Note: I wrote this before the incident that occurred last night where yet another unarmed black teenager was shot and killed. Pray for his family. Pray for St. Louis. Pray and act to bring about real change.
As a parent, I worry about many things. I worry about how my kids will do in school. I worry about their spiritual development. I worry if I am feeding them properly. I worry that we watch too much TV together. I worry about future dating relationships. (Like way, way, WAY in the future.) I worry about them learning how to drive.
But there are some things I have never worried about and I believe I never will:
- I do not worry that my kids will be shot by the police, especially when my kids are unarmed.
- I do not worry that they will be the target of excessive force if they are in a car that is pulled over for speeding.
- I do not worry that they will be yelled at for walking down the street or wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
I do not worry about those things because they are white. There are issues, concerns, and fears that I—as a white parent—will never face.
Why do we fight to acknowledge this reality?
As members of the predominant culture in our country, we are not always able to recognize the difficulties members of minority cultures face. When white fans pour out of a baseball stadium and tell black protestors, “Go back to Africa,” what are those protestors to think about how they are viewed?
When a cop who is charged with killing an unarmed teenager is put into hiding and people put “I support (said killer)” on their clothes; when online fundraisers collect money—not for the victim’s family—there is a clear message of who is important and who is not.
When evidence is presented that shows one side lied about an important forensic detail (Mike Brown was 100 feet away when first shot, not 35) and six separate witnesses confirm the story that the victim was truly a victim, what are minorities supposed to think about justice and the legal process?
When these issues are brought up and people say, “Quit talking about race so much,” how are members of minority races going to be able to open up and talk freely about their experiences?
Ferguson, Missouri, has highlighted a huge problem in our nation today. And it is a problem that many people wish to ignore. Accusations of race-baiting or fear-mongering are utilized in an attempt to shut people up. Accusations of paranoia are used to tell people their experiences aren’t as they perceive them to be, so they should just deal with it.
And we have created a climate where an armed white man can shoot an unarmed black teenager (who has his hands raised) six times without being charged. (This may change, but it’s been almost two months with no charges being brought yet.) Further, the victim endures a character assassination attempt in order to try and justify an unjustifiable homicide.
Meanwhile, white Americans, specifically white, Christian Americans, sit back and say things like, “Well, he should have listened in the first place.” Or, “This has nothing to do with race, it only has to do with law and order.” Or, “We don’t live in Ferguson, so it doesn’t matter to us.” Or, “We need to wait until all the facts are in.”
Or they say nothing at all.
The silence is perhaps the most troubling. We need to wake up. There is a problem. The first step is in acknowledging it exists.
I suggest three things we all must do, especially those of us who are in the dominant culture; in other words—those of us who are white.
We need to Shut Up, Listen Up, and Speak Up.
As a former-preacher-recovering-alcoholic, my sponsor gave me one directive in the early months of my sobriety: shut up. I spent my life talking. I talked from the pulpit. I talked in the classroom. I talked in my office. I talked at board meetings. I had done my fair share of talking. My sponsor recognized that and told me to shut up. When I went to meetings, I was to sit there in silence.
In my current job, I work with people who want to learn how to be successful in the workplace. One of the biggest lessons they need to learn is when not to speak. When I see people in the therapy room, one of the first things they often need to do is stop talking.
When we talk, we do not listen. When we say things like, “Race is not an issue,” we are telling people their experience is invalid. When we say things like, “It’s really not that bad,” we are indicating that we have made up our minds and we are not willing to face the truth of what other people are living through.
We need to stop talking. We need to pay attention. We need to listen.
If you have ever said to yourself, “I’m not racist, I have a black friend,” then there is a problem. Your circle is too small. This step has two smaller steps: first, increase your circle. Start attending events where you will be in the minority. Visit churches that are made up of a culture you are not a part of. If there are events going on in your town: civic events, neighborhood parties, attend them. Put yourself around people who are different than you.
The second step is to listen. Do not respond. Do not try and explain away. Do not justify. Do not tell people they are mistaken. Do not suggest that they should be happy with what has already happened. Just listen. People of color experience things in their daily existence that white people do not.
And if we don’t listen, we miss out on that. Actively seek to be among people different than you and just listen to them. Remember: you are not an expert on someone else’s experience.
This may sound antithetical to “shut up” but when the process is followed properly this is a necessary step. After we stop talking and start listening, we start learning what is truly broken within the various systems we live in. Once you learn what is broken, work to fix it. Thankfully, I live in a community that has a police force aware of its racial disparity. Our police chief has publicly stated there is a need to recruit more African-American and Latino police officers. I worship with several members of the police force and they are all men and women dedicated to bringing about justice. I have heard from members of minority groups describe their experience here as opposed to other places they have lived. We are far from perfect, but we have also moved away from where many cities still are.
With that being said, however, there is still a multiplicity of problems in our community. Racial and economic disparities still exist. It is difficult for people with criminal records to overcome their past and find work. Neighborhoods are often segregated by color. Churches continue to be predominantly made up of one ethnicity.
We must recognize the problems and speak out against them.
Look for ways to get involved in your community.* Look for ways to volunteer with organizations that are dedicated to justice. Make friends with people who have different life experiences than you.
Most importantly, stop trying to say that issues surrounding racial stereotyping are not a big deal. Stop telling people they are imagining things. Stop telling them to get over it. We must wake up and acknowledge the problem that exists. If we ignore it, we will be replaying the Ferguson episode over and over again. If we acknowledge it, we can work to correct it.
*International Justice Mission
*Justice. That’s All
*County Health Departments