White Christians Sleep While Young Black Men Die
This is largely addressed to my white brothers and sisters, particularly those in the church. I’m a white woman, was raised in an almost all-white town and have spent most of my life in predominately white faith communities. White people don’t like to talk about racism. We like to pretend it isn’t real and we don’t benefit from it. This has got to stop.
When Barack Obama was elected president, there was all kinds of talk about the United States being a post-racial society. This was, and is, total BS. It was (and is), however, a really nice bedtime story us white folk can tell to our kids and to ourselves. Rest easy, everyone. Racism is dead. No need to worry about race anymore. Go to sleep, sleep. sleep …
Every once in a while, we (by we I mean my white brothers and sisters) wake up from our little racism-doesn’t-exist slumber. When a celebrity says something out loud that we know is something you just don’t say (inner voices, white brethren) we get all up in arms and demand an apology. Then we go back to sleep. While we sleep, some of us clutch our purses on the train, lock our doors when we drive through minority neighborhoods or cross the street when groups of dark-skinned men stand in our path. We tell ourselves that we are doing it for our own safety, if we realize we are doing it at all. We make assumptions about people’s intelligence, responsibility, work ethic and a whole host of other things based on the color of a person’s skin. I do not exclude myself from this description. I do it too.
Then, in the middle of our nice black-man-is-president, post-racial dream, a young black man is killed for walking through a neighborhood in a hoodie carrying some Skittles, an iced tea, and talking to his girl on the phone. We wake up. We are sad, we are shocked (really? shocked?), we are horrified. We call for the ousting and jailing and public shaming of all involved. Our eyes are getting heavy. All of this sadness and dismay about racism is tiring. We’d like to go back to sleep.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PEOPLE, STAY AWAKE!
Jesus said this to his followers a lot. Maybe not in those exact words, but he did tell them to stay awake directly and in parables. Jesus knew his followers would have a hard burden to bear once he left. He knew that they would want to fall asleep. He knew they, like most humans, would prefer a life of comfort to the life of the cross he was walking them toward. He implored them to keep awake.
What did that mean to Jesus? Be aware of what you are doing and saying, be aware of who is around you, be aware of your inner thoughts and your prayer life. Be aware. Be awake. Know yourself — know your weaknesses, know what sets you off, know what you are afraid of. Keep awake. Know the difference between what the world tells you and what God is saying. Keep awake. This is how you stay faithful to God and keep the devil at bay. Keep awake.
Two-thousand or so years later, we are asleep. This is, in no small part, a fault of the church. Christian pastors and churches want to keep our numbers up, so we strive to keep people comfortable. We profit off of people staying asleep. I know that there are good Christians out there and good churches working hard to keep people awake. But this shouldn’t be the work of a few churches well-suited to social justice work. This is the work of all of us.
We (white people) are complicit in the murder of Trayvon Martin and all of the other non-white folk who have been killed over the years. We are complicit in the wage gap between people of color and the pigment-challenged. We sit idly by as we watch the number of young black men in prison grow as the unemployment rate for the same demographic in the United States is around 17 percent. This happens because we are asleep.
We are asleep to our fears. We deny that we are afraid of people of color because it sounds so ugly. No one wants to be that person. But we all are. In some way, we all are. We are asleep to our assumptions. When we make assumptions about a person’s intelligence or capabilities on the basis of the color of their skin, we shrug it off. We tell ourselves that some stereotypes are that way because they are true. When someone defies our expectations, we assume that it is because that person is exceptional, not because our assumption was wrong. Most of all, and I believe, most importantly, we are asleep to our power and privilege.
If you need a primer on the benefits of being white, check out the essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. What can you think of off the top of your head? How about not being afraid of the police (unless you’ve actually done something illegal or are high and therefore, paranoid)? That’s a great privilege. I had a black friend in high school who refused to visit me because he knew he would get pulled over in my 99 percent white town. Not getting followed around in a store — that’s pretty cool. Most of the people of my race I see on TV are heroes. Nobody looks at my skin and assumes I have a bad credit score. Read the essay. Learn. Be aware. Be awake.
And another thing: rid your mind of the idea of reverse racism. Reverse racism is not a thing. Yes, white people are occasionally judged on the color of their skin. This is race prejudice, and it happens. Racism is different. Racism = race prejudice + power. And white people, as a whole, still hold the power. I know that this is complicated and there is a hierarchy of power that includes all sorts of things like wealth, education, gender, sexual orientation, nation of origin, immigration status and color. But the top of that hierarchy of power is white. And until white people like myself are ready to talk about this, nothing will get better; it just won’t.
Next time you find yourself clutching your bag or crossing the street or making an assumption about a person stop. Think. Ask yourself what you’re doing and why. Admit that you might have been racist right there, for a moment. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right?
Next time you get a sweet interest rate, your credit check is waived, you get out of a traffic ticket or have the police drive right past you without even glancing your way, stop. Think. Ask yourself what’s happened and why. Admit you have power and privilege. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right?
Most importantly, my white friends, wake up the people around you. Wake up your churches. Talk about race. Deliver sermons about race. Have workshops about race. How much do we not talk about race? I was hard pressed to find a friend who went to a white church where Dr. King was talked about on Martin Luther King Day. We can’t even talk about it when we’re honoring one of the greatest prophets of our time. We are comfortable. We are asleep. People of color in our country don’t have this luxury.
In Jesus’ stories, the ending is never good for the people who fall sleep. Stay awake, therefore. Stay awake. Stay awake. For the sake of the world, stay awake.
Elizabeth Rawlings is a graduate student at Pacific Lutheran Seminary in Berkeley, Calif. She blogs about seminary, Christian leadership and emergent things at her blog, Feet In, Arms Out.