A Learning Experience on Race

A few weeks ago, I came under fire by a friend after a critical remark that I made on social media about the President.  It was nothing that I thought was off color or more than playful poking, but there were some strong comments in the thread underneath that were criticized even more than my own initial comment.  In exchanging messages with the friend who had brought the criticism, I decided that I needed to pursue a conversation about the comment and something that seemed to have eluded me.

A common question that I have asked recently is, “what am I missing?”  I have lived enough life to realize that as objective as I think that I am, I still have blind spots and am in need of others whom I trust to help me see in those blind spots.  I realized that there was something much deeper than what I could see on the surface.  I had made a criticism of the President but it seemed to have been interpreted as a racist remark, something that I had never intended and something that I definitely wanted to avoid even the possible interpretation of in the future.

While I was in seminary, I had the privilege of taking classes at a branch of my seminary in the Metro D.C. area.  The classes were held at a large African American church.  It was an incredible learning experience for me, not only biblically, but culturally.  Over the course of my years, I have not often been a minority in many settings, but I was there and it was a very good thing for me.  I was able to learn a lot about myself and was grateful to meet some neat people, particularly one African American professor who remains one of my favorites from my time there.

I have such respect and admiration for this professor that I felt that it could be beneficial to email him about my situation.  I excelled as a student in his classes and I felt that the level of respect and admiration went both ways.  I figured that if he was willing to share them, his insights would be incredibly beneficial for me, I knew that I could learn an awful lot.

I emailed him and he graciously agreed to have a phone conversation with me.  After exchanging the usual pleasantries, I jumped right into the conversation, asking him about the criticism of the President and how that could be perceived as a deeper criticism of the character rather than the role.  He was forthright and honest about his own experience.  He talked of professors who had caused him to question his own ability because of his own color of skin.  He spoke of the constant doubting that had been caused by his experiences and the desire to see anyone who could possibly be viewed as an underdog rise to the challenges that they faced.  Seeing those who had been marginalized rise to the top was a victory, not only for them, but for others who had similar experiences.

I began to see that beyond my own experience, or lack thereof, was the experience of so many others, an experience which could not easily be downplayed or ignored.  Although I had never been privy to these experiences and although I had never felt that I had exhibited racist behaviors, to deny their existence was to belittle the experience of others and the history of our country which left wounds and scars that, although they may have been forgiven, have had lasting impacts well beyond the decades that have passed since.  Racism is real, rearing its ugly head even in today’s society.

As we talked, I offered ideas and sought suggestions as to how to enter into dialogue about bringing restoration to the race relationships within the Church.  How could we move towards reconciliation?  We could start by refusing to deny the issue and realizing that although we may not have been guilty of creating it personally, we can be guilty of perpetuating it should we ignore it or deny its existence.  In the course of a thirty minute phone call, I felt that I had been enlightened, even getting the sense that I was doing research for a paper that I had not been assigned nor was I even planning to write.

After we hung up, I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving.  I was grateful that God had brought this humble and wise man into my life.  I was grateful for his willingness to share his own experience in order that I might learn something from it.  I was grateful for my parents and the way that they had raised me, to acknowledge differences but to look towards commonalities instead.  I was grateful for a father and mother who had modeled the love of Christ through the relationships that they chose to have.  I was grateful that I had looked around for a rearview mirror which could help me with my own blind spots and had been given the gift of perspective, a perspective different than my own.

So, what has changed?  How am I different?  I have looked at things from another side.  Joni Mitchell wrote, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now.”  While that would be an overstatement, I would say that I have had a glimpse of another perspective and found myself wanting for a more full understanding, but that wanting has led to an awareness that may not have been there before.  The different perspective has helped to make me more conscious of what I say and more importantly, how it may be interpreted.

I told my professor and friend that I looked forward to the day that we would all gather at the throne of God, people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  While we can look ahead to that day, we need to be about the work of making that kind of multi-ethnic experience happen sooner.  It seems a daunting task, but we have to start somewhere and the best place to start is with me.  Today, I am a little more understanding of what others who are different than me have had to endure and I look forward to seeing how God can shape and transform me.

The struggle in fighting against racism can easily be diminished by making statements that we “see past color” or that we are “color blind.”  While I think I understand the sentiment behind those statements, we have been created with differences that make us unique.  To pretend that they don’t exist is to also diminish their significance and importance.  I still have a long way to go to gain more understanding in this area, but every step forward is growth, every opportunity that I move through and seize can help me gain perspective, one step at a time.  I am a learner and I hope that I will always and ever be learning.

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