Note: This Lent, Mount Olivet is doing a community-wide book read of A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. Info on discussion groups and a reading schedule can be found here. Each week this blog will feature a reflection on one of the stories we're reading. It is our hope that by reading this book and engaging in conversation, we can build empathy for those whose race is different than our own, increase our commitment to racial equity, learn about ourselves and the role race has played in our lives, and listen for God speaking through the stories that are shared with us. Please contact Pastor Joel for more info (firstname.lastname@example.org).
“Fear of a Black Mother” is about a lot of different incidents, but based on the conversations I heard, it might have well just ended after the first four pages.
“That poor store white clerk at the grocery store was just doing his job. Does she honestly think he wouldn’t have stopped a child of any color from reaching for a dessert? She’s the one making this about race, and it’s unproductive. She doesn’t want people to assume things about her because she’s Black, but she feels like she can just lump all white people together – if anyone is racist in the story, it’s her! If she would just have an open mind, she’d be able to move beyond her closed-circuit thinking that injects racism where it’s not even intended.” This is what many of us expressed. I will admit that I, too, had some of these thoughts as I read the essay.
I’m going to provoke here, because I think we are missing an opportunity when our thinking about the story ends with the sentiments expressed above:
Consider the emotional energy you spent thinking about the author’s story about the clerk at the coop. Now consider the emotional energy you spent thinking about her story about her stillborn baby who she believes “decided that this world, in its current incarnation, was not where she wanted to be” (20). Were they similar amounts of emotional energy? What might that say? Why did so many of our hearts go out to this unnamed white store clerk while remaining relatively unmoved at this tragedy in the life of the author?
As we talk about race and racism, one of the hardest things is realizing that the sin of racism doesn’t just appear out there in the world among “capital-R Racists,” but that it might be something that has found a home, however small, in us, too.
Jesus, in his sermon on the mount in Matthew, radically redefines what it means to keep God’s commandments and live righteously before God. For Jesus, not committing adultery is more than a matter of refraining from breaking the trust of a marriage by having sex with other people, it’s something that occurs much earlier, when you objectify someone by looking upon them with lust (Matthew 5:27-28). I wonder if he’d say something similar about racism – that racism may seem like it’s something easy to avoid doing by not being a “capital-R Racist” (who calls people racial slurs, discriminates against people, holds overt and ugly stereotypes about people of other races, etc), but in reality it is a sin that lodges itself deeply in us, often hidden from our conscious brains.
I took an education class in college and my professor was a white man who had dedicated his entire life to achieving race equity in education. No one would have looked at him and thought “well there’s a racist if I ever saw one!” And yet, he told a story about when he was teaching a group of black students as a young teacher. The school’s policy was that the girls sat on one side of the classroom and the boys sat on the other. My professor was having a problem – none of the boys would answer his questions. This continued on for a time until he asked his supervisor to come in and observe him. True to form, no boys participated in class discussion that day.
His supervisor sat my professor down after class and said “You’re a good teacher, and you’re presenting all the material correctly. However, did you notice that when you teach, you tend to face the girls’ side of the room? You were looking at the girls and not the boys – it was almost an 80/20 ratio. I don’t want to make you feel upset, but have you considered that deep down, you might have been conditioned to think of black girls as more intelligent or better learners than black boys? Because that’s likely the message the boys are picking up about themselves from you, even though you want to give them a different message.” My professor had to confront the stark reality that everything he intended to stand for was being undermined by his subconscious thoughts manifesting themselves in his body’s posture.
This is called implicit bias. We all have implicit biases, and it’s not entirely our fault. We learn from society, family, personal experience, and the media how to interpret different people – what are their motives? What are they capable of? What are they like? What should we expect from them? And then we store that information away deep in the recesses of our brains, away from our conscious reflection. You can learn more about implicit bias here, but the point is this: you can harbor a belief and not be aware that you’re harboring it, and this belief can impact your behavior in the world. My professor didn’t consciously believe that he thought of black boys as less capable than black girls, but something led him to turn his body toward that side of the classroom. Scary, right?
Harvard has a series of tests to measure implicit bias, and so I decided to take them. You can take them too, right here. (Standard warning: these tests are not conclusive, nor do they scientifically prove anything about you). I found out that I have a “strong automatic preference” for light skinned people over dark skinned people and a “slight automatic preference” for European Americans over African Americans. I also tend to associate African Americans with weapons and European Americans with harmless objects. Ouch!
So it seems like racism has found a home in me, as hard as that is for me to admit. So, now that I know this, I have a choice. I can dig my heels in and protest and cling to the image of myself that I have where I’m a good white person who loves all people equally, and refuse to accept my part in perpetuating prejudice in society. Or, I might choose to heap shame on myself for failing to eliminate my biases, and walk around carrying self-induced stress and take up space in conversation talking about what a sad excuse of a person I am. Or, I can do what Scripture directs.
The Bible says this: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). There should be neither avoidance nor shame when it comes to admitting our faults, failings, and sins. If we believe one thing about God, it’s that God is good and merciful. So it’s ok if you have to admit that you’ve fallen short – we do this as a community once a week in worship. It should be completely normal and natural. But because there’s such a stigma against being racist, it is really scary and difficult for those of us who are white to name the prejudices we hold, or the implicit biases we uncover. This keeps us from living fully into God’s forgiving love.
The God we have forgives us so that we might seize hold of new ways of living in the world. God heals our wounds, but part of that healing is exposing the wound to the light and then cleaning it out. And anyone who’s ever skinned a knee knows that looking at your wound can be ugly, and cleaning it can be painful. It’s the same with racism. When you find it in yourself, it’s not fun. You want to deny it’s there, to go back to how it was before you knew your own negative biases. But that’s not the way that leads to healing. When you find that you’re holding racist thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, even at a subconscious level, it’s an invitation from God to repent, receive forgiveness, and walk with new and abundant life. But you don’t get to walk with new and abundant life until you’ve done the repenting.
All of this brings me back to Shannon Gibney and her story about the coop. Maybe she could’ve chosen a clearer example of how she encounters racism in Minnesota – I’m sure there are many. But this is about more than Gibney’s story – it’s about our reaction to it. Maybe our reaction was so strong because we, especially those of us who are white, don’t like thinking of ourselves as racist. And if we can convince ourselves that she is overreacting to the situation at the grocery store, we can let ourselves off the hook. But if Gibney is right – if there is a “very particular flavor of disdain for the Black mother” that was expressed to her by a grocery store clerk who probably had no idea he was expressing it, then we’re in trouble (16). Because if this white employee has implicit biases against Black women, then maybe we who are white do, too.
May God, who searches our hearts, root out all our sins, known and unknown, so that we might repent, receive our forgiveness, and walk with God and all of humanity in newness of life.
For more info on the specific racial harm implicit bias has caused, this article has good examples.