I’m white, believe in God, volunteer in prisons, and just recently realized I was a part of the racial divide in our country.
This week’s controversy surrounding NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly and her on-air comments about blackface as a Halloween costume hit home with me in a powerful way.
Three years ago, if you would have asked me if I discriminated against people of other races, I would have scoffed at the question. I have a biracial brother—of course not. But for the first time, I had to face that I did, and I had no idea. My actions (or inaction) were hurting people and contributing to the whole system at large. And it wrecked me.
I was raised in a middle class home with parents who took me to church. My faith guides my life—it dictates my relationships, decisions, work, and voting.
I grew up in a small town. I can count on two hands the number of people of color who lived in that town while I was growing up—one of them was my adopted, biracial brother, the other was my best friend.
My first experience with race happened in high school. My best friend was accused of a horrible assault against a female student. Despite saying he didn’t do it, he was kicked out of school.
Later, the story was recanted, but the damage had been done. His reputation had been ruined. I remember him sharing with me, through tears, about the shame and embarrassment that came from the accusations.
I remember telling him, “Just be honest, share the truth, and let it be.” That had always worked for me. But his response has forever been engraved on my heart.
“You don’t get it. No one hears me.”
He was right. We would walk around town and people would drive by shouting out racial slurs or “rapist.”
At first, his responses were filled with anger, but anger eventually gave way to defeat. I’d offer support and remind him that I believed their words meant nothing, but I failed to realize how much damage those words had on him. It changed the trajectory of his life. Three years later I was speaking at his funeral after he committed suicide.
I look back on this often.
I wish I would have fought on his behalf. I wish I would have empathized with his pain. I wish I would have been there when he felt alone and forgotten.
I see the red flags clear as day now, but I didn’t at the time. I had no idea the underlying roots that led to his “guilt” in the eyes of the public. That ignorance kept me quiet.
After his death, I knew my silence and inaction was part of the problem. You would think that would be a wake up call for me, but it wasn’t.
My second experience with racism happened in 2006. I had just started college. I was waiting in line at a movie theater in southern Kentucky with my mom and dad (both white), and my seven-year-old brother. He was the only person of color in the theater.
Fellow moviegoers refused to stand close to us. They made comments (first under their breath and then out loud). I vividly remember one parent scolding their young child for talking to my brother as the two of us stood in line to buy popcorn.
“You don’t talk to those people,” the mother said as she yanked her daughter away.
People stared at our family and whispered back and forth. No one would stand next to us in the lobby or in the theater. It was very evident that we were not welcome. Many weren’t even willing to hide their disgust when they looked at us.
I had known that being a white male gave me privileges—advantages, elevated status, and respect that wasn’t given to others. But a front row seat to seeing my brother’s reality was shocking. My heart broke, and I was livid. I didn’t know what to do with my emotions—do I say something? Is there something I can do? Should we leave?
My young, innocent brother had no idea what was happening, but I did. Yet again, I did nothing.
I wish I could say these were my only experiences, but as years went by I began unintentionally spewing my ignorance. My “faith” masked my subtle but divisive biases. I believed that just because I hadn’t shot someone who was black, I wasn’t a part of the problem. Now looking back, I realize very clearly what a dangerous weapon I had allowed myself to become. I was clearly perpetuating racism for years. This included things such as:
- I held strong to the belief that people in poverty (namely inner city) were there because they lacked the desire and drive to aspire to more in their lives. Though my parents taught me otherwise, this false belief was supported by what I chose to read and watch on a regular basis.
- When racial injustice was brought up, I genuinely responded, “Well, what about black on black crime?” Actually diving into the complexities of the issue was overwhelming so it was easier to land there instead of looking at it from all perspectives.
- I fought hard for safe borders because the news I listened to most said that was the cause for the rising crime, so that’s as far as I looked.
- I argued that there was nothing wrong with our criminal justice system. I believed that people of color were just more likely to commit crimes than people who looked like me. It didn’t impact me, so I was never compelled to look deeper and ask why.
- I used Romans 13 (a Bible verse about submitting to governing authorities) to dismiss skewed realities facing minorities. I allowed myself to focus on that verse while ignoring the overarching message of the Bible that passionately took up the cause of the oppressed. Right there in the text was the model of Jesus who created new ways, and even broke rules, if there was a chance to help someone. He elevated the lowly and cast out by giving them value and a voice. He regularly showed what he meant when he said the greatest command was to love.
I was saying I loved Jesus, but my actions were displaying the opposite. I would have told you that I would die for my brother, yet I lived in a way that was more likely to suppress him (and those who looked like him) than give him the opportunity to thrive. I didn’t even sacrifice my popcorn and previews to stand up for him, for crying out loud. But if I claim to follow Jesus, who fought for freedom for all, and was willing to actually die to make it happen, something had to change.
The turning point
God started tearing the scales from my eyes. He used a group called UNDIVIDED (a racial reconciliation program) that forced me out of my comfort zone. He surrounded me with people who not only looked different than me and had completely different life experiences, but who were willing to build into me and lovingly guide me to a place of empathy.
They began walking with me through something called repentance which just means to change directions. They introduced me to God’s view of reconciliation. The more I listened, the more my worldview was rocked and restored.
I learned that the jokes I would make with my brother about being the “whitest black guy I know” were deteriorating his identity.
I learned that poverty is often not a choice, but a debilitating systemic reality for many families.
I learned the truth about generational incarceration and how it tears apart families.
I learned that in this country, one in three black men will be incarcerated in his lifetime.
I learned that we can desire for safe borders while being compassionate.
I learned the importance of finding the right barber to cut my brother’s hair.
God didn’t stop there. He took my life and dropped it right in the middle of Ohio’s prison system where I began working full-time. He brought me into an environment full of individuals who experienced oppression that I never dreamed possible—individuals who I was previously so quick to write off and condemn.
He brought me into the pit of society to show me His love and grace.
It’s not just me
I didn’t wake up one morning and say “I’m going to contribute to the racial divide today.” It was born out of passivity and grew into an unconsciously active mindset. Passive nature is a dangerous characteristic that has pulled us away from God since the beginning of time.
It’s crazy to wrap my mind around this, but all the brokenness in the world was born out of the first man, Adam, being passive in the Garden of Eden. He failed to rebuke the serpent and protect Eve from its lie. It is the earliest example we have of the ramifications of man’s passivity—one that continues to negatively impact the world.
As a man, I inhabit that nature, meaning it’s in me too. Passivity contradicts who God calls us to be. Overcoming my clueless ways meant intentionally running after spiritual manhood.
It meant shutting up and listening to the pain my brothers and sisters of color experience.
It meant empathizing with those who have experienced lives of persecution and injustice.
It meant learning to speak on behalf of those without a voice.
It meant embracing God’s call out of comfort and into intentionality.
It didn’t mean creating a massive movement to change the course of American history. It simply meant saying “yes” to opportunities to learn, to expanding my community, and to the change that God continued putting in front of me.
Leaning into this type of personal change is the best way to radically impact the world. By pursuing life change that rewires the core of who I am, I can take a small step toward systematically healing the divides in our world in a way no organization or government ever could. One interaction, one person, one community at a time.