For Whites Only: Things to Consider When Entering the Race Conversation

By Sondra Haaga 03-20-2008

In response to the racially tinged controversial remarks made by his former pastor, Barack Obama's speech on the current state of race and politics in America is one that I believe every American should listen to and/or read. It is with this in mind that I wish to address the specific challenges and hindrances that white progressive Christians, like myself, may encounter in our discussions about this topic, and particularly those that occur across racial lines. It would be easy for progressives to smugly say "tisk, tisk" to the rightwing talk show hosts and pundits that have conflagrated Rev. Wright's most divisive remarks as a way to undermine the most viable black presidential candidate in our nation's history. However, I am not convinced that the Christian peace and justice movement has enough solid ground to stand on to convince America that they have moved much beyond the superficial and politically correct discussions that dominate the discourse. Many of our progressive churches are just as segregated as they were decades ago and our political protests and social activism, though well-intentioned, often fail to mirror the kingdom reality that we hope to see realized in the broader society. To be honest, I'm not sure if any of us white people will ever fully grasp what it means to be a person of color in America. However, this realization should not be a cause for discouragement from engaging in this dialogue, but a reason to pause and reassess our level of commitment and to retain a posture of humility.


Sometimes we've become too much like the eager know-it-all kid at the front of the classroom itching to regurgitate the textbook answers. When our teacher is not impressed by our lack of genuine perceptiveness, we scratch our heads and wonder what we said that was so inadequate. Our book knowledge somehow has made us lose sight that these discussions are not opportunities to reassert an ideology, but an exercise in confession and reconciliation that deals with the emotional and sometimes illogical human heart. Likewise, these discussions are opportunities to move forward in creating real systemic change that reflects the integrity and sincerity of our repentance.


Similarly, understanding the facts of racial injustice in our society does not naturally lend us knowledge of the felt experience of oppression. Unfortunately, I have seen too many white Christians walk away from difficult discussions about race discouraged because they wanted the cut-and-dry, "just the facts ma'am" answers, and instead their black or brown, brother or sister insisted on sharing the emotional scars and deep-seated wounds of their daily lived experience. It is right then for Obama to point out that, "

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