When Listening Breaks Our White Hearts



A few weeks ago, a young man approached me in church to pass the peace.

In the Spanish-language church I attend, this means moving around the room, trying to wish others the peace of Christ and shake hands with as many people as possible.

This brother in Christ was dressed in a baggy t-shirt, long shorts. He had his head shaved, wore a goatee.

Thug, my brain said, even as he extended the hand of peace to me.

I shushed my internal monologue and took his hand. Don’t assume things, I told myself. I’ve become accustomed to—and ashamed of—the way I categorize the young men in the congregation if they’re not dressed in polo shirts.

I wished him the peace of Christ, accepted his offering of peace in turn.

Later in the service, people shared prayer requests. The young man I’d profiled stood up and shared his testimony.

He spoke about the leadership of his father in his life. He praised God in terribly difficult circumstances.

I listened. I wanted to weep with him, but there was a deep shame in my heart.

It was a week or so after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson.

I have become more aware of the how automatically I pigeonhole young men of color. How I categorize my brothers in Christ in radically inappropriate ways, usually without thinking. Even in church. Even when someone is extending a hand of peace to me.

But that Sunday, with the protests in Ferguson in full swing, I recognized the deadly consequences of this kind of automatic thinking.

It doesn’t require someone to be “racist” to assume an unarmed black boy is a thug.

It doesn’t take nefarious schemes to turn my brother into an “other.”

It doesn’t take much at all, except long habit and training.

Before going to a church where I was usually the only white person present, it was easier to tell myself I didn’t suffer from inherent biases. Easy to tell myself that because of my knowledge of Spanish or a cursory understanding of Mexican history, I was doing pretty well. That if I felt uncomfortable around people of color, it was mostly all in my head.

With a bit more work, I found out it is mostly all in my head. That’s what’s so disturbing.

The biases and divisions are real and they are all in my head. My own conditioning makes it tremendously hard to know what “normal” is when I’m relating to my Latino brothers and sisters. The deeper I go into relationships at church, the more I see the barriers in my own heart. The more I realize how hard true reconciliation and relationship are.

Now I notice when I assume a young man of color is dangerous. It only seemed normal before because I wasn’t confronted by it in church. Where a man extending his hand to me should not be a threat.

This assumption sends young men like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and John Crawford to an early grave.

I am implicated. I would venture to say that all white people in the US are too.

Let’s be real with ourselves. The problem lies in our assumptions, our conditioning, our habits of mind. The consequences of those biases are heartbreaking and destructive. They are life and death.

They bring grief to our brothers and sisters. They tear apart communities and trust. And until we get busy owning our biases, until we do the hard work of repenting of them, and learning new ways of relating to our brothers and sisters, we will think this dangerous darkness inside of us is normal, is okay, is natural.

God help us: we will look at our precious brothers, and we will assume they are thugs.


Image credit: Cristina

Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer and artist from San Diego who is happily content with being an awkward Christian. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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