percent of the faces are white. I shop at stores where white people shop. This is the white world in which I and the majority of white people live. And when a black person enters into my white world, I don’t greet them with arms wide open like the churches in South Carolina. Rather, I wonder to myself, “What are you doing here?”
It’s racist. And as my most prophetic Facebook friend, Dr. Stephen Ray, claims, it’s not normal. It’s sinful.
And it’s white America. Mimetic theory, which guides our work here at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement, claims that humans are not isolated individuals. Rather, we are interdividuals. We are formed by our environment. We learn how to be and act in the world through others. And so the terrorist attack on Wednesday wasn’t the result of a lone gunman who was mentally ill. It was the result of 400 years of white supremacy that teaches us that black lives don’t matter. It teaches that black lives are less valuable than white lives. It tells us that white people should live in white middle class neighborhoods while black people should live in the ghetto.The terrorist attack on Wednesday was the result of white man who was formed by white American racism – a particularly pernicious form of hatred that infects all white people and continues to murder a countless number of black people. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was wrong when she told the Today Show, “There is one person to blame here. A person filled with hate. A person that does not define South Carolina and we are going to focus on that one person.”
I love South Carolina. The people of Charleston are some of the nicest I’ve ever met. But, as John Stewart pointed out last night, that “one person” who shot nine people in a church was formed by a state where “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 how white racism works to devalue black lives in the United States.
And white people can no longer afford to deny the violent racism that infects our lives. Rather, we must take responsibility for it. The first thing we need to do is to name it. Yes, name it in people like the terrorist who killed the nine people at Emmanuel last Wednesday. Name it in our political, economic, and entertainment systems that propagate and benefit from racist structures. For example, did you know that currently “the U.S. has a greater wealth gap between whites and blacks than South Africa did during apartheid”? Name it for the sinful, demonic structure that it is.
But just as important, name the racism that infects you. It’s not helpful to just name racism in others if we don’t also take responsibility for the racism within each of us. Name it in yourself so that you can repent from it. And once you repent from it, name it again and again. Racism is so embedded in our culture that its evil will surely return to our lives.
As you name it, let the scales of white supremacy and privilege that blind you from America’s structures of racism fall from your eyes. Work to change the oppressive racist political, economic, and educational systems that permeate our country. Read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Read up on Tim Wise. And as you do the personal work of repenting from the racism that infects you, seek friendships with African Americans. Listen to what they have to say about their experience of living in the U.S.
We can no longer afford to deny the racism that infects white America. It’s time that we dismantle the racism that permeates our cultural systems and our personal lives. Otherwise we will doom our black brothers and sisters to more white terrorist attacks.