Last year, at the age of 37, in spite of living and working among other races for my entire life, I finally noticed the racial divide.
As a child of the 80s, I was taught that talking about race was impolite; it meant you noticed differences. We say, “We’re all the same, after all—on the inside. Isn’t it better to be ‘colorblind’?”
But ignoring race is like sidestepping the gigantic crack in the sidewalk of society and history. We try and tiptoe over it, or worse, we pretend it doesn’t even exist.
Of all whites, I should have known better, because I can’t think of a time when I didn’t have a person of color in my life.
The first boy I ever liked in kindergarten was black. I nearly followed him into the boys’ restroom one day. When I described him to my mom as having dark skin, she asked, “Is he black?”
“Of course not,” I said. “No one has black skin. He’s brown.”
In middle school, I rode the bus for an hour, either way, to attend school in the projects because our county in Tampa, Florida, was one of the last to integrate schools.
My midwest Christian college was majority white. Some black students were browsing in the bookstore once and the cops showed up. Someone assumed they were there to shoplift.
In college, I spent six months in Uganda and lived with an African family in a village. I often confounded their assumptions. “I didn’t think you people did things that way,” they’d say. To them, I was America. More than once, I was asked if I knew President Bush.
After college, my first teaching job was in the inner city of Chicago, in North Lawndale, at a 100% African-American school. I asked my students if any white kids ever attended there. “I think once … maybe,” they replied. I got so used to seeing black faces that I was shocked by my whiteness when I saw myself in the mirror during bathroom breaks.
I lived in China for five years. For the first three, I was one of three white faces in a city of 60,000. Many people wanted to be my friend. I understood it was because I was white. I humored them, telling myself I’d be more accepted if I learned Chinese. So I spent hours studying until I was fluent. But even then I wondered about my friends’ motives in spending time with me. I wished I could look Chinese.
After China, I taught at a small private Christian school in Chinatown in Chicago. Six out of eleven students were boys. Only one of those boys was black, the rest were Asian and white. One day all the other boys showed up at school with their backpacks full of clothes for a sleepover at one of the boy’s houses for his birthday. Guess which boy wasn’t invited …
To not notice race is to not notice the way clouds affect the shifting of light in the sky. It is to pretend you don’t feel the rain pelting the hood of your coat or soaking into the hole in your boots. It is to ignore reality.
And yet somehow I still believed we were living in a post-racial, inclusive, equal society.
It wasn’t until my white friend adopted an African-American boy that I began to see. Sitting in her living room, eating homemade pumpkin bread and watching our sons play—mine with his curly blond hair and hers with his jet black spiral curls—she casually mentioned the conversations she planned to have with her three-year-old son.
She ran through the list: “Always look adults in the eye and be polite.” I nodded, since I teach mine the same thing.
“Keep your hands out of your pockets and in plain sight at all times.”
“Never play with toy guns in public.”
“If a police officer talks to you, always do exactly what he says.”
“Be polite to white women.”
My son slammed his car into the wall with a loud, “VROOOOM.”
“Shhh, let’s use inside voices,” I said. I stared out the window, imagining our sons ten years from now. As a white boy, my son would not have this burden, these invisible weights. I would never have to instruct him on how to act around law enforcement or white women. I would never have to wrestle with these fears.
Two years ago we moved from Chicago to an area of Colorado that is 93 percent white. Ironically, it wasn’t until this move that I began to see even more of the gaping racial divide.
I glanced in the rearview mirror and exhaled loudly as I realized my children were both asleep. With no plans for the afternoon, I decided to keep driving. I turned on a podcast and prayed the kids would stay asleep as I curved our minivan up through the canyon.
An African-American man was speaking, sharing his struggles and fears as a black man. He spoke in a church setting to a mainly white audience.
As he spoke, the fissure in my awareness, my reality, spread wider. Later that week, I finished reading Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Tears streamed down my face, unwittingly.
For the first time, I understood.
We are not yet equal.
We are not equally seen or heard.
We are not equally housed, represented, educated or honored.
We are not equally cherished.
My reality is not the reality of my black and brown brothers and sisters who cannot trust government, police, civilians or sometimes even fellow Christians to be on their side.
In the past year, I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts, intentionally desegregated my social media (thank you, Twitter), bought black dolls for my kids, read books and articles and joined online groups dedicated to racial reconciliation. We visited 13 churches until we found one with a spark of a desire for diversity. And I have a couple friends with whom I’ve had the Race Conversation. I’m asking them to be straight with me.
And yet it didn’t stop my son from noticing race. “I can’t be friends with him anymore,” said my four-year-old recently, speaking of my friend’s adopted son.
“Why not?” I asked, dreading his answer.
“Because he has black skin and I have white skin,” he said.
There it was.
Horrified, I choked back tears, searching for words.
We have more work to do.
I have more work to do.
There is a crack in the sidewalk. And we—the church–can’t move forward without noticing and doing more than throwing wildflower seeds to the weeds. Jesus followers need to do the awkward, knee-scraping work of uprooting prejudice, stereotypes, judgment and ignorance.
How do we do this? I’m still learning, but I know it needs to begin with confession and lament. It needs to begin with discomfort and forgiveness. It needs to begin with eyes wide open and ears no longer shut.
It needs to begin with you, and it needs to begin with me.
Where are you in this story?
If you’re just starting on your #woke journey, I’ve compiled a list here and here of resources for white people who are interested in learning more about race. Also, every day during the month of March, on my blog I’ll be examining my own story for blind spots and sharing some perspectives on race from people of color.