Dear white sisters, brothers, siblings:
I have a very difficult confession to make.
I am racist.
I wish so much that I wasn’t. I try so hard not to be. But I am.
I think this is such a difficult confession to make because we often think people who are racist are “bad” and are intentionally hateful. Yes, there are many people who say and do overtly racist things. But the truth is, most people who are racist are good and well-meaning people, who don’t want to be racist, try their hardest not to be, and don’t even realize they are.
You see, I don’t belong to extremist groups like the KKK, call people racist names, or say things that are overtly racist. I even shut down jokes and call out comments that I recognize are racist. And yet, I am still racist.
I grew up in a diverse town and went to diverse schools. I currently live and work in a diverse community, and I have friends, colleagues, parishioners, neighbors, mentors and even a family member who are persons of color. And yet, I am still racist.
I follow people of color on facebook and twitter, read books and articles about racism and white privilege, attend anti-racism workshops, preach and teach in my churches about racism and white privilege, and participate in marches and rallies that address systemic racism.
But despite all of this: I am still racist.
Because my entire life I have been socialized to be. I have been conditioned to see the world through my eyes (the eyes that belong to a white body, which is the kind of body our society has supported, deemed the “norm,” and uplifted as superior for 400+ years.)
My school textbooks have been written from a white perspective. My television shows, movies, and books have been dominated by characters who look like me. The media I follow often perpetuates harmful racialized stereotypes and biases – no matter how progressive it might be.
Despite that my family taught me that all people were created in God’s image and deserve to be treated equally, I am still racist. When I first see a person of color, I still sometimes fail to see her as an individual and instead see her as a stereotype. When I hear people of color share their stories of being racially profiled or denied upward mobility in their workplaces, I still sometimes question if their experiences are valid. There are still times I say, think, or do things that I don’t even realize are racist and that perpetuate systemic racism. There are still times when I worry too much about ticking off my white friends or accidentally saying something that is offensive to my friends of color that I don’t speak up when I should. There are still times when I am in the virtual or physical spaces of my siblings of color and I end up wanting to center myself. And when people call me out on any of this, there are still times I feel defensive and focus more on my own discomfort than on the fact that black and brown lives matter more than my feelings.
You see, as a white person who was raised in a country that was founded on white supremacy (the belief that white people are inherently superior to people who are not) and that throughout its history has continued to reinforce this white supremacy through social and political forces (slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, glass ceilings, racial profiling, racialized policing – to name just a few), it is extremely difficult to shed myself fully from my own racist views, biases, thoughts, and ways I believe the world should function… No matter how hard I try.
I am stuck in this 400 year old deeply engrained racialized system that not even the activists of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s could completely free us from.
And I benefit from this system. My whiteness is a privilege in it.
For example, as a white person, people look at me as an individual, not a stereotype. I will never be denied a loan, housing, or job interview because of my skin color. A store clerk will never follow me closely to ensure I don’t steal anything, and I will never be taken advantage of by a car salesperson because of my whiteness. I have always had access to quality education and upward mobility. My white body is not seen as a threat. People will not call the cops if they see me taking a walk in their neighborhood past sundown or quickly move to the other side of the road when they see me walking on the sidewalk where they are walking. I will not be pulled over in my car for no reason or on my bike because I look “suspicious.” And if I do get pulled over, I will never have to worry that if I reach for my ID in my pocket, make a quick move, or even mouth back, I could get shot.
Among many things, racism denies the humanity in God’s beloved children and fails to see that God created all God’s children good, in God’s image, and beautifully and wonderfully just the way they are.
Racism is a painful and deadly sin.
And I am racist.
I live in a racialized society dominated by racist systems that were founded by white supremacy. And I benefit from and contribute to these systems.
Now, this may sound incredibly hopeless.
But it is not.
Because as Christians, we believe that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he freed the world from its bondage to sin. Does this mean we are no longer sinners? Of course not. Because we are human.
But this does mean that we no longer have to be bound to sin. When we confess our sins in the presence of God and one another, our sin loses its power over us. Confession leads us toward repentance, where – by the grace of God – our hearts, minds, and thoughts begin to be transformed and we start to turn away from our sins. And whenever we turn away from something, we also turn toward something in the opposite direction. In this case, when we turn away from our sins of racism and white privilege, we turn toward a life of being anti-racists. But we cannot just turn away from our sin, turn toward a new way of life, and then pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way. We must continuously and actively move toward this new way of life.
Since the sins of racism and white privilege are so deeply engrained in us and in the racialized systems we participate in and are conditioned by, we must actively check our privilege and racism, confess it, repent of it, and be moved to take action. We must do this over and over and over again.
While I am still racist, I choose to not let racism and white privilege dominate who I am.
I choose to be actively anti-racist.
I choose to learn about and become more aware of my white privilege and how I can work to dismantle it and the harmful racialized systems of which I am a part. I choose to listen to and learn from the voices and the cries of my siblings of color, to show up, and to grieve and stand with them in their pain and anger. I choose to speak with my white friends, neighbors, parishioners, and family members about white privilege and interpersonal and systemic racism. I choose not to allow my discomfort, embarrassment, guilt, defensiveness, or the mistakes I have made (and will make) to take over me and hold me back from doing this important work.
While this new way of life is really difficult, in the Christian tradition, we believe that we do not pursue this way of life alone. We do this with the help of God and with one another.
So, fellow white siblings, will you join me in this holy anti-racism work of calling out and dismantling our white privilege, white supremacy, and the racialized systems we are conditioned by and benefit from? Will you support me and encourage me? Will you help open my eyes to the ways in which I am still blind to my own white privilege and racism?
I need you. We need each other. So let us do this holy work together.
And as we begin this work through confession, repentance, and action, let us hold onto the beautiful gift we have: that God, who is rich in mercy, loves us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ.
In Jesus Christ we are indeed forgiven! So now together let us act!
Rev. Emily Heitzman is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor serving as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households at three ELCA congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago: Unity Lutheran, Ebenezer Lutheran, and Immanuel Lutheran. Some of her sermons and reflections can be found at Musings from a Bricolage.
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