I am a Pastor, and I am Racist

As I Was Saying

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

Years ago, I took an Understanding Racism seminar at my church, and it knocked me off my horse within the first couple of hours. The facilitator held up the book Black Like Me and asked if we knew it. I felt a swell of pride. I had read it; I was in the know. It only took her next sentence to burst my self-congratulatory bubble when she said that the popularity of the book was a great example of racism.

How could that be?

Black Like Me is an autobiographical account of a white journalist in the late 1950s, who used drugs and makeup to darken his skin so he could experience the South as a black man.  Reading the book opened my eyes to the experience of people of color back then, and still now. How could something so helpful be an example of racism? The facilitator went on to explain, “Why do we need a white person to tell us what people of color have been saying for decades?”

I settled into the truth. Black Like Me wasn’t helpful for me because it was the first time I had heard that racism was a problem. It was helpful because it was the first time I had believed it, and I believed it because a white person told me. One white voice had outweighed every person of color who had tried through books and articles, protests and conversations to tell me their experience.

The title of this article is not overstated. I am racist. Racism is a sin against God and neighbour. My racism degrades bearers of God’s image, even while it distorts my own humanity. It is abhorrent in God’s eyes.  And I am guilty of it. I am not proud of it, but I am not afraid to admit it. It is true, and I offer you my confession in hopes that it will open up a conversation that is often shut down by defensiveness. I believe that the practice of confession can help Christians to enter into these conversations bravely and humbly, finding our grounding in the grace of God, rather in our own perfection. I hope this can be a model.

There are lots of different definitions of racism, and that causes some confusion in the conversation. Any definition has to include prejudice against someone of another skin color or ethnicity.

As much as I hate to admit this, I am prejudiced against people of color. The other day I saw a slight elderly black woman walking down the street, and she reminded me that I should lock my car. That is a problem. I would not have had that reaction to an old white woman. I almost didn’t notice the connection I made, but I caught it just in time to be appalled. I want to believe I am better than that. But I am not.

That kind of garbage has been trained into me through a lifetime of stereotypes in movies, TV shows, and the news. It is part of my felt experience, living “across the tracks” from the more dangerous and diverse neighborhoods. Thankfully that woman didn’t hear my racist thought, but I wonder what I might do or say out of the prejudice that I miss. Like David, I pray against the sin that seethes beneath the surface: “Who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden sin” (Psalm 19:12).

What’s especially sad is that black people have been trained to expect that kind of suspicion. That elderly woman might not have heard my prejudice out loud, but she might very well have thought, “I bet she locks her car door because of me.”

A Dominant Culture

As we define racism, it is important to note that prejudice is much more destructive when it is perpetrated by a dominant culture. A dominant culture has the power to make their prejudice the norm and to solidify it in the form of policy. When that happens, prejudice isn’t only perpetrated through harmful thoughts or words, but also through cultural expectations and institutions. When individuals, customs, and institutions all bring their prejudice to bear on someone, it can be suffocating. As a white person in the United States, and so a member of the dominant culture, my complicity in racism includes my own prejudice and also the ways I benefit from customs and institutions set up in my favor.

What that means is that while I have prejudice, my racism is much bigger than it. I began to understand that on the second day of that same seminar at my church. The group was about half people of color and half white people. The first day had been mostly introductions, but on the second day, I felt the weight of the tension in the room. After lunch, we did an exercise that revealed the source of the tension. The whole group stood along one wall in a gymnasium. A leader read a list of statements from a clipboard. As she read them, those of us who could answer “yes” to a statement took one step forward, away from the wall.

“I have never been asked to represent my entire race on an issue.” That was true for me, so I took a step forward.

“If I obey the traffic rules, I can drive through a wealthy neighborhood confident that I will not be pulled over.” I took another step.

“I would be surprised if I walked into a store and found that I was being followed by a security guard.” Another step.

“I can find Band-Aids in the pharmacy that will closely match the color of my skin.” Step.

“I can walk around with a group of my friends without being suspected of being dangerous.” Step.

“I can make a mistake without it being attributed to my race.” Step.

By the time the leader had read about 30 sentences, I had reached the far wall of the room. I couldn’t go any farther. She stopped reading, had us all turn to face one another, and we saw the truth: those of us with white skin stood at one side of the gym, and those with dark skin on the other, many not even one step away from the wall. The room was silent as we stared at each other, except for the sound of weeping. One man in particular struck me: a six-foot-tall black man hunched over, leaning on a shorter black woman, and both of them sobbing. I can only imagine what they were feeling. (The training group has since stopped doing the exercise because it is so taxing for the people of color involved.)

I felt ashamed and helpless. I hadn’t done any of this myself, but the fact remained that I stood on the side of the room that was benefiting from an unfair system every day, and I couldn’t see a way to fix it. Until then, I hadn’t even seen the problem.

The space between us was larger than that gymnasium, more complicated and powerful than a claim to not be racist or not see color. I loved the people on the other side of that room, but we were living in different worlds. Their experience of this country was so different from mine. Being friends with them was not going to change it. It was bigger than us. I think that’s what Paul was talking about in Eph. 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world.”

In the distance from one end of that room to the other, and in our tears, we could see a great wall standing between us. The kind of wall that Christ came to break down. But for the most part the American church has kept that wall very much intact. What Martin Luther King Jr., Ph.D., said over 50 years ago remains true today: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” Fixing that divide is not as easy as reaching for the right number of skin tones at our churches. True healing will involve undoing racism like mine so thoroughly that people of color do not feel threatened in diverse spaces, but included, celebrated, alongside everyone else.

The examples in the gym exercise, taken individually, seemed small to me initially, but the exercise helped me to see that taken together and over time, they create a system that holds people down. And the horror of that comes out in facts like this: People of color are being diagnosed with and dying from COVID-19 much more often than white people. According to the CDC, black Americans make up 31% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations but only 18% of the population. Other minority groups are similarly over-represented. Dr. Sherita Golden of John’s Hopkins Medicine suggests it is a combination of factors that creates the disparity. Minority groups are more likely to live crowded together with others and work in essential services, increasing their exposure. They are also more likely to have the health conditions that make COVID-19 more risky, and less likely to have access to insurance and health care. And finally, the stress of being black in America wreaks havoc on the immune system.

All these factors, building on one another, is what makes my life so different from someone like Ahmaud Arbery’s, who was recently shot and killed while going for a jog in his neighborhood. In response to his death, an African American neighbor of mine recently posted on Facebook, “If you can go for a jog in the middle of the afternoon and not fear getting gunned down in the street, you enjoy a privilege I do not.” Not only can I go for a jog in our mostly white neighborhood without fear, I can also run through a black neighborhood knowing that everyone there knows that if someone hurts me, the police will pay attention because I’m white.

That truth hit home for me last December. One of my congregants, a 19-year-old African American, home from college for Christmas break, was shot when someone tried to rob him at an ATM. It happened a block from my house, but if I didn’t know him I would have no idea. He is still recovering, six months later, but there have been no arrests. His shooting didn’t even make the news. If it had been me, I’m sure it would have. 

My Side of the Room

These examples illustrate the evil of racism, of the racism I share in. I didn’t make this happen, but in the end, just by virtue of being identified as white, I stand on one side of the room in this conversation. Because I am white, I can have the luxury of not thinking about this problem and the luxury of not working to fix it. I am complicit to the extent that I benefit from it and to the extent that I fail to fight it.

And so it remains: I am racist. From the sinful workings of my heart and mind to my participation in a broken system. It is an abomination, and all over this country people suffer and die because of the effects of racism like mine. I confess my complicity to God on my knees.

I want to weed out every bit of this from myself. But the problem is that, as the Black Like Me example and the exercise both show, I am not a good judge of my own racism. I am still finding new layers to my racism. That makes the conversation and the learning painful. It means that I misstep and make a fool of myself much more often than I like.

I am tempted to avoid the conversation altogether, but my Christian convictions don’t allow that. I am called to love my neighbors who are suffering and quite literally dying from this.

So I have to choose to step into the discomfort, which is, of course, very uncomfortable. It means learning dark things about myself and my history, and it means being called out from time to time. I do not like that, but I need my community to help me learn. And rather than letting my defenses mount, I try to remember all the times I have been unaware of my own racism. I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I did. I try to ground myself in the grace of my God, which frees me up to be wrong, to confess, to receive God’s gracious pardon, and to move forward.

Confession

Confession gives us the gift of honestly assessing ourselves with the assurance that we will be loved and forgiven anyway, and always. We live entirely under grace, in that expansive freedom. We don’t bury ourselves in shame or turn toward self-hatred. We just do our best to name the sin clearly, and to turn away from it, always aware of the steadfast love of our God. I am a sinner, and I will be until Christ comes again. My sin shouldn’t surprise me, even with respect to racism. God’s grace will always be greater than my sin.

Confession returns me to the humility I need to be able to listen to my brothers and sisters of color. Knowing I am a part of the problem makes me want to press in and keep learning. Knowing I rest in my God no matter what gives me a sense of steadiness when I feel defensive. It allows me to slow my reactions so I can try to understand and confess where it is needed. Not so I can wallow in guilt, but so I can see the truth, which Jesus says will set me free. The grace of God allows me to focus on what matters: that people are suffering under racism and we need to come together to understand and fight it.

I am trying to define my success not by whether I am a perfect anti-racist at all times, saying and doing all the right things. Instead, I want to see it as a success every time someone in my community calls me out. Confrontation about racism is draining, especially for people of color. Being called out might signal to others that I will listen. And I am being given another chance to learn, to make amends, to do things differently. It may just be the beginning of something new.

And I am longing for something new. I long to see transformation in myself and others. I long to see the church do more than emulate the racial divides of its surrounding culture. Don’t we have something more to offer? Confession is only a beginning. It will not solve the problems, but for me and others like me, our confession and willingness to listen may make much needed conversation and learning possible. May it be a beginning toward a humility that could heal this gap rather than drive it farther apart. May we see all God’s children treated with the dignity they deserve. Come Lord Jesus, you are the one who breaks down our dividing walls of hostility. May we see your kingdom come.

More Resources

  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
  • How to be an Anti-racist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates'
  • I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown

About the Author

Jennifer Holmes Curran is a pastor at Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich. You can find more of her writing at Christianity Today. The anti-racism training she attended was through Congregations Organizing for Racial Reconciliation.

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