A White Woman’s Well-Intentioned Answers to Questions about Systemic Racism in America

My friend Deidra began August with a series of questions posed to her white friends and readers. She asked for authentic comments and I wanted to respond immediately, so I sent her my thoughts through Voxer. I chose Voxer because it felt safe.

Deidra and I have been sharing parts of our stories on (in)Courage for six years. I trust that she knows enough of my heart for me to offer the type of raw, this-is-how-I-think-and-wrestle-with-hard-issues feedback that isn’t drenched in political correctness and served with a side of caution. I knew Deidra wouldn’t judge my motives nor would she stop liking me if I said something that didn’t align with her thoughts. But publicly positing my inner thoughts about whether or not I feel that there is such a thing as white privilege? That’s about 47 steps outside my comfort zone.

But today, three weeks later, is a different day. I’m not all that concerned with whether or not I will be perceived negatively in the eyes of others because I need to be a part of the conversation about race. There are topics we want to discuss because doing so feels natural and then there are topics that we have the responsibility to talk about as follower of Christ. Systemic racism falls into the second category for me. I’m often terrified that I’m going to say the wrong thing and accidentally hurt someone’s feelings, but here’s the thing: human beings can’t grow individually or collectively if we aren’t brave enough to face down exigent subject matters, dissect our relationship with those issues, and then discuss our findings with others. We need to voice our questions and opinions to others who can both challenge and encourage us with their own well-thought out discoveries.

I’ve arranged Deidra’s questions and my answers like a magazine spread would cover an interview. No additionally commentary. No attempt to take the discussion in a different direction. No wordsmithing to make myself seem deeper or smarter or more eloquent than I am … just straightforward, conversational answers to straightforward questions in the name of bringing further understanding to a complex matter.

*Deep Breath* Here we go …

D: Do you hear something off-putting in the tone of people who raise the topic of racism on social media? If so, what “turns you off” the most?

A: Sometimes. I bristle when people bring up the topic of racism in a dismissive manner. Comments such as “We already know the solution to racism is to love everyone equally, so can we stop complaining about it ?” or “People can be racist against white people too!” or “We live in a broken world and it will be broken until Jesus returns, so we cannot expect all people to change their hearts.” or “A flag did not kill those people in Charleston!” I cringe. Sure, there is a piece of truth behind each of those remarks, but they seem more like sound bites meant to make a difficult subject easier to manage or avoid. And I cannot shake the feeling that statements of that vein, even when meant with the purest intentions, widen the chasm between whites and people of color.

As a history lover, I also feel disheartened when I see social media posts touting that America would be better if today’s politicians would adapt the value system held by many of our Founding Fathers. Although I understand that people bringing up our early leaders aren’t doing so to discuss racism … systemic racism is innately part of the conversation. I love my country and I have deep respect for many of the sacrifices made by the forgers of our constitution, but I feel uneasy agreeing that a leader today should try to adhere to the moral compass of anyone other than Jesus, because all humans are flawed. Since many of our Founding Fathers owned slaves, we can’t put their values on a pedestal. I’m immensely grateful to George Washington for his role as Commander of the Continental Army and as the first president of our nation, but I won’t gloss over the fact that he owned people. So instead of wishing that a current leader would be more like Washington or Jefferson, we need to pray for our leaders to know and follow Jesus.

D: What are your thoughts about white privilege? Does that term make you feel defensive, inquisitive, or something different?

A: This one is painful to answer. I didn’t understand the concept of white privilege until recently and therefore didn’t believe such a thing really existed. One reason why it was difficult for me to understand is because my family struggled financially I while I was growing up. And, because of various factors, I was considered a social outcast during my school years and the majority of my classmates made fun of me. Academics never came naturally to me either. Every “A” I received was earned from hours of studying, and even intense preparation didn’t help me in geometry and chemistry.

When I left my hometown after graduating from college, I moved to Orlando with two suitcases, $500 and close to $40,000 owed in student loans. I slept on the floor of my first apartment for several weeks until I was able to purchase a twin bed. I compared myself to my black friends and it seemed like I had overcame more hardship than they had. All of that skewed my sense of white privilege. I believed racism existed and I hated it … but I felt that white privilege died in the 60s.

Today, however, I see the ignorance in my thought process. My heart wasn’t ugly or vicious concerning matters of race, it was just uninformed. Now I understand that privilege is not synonymous with luxury or even convenience. A privilege by definition is an advantage or benefit granted to someone. White privilege is essentially an edge or boost a person in America is bestowed if s/he is born with light skin.

For instance, I’ve been pulled over by a traffic cop on three occasions and never once did I have to wonder if it was because of my skin color. I can type “short hair styles” in my search engine without including any other information and find thousands of photos featuring hair color and texture similar to mine. I don’t know how it feels to walk into a store and be met with a wary stare because of the color of my skin.

It’s also important to understand that white privilege and racism are vastly different concepts. I used to believe that if someone told me I benefited from white privilege that they also thought I was a racist, but that’s simply not true. It does, however, mean that I have benefited from historical racism. I wish that weren’t the case, but it’s undeniable truth.
D: As a white person in America, do you believe you are afforded advantages not available to others in this country?

A: Sadly, yes. I listed some examples above, but I also want to share a personal experience from a few years ago when I commuted to work via subway and shuttle bus. Once I missed the designated shuttle bus that transported commuters from the metro station to our office complex. A nearby hotel also ran a shuttle service and since it was a blustery, below-zero day, I hopped on and hoped that I wouldn’t be questioned by the driver. I wasn’t and neither were two other white passengers on that bus, but a young black man was asked to prove that he was a guest at this particular hotel. The driver was relentless. A hotel room number wasn’t enough to convince him—he actually required the young man to show him a room card. After the man complied and the driver was appeased, I piped up.

“Sir,” I squeaked. “I’m not a guest at your hotel. I work in the adjacent office complex and missed my shuttle bus. It’s freezing and I’d really appreciate a ride. Can I stay on?” He quickly nodded his head and told me that of course I could stay because the hotel and my company had a business agreement. I knew in my bones that the black passenger would not have been afforded the same courtesy.

D: If you are a person who invokes the phrase, “All lives matter,” what do you mean by that?

A: While I unequivocally believe that every person on this planet (the born and the unborn … the upstanding citizen and the death row inmate) matters, I do not use the “All Lives Matter” hashtag. However, in the interest of growth and pure transparency, I will admit that when I first saw the phrase, I didn’t understand why it was hurtful. Like I just wrote, all lives do matter. But my wise friend Jennifer explained it in a succinct, eloquent manner in the comment section of Deidra’s blog post. She wrote: “When we say Black Lives Matter, we’re standing with our brothers and sisters of color, seeing the injustice and saying we won’t stand for it. We’re not saying ‘Black Lives Matter More Than White Lives.’ We’re not saying ‘Black Lives Matter More Than (fill in the blank).’ We’re saying Black Lives Matter. Period.” And that’s the reality of the “Blacks Lives Matter” movement. It’s not a “more-than or less-than” statement. It’s an initiative designed to bring attention to issues our culture has avoided confronting for far too long.

*Takes another deep breath*

Well, there you have it. I’m only one person with a tiny platform, but neither size nor position is a prerequisite to joining a movement. I hope that my words here today will spur other conversations. If you’d like to share your views, please know that my blog is a safe place to do so. Kind words and reflective hearts are always welcome here.

How My Muslim Neighbors Helped Me Grow Closer to the Heart of Jesus

Cross and Sky

I pressed my forehead against the door of my apartment. After emptying my purse twice in fifteen minutes, it was time to admit that my keys were inside and I was locked out. This happened in 2002. My husband and I had lived in the D.C. metro area for only two months, and we shared a cell phone and a car–both of which were in his possession at that moment.

The closest payphone was about a mile away and walking to it alone in the dark scared me, so I decided to ask someone who lived in the apartment complex for help. I didn’t know any of my neighbors, but a couple who smiled at me a lot lived upstairs and I knew they were home. Nervously, I knocked on their door and the husband, whose name I learned was Hasim, opened it and invited me inside before I said a word.

While I explained what had happened, Hasim’s wife, Aisha brought me a glass of water and offered to serve me dinner. When I politely declined a meal, she asked me to sit on the sofa and then placed a large bowl of fruit on the coffee table in front of me. Hasim smiled as he handed me the phone. After I reached my husband and learned he’d be home in 20 minutes, I thanked my neighbors and told them that I’d wait downstairs.

“Angela, will you please stay with us as our guest until your husband is home?” Aisha asked while sliding the bowl of fruit closer toward me. “You are our neighbor, we don’t want you to sit alone outside.”

Picking up an apple, I awkwardly agreed to stay. Their kindness was genuine and although we struggled to understand the words we spoke to one another, I felt connected to the generous couple.

In less than ten minutes, I learned that Hasim, who drove a taxi in the United States, used to be an engineer in Pakistan. He said money as a cab driver was decent in 1999 and 2000, but after September 11, 2001, his business declined.

“So many people hate us now because of the terrorists,” Hasim explained. “People get close to my car and almost open the door until they see ‘Muslim.’ Then they walk away. They are scared. I understand why … to them, I look like the evil men who killed so many people. That was such a terrible, terrible thing,” he said through wet eyes and a tight throat.

In that moment it became clear that although they weren’t happy that I locked myself out of my apartment, Hasim and Aisha were grateful that I ended up outside their door that night. My mishap presented them with a rare opportunity of friendship with a neighbor.

My husband knocked at the door, was ushered inside cheerfully, handed a glass of water, and directed to the couch. He looked at me as if we had been kidnapped.

“Go with it,” I whispered. “We have new friends.”

Our neighbors asked us if we were Christians and told us how much they respected Jesus, who they knew as a “good man.” Feeling comfortable, I shared more about my faith and how I knew Jesus as my God, savior, and friend. Hasim and Aisha listened closely. They didn’t interrupt or shift with discomfort. They soaked in every syllable. My husband and I stayed put on that gray couch for a few more minutes before leaving with plastic containers filled with traditional Pakistani meals.

The next day, I washed Aisha’s containers, filled them with chocolate chip cookies, and knocked on her door. Again, I was invited inside and we talked for about an hour. She told me about her young daughters and how lonely she felt in her new home.

She also spoke about her family in Pakistan, her mixed feelings regarding the possibility of returning, and how she felt like she didn’t fit in America or her homeland. I told her I understood and that I, for years, felt like an outsider in my hometown and a wanderer wherever we moved next.

“Now we have each other. We are friends,” she said with a question mark while wrapping her hand around my fingers.

“We are friends,” I confirmed, returning her grip. “You will always have a friend in me, Aisha.”

For the next ten months, the gentle Pakistani family and mine strengthened our bond and we never returned a container empty. Sometimes, along with food, I included scripture verses that spoke of Jesus’ love, because above all, I wanted them to know how deeply they were loved despite how despised they were in the eyes of many.

One day I answered Aisha’s knock with fragility and a broken heart.
“I lost my baby,” I whispered half the words and mouthed the others as tears chased my chin.

Aisha hugged me tight and through tears of her own said, “Jesus is holding your baby right now. He loves your baby.”

A few months later, my husband and I moved into another apartment complex about fifteen minutes away. Hasim, Aisha and their girls were among the first to visit us. They even brought a toaster oven as a housewarming present (and we still have it today). They visited again after our daughter was born. Sadly, that was the last time we saw or even heard from our precious neighbors. They were returning to Pakistan and asked that we pray for their safety.

I think of our neighbors often. I remember our deep conversations, our food exchanges, and how much we needed one another. Different backgrounds, different faiths, different languages even, but the same basic needs to be seen, understood, and accepted. Most of all, I remember how Aisha and Hasim helped me grow closer to the heart of Jesus through their generous hospitality. They didn’t know Jesus like I do (although I still pray that they will), but they knew how to love like Jesus asked us to love others. And sometimes, they did it far better than I did.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love is from God. Everyone who loves has been been born of God and knows God.” – I John 4:7.

Because This Worn-Out World is Not Your Home

my heart longs

My daughter first asked me about heaven a few weeks after her fourth birthday.

“Mommy, I’m scared of Heaven. I don’t want to be dead and live anywhere without you and Daddy.  ”

Quietly exhaling, I sat still with her on my lap. I wasn’t sure where to start, so I kissed her worried, wrinkled, forehead and said, “Oh darling, Heaven is the most wonderful place.”

We had discussed Heaven and death a few times already that week after we discovered her fish Sprinkles floating lifelessly in his little tank. However, each question I answered seemed to have left her more unsettled. My four-year-old wanted answers that meshed with her immediate reality. She could not clearly fathom the time differences between “next month” and “next year.” She could not imagine life without her family. She only knew what it was like to be a toddler and that was her yardstick for measuring the future.

“But what kind of skin will I have when I get there?”

Oh boy, she goes straight for the unknowns, I thought. Why couldn’t she ask me about the streets?

“Well, I am not sure. God will give you a new and wonderful body.”

Her frown deepened.

“I don’t want a new body. I want to keep this body that God already made me in. I love it. It is so beautiful.”

Smiling at her precious innocence and admiration for God’s artistry, I kissed her again, and as I did, I noticed a bandage on her foot.

“Well, your new body will be even more beautiful and it won’t get any boo boos on it ever.

The corner of her mouth rose slightly.

“That is a very good thing. But I’m still not sure I want to go there. Will you go with me?”

“No one knows when they are going to go to Heaven, but I promise you that I will be there someday.”

“I just really like living here in this beautiful world,” she continued.

“We do live in a beautiful world. God made it so. But people made it messy in some ways by doing some ugly things. Heaven, will be perfect. There won’t be any mean people in Heaven. No monsters. No scary spiders or snakes. In fact, when you get to Heaven, I bet Jesus will let you pet a real lion. And the lion won’t even bite you because only gentle, friendly lions live in Heaven.”

The face of my animal-loving girl gleamed.

“Wow! That will be really wonderful. Can I run with the Cheetahs too? Cheetahs are my favorite”

“I think you will. And if so, can I run with you?”

“Yes, Mommy!”

“Do you know what else is great about Heaven? You’ll be able to meet people that lived on Earth before you were born, like my grandmothers and Jesus’ mommy.”

Suddenly, my marathon talker was silent, her smile radiant.

“And do you want to know the very best part about Heaven? It’s that you get to hug Jesus.”

“Ohhhh! That is going to be so wonderful!”

Then her smile wavered. I bit my lip and thought, I cannot possibly top hugging Jesus. What on earth is bothering her now?

“I don’t have to die and go to Heaven now….right Mommy? It will be a long time when I go to be with Jesus right?”

“I think so sweetie.” Oh Lord, let it be so, please let it be so, I prayed.

“But whenever you get there, I promise you that you will not feel sad for one second. You will be very safe. All you will feel is love.”

I hugged her tight and traced my index finger around her tiny freckle and I kissed her again. And then I felt a tender sensation in my soul. I cannot imagine Heaven being more beautiful than a moment like the one I just described between my daughter and I. But it will be.

Seven years have passed since that conversation, but I remember every detail and I think about it often. When this world becomes too much, I rush to the memory of holding my girl close to my chest and talking about a very real place where lions won’t bite. And while no one knows exactly how heaven will look or feel–because nothing on earth can compare–my heart longs for my forever home.

Isaiah 11:6-9 The Message

The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them. Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent. Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.

How do your envision heaven?

A version of this post titled “Where Lions Won’t Bite” originally appeared on (in)courage on November 15, 2010.