On Being Helpful (and Sometimes Unhelpful) Allies of Black Image Bearers

This blog has always been called a “lecture to myself.” In that sense, it is fairly me-oriented. However, for this post, which still begins with a me-oriented slant, I felt it important to have the clear voice of my sister in Christ, Dierdra Gray Clark, giving insight into racial tension rather than me attempting to talk about what black folks experience.

I’ve been thinking through the complicated dynamics for Christians of different races wading in on the current issues of social justice in light of recent police shootings. I am a willing ally, raised in the lowcountry of South Carolina and privy to more than enough first hand racism to have no doubt to the authenticity of every concern from black leaders and friends that I’ve heard. On the flip side, I was raised in the lowcountry of South Carolina in an area of multi-generational racism, attending a private school that didn’t allow blacks to attend until 1985, when I was a freshman in that high school. I felt dissonance and concern with racist statements and jokes I heard for as long as I can remember. And, yet, I was raised in it as the norm. Like learning a language without thinking of how you learned it as a child, racist constructs are built, often without any personal awareness of it happening.

I moved to the most diverse zip code in the United States (98118 in Seattle) in 2003. I loved my neighborhood. I loved my boys elementary school, which was the most diverse school in our zip code. We decided to label ourselves the most diverse elementary school, therefore, in the entire United States. With over 60 different languages spoken in the school, that may well have been the fact.

I also taught math to at-risk adults in a welding program at our local community college. I got to know a large number of different men of color, many coming out of drug rehab programs, some homeless, some in half way houses. I remember when I started seeing former students around Seattle, at a light rail stop or walking along the streets of downtown. It made me happy to greet them by name and give them a hug, but I was also simultaneously aware that had I not known them in person from teaching them, I would likely have been nervous in their presence.

Which leads to another aspect of my story. In 2008, my 68 year old aunt was murdered by a young black man who knocked on her door after church one Sunday. It was devastating to our family – the kind of horrible act that you can barely start to process because the pain and senselessness of it all is too hard to face.

A few weeks after I returned from her funeral, a black man got angry at me in a parking lot in Seattle, and I had a panic attack. It terrified me. But I also knew in that moment that it was equally devastating to me and others for me to have fears of murder every time a black man looked cross to me. I knew the reasons for my negative reaction, but it was still unjust to the next guy all the same. I did at least understand that the young man who murdered my aunt was just that, a single young man. It would be hurtful if African Americans shied away in fear from my white sons or nephews after white Dylan Root murdered nine folks at Emmanuel AME Church. How unfair, how blind to the various individual stories of each unique black man I came in contact with if I projected onto young black men in general the same. I had work to do, though I didn’t know exactly how to do it.

In the elementary school, despite the fact that it was only about 30% white, white moms dominated the PTA board. When I was elected president of the PTA, I knew that had to change and thankfully had another mom on the board who was both passionate and well-trained on the subject (an important combination). I set aside 10 minutes at the beginning of every PTA board meeting, despite some push back, to discuss systemic racial injustice as we tried to get our PTA board to better reflect the families of all of our students. We planned our first PTA meeting of the year with the goal of creating a welcoming environment for all races. I was earnest and trying. I went to Mr. Green, a wonderful staff social worker who was one of the only black male role models we had in our school, and asked him to please be at this first PTA meeting and help me have a diverse group of people there so that people of color felt welcome. Later, he gently pointed out to me, correctly, some language and presuppositions I had used in planning this event. I can’t remember exactly what I said or exactly how he corrected me, but it dawned on me then, and has been confirmed many times since, that my attempts to improve and correct where I have influence still often have trappings of language of bias that offends. The mere fact that you have to ask a black social worker to help make sure you have black representation at your PTA meeting is inherently offensive to the black social worker. But he was gracious to me and helped make sure the event felt welcoming to all races. By the time I left the PTA, we had a Somali mom on the board and input from African-American staff and parents at most meetings. We hadn’t reached the goal of accurate representation on the board of the diversity of families in the school, but we had made progress.

No one has ever had to convince me of the imago Dei in the person of color. I have always known of the value of my black brother or sister as I have known the glory and worth of God. But like my first book, Practical Theology for Women, this theology means nothing if not attached to practical reality. Just as looking at my practical responses in trial clarified what I truly believed about God, looking at our practical responses around racial issues clarifies what we really believe about humanity as image bearers of God.

Here, at this blog which was originally conceived as lectures to myself, I write on this from time to time. But early on when writing about it, I recognized as I did with Mr. Green at the elementary school that it is easy to offend through assumptions we don’t even know we are making.

10487385_10154303049035284_5774874183165680281_nI’ve asked Dierdra Gray Clark to interact with me on the blog today around this tension. After hearing how an officer referred to Terrence Crutcher as a big, scary dude before he was fatally shot, I wrote recently on my Facebook page of the need for whites to continue to work to rid themselves of such biases. Dierdra responded with a comment about the demoralization for her to hear of people still having to work to see a black man broken down on the side of the road as a human deserving of basic dignity. We dialogued some about this, and I wanted to bring some of her thoughts to the blog.

Dierdra, please tell us about yourself and then speak into the tension of how whites can harm when trying to understand or even help.

I am a northerner and to be more specific, a New Yorker. Educated in the suburbs of New York City and then the halls of New England’s elite colleges and universities, I mistakenly made my way through life thinking my education and associations would insulate me from the vestiges of discrimination and racism. This of course was the hope of my parents, as well as generations of African Americans who marched, protested and fought for the opportunities that I have been afforded. Our God was the one after all who brought our people out of slavery, through Jim Crow laws, to a black President in the White House today.

But despite all of this, I was also aware that the hope of my parents was not quite the reality. I knew that hiring practices were different for African Americans. As I looked for jobs, I was aware of how I dressed or how I wore my hair, always knowing that the color of my skin could impact my success in a job interview in a way very different from my white college classmates. I joked about not being able to get a cab in New York City, but really that is not a joke. I knew my brother and father were subjects of DWB (driving while black). I sometimes heard disparaging remarks about blacks, often waiting for my white friends to step in only to be left to endure it on my own. While no one called me a racial slur, slaps in my face and slight indignities are very familiar.

Despite everything I knew and had experienced about race, I had no idea how much more I would feel the impact of race in my life once I married my husband, who is white. While our love for each other has provided some protection against the sordid history of race in America, neither one of us was prepared for how the repeated viewing of police brutality on our smart phones and on the nightly news could shift the ground in our very own home.

Almost anyone who is black has a relative or friend who has experienced a negative encounter with the police. For blacks, the police and the criminal justice system are not places of safety or peace. My husband’s reality is quite different. For him the criminal justice system is a place he goes to find justice and fairness. Despite my best attempts, it is hard to not have flashes of anger and despair about this fact. To see this up close and personal is sometimes very hard to accept.

Speaking into the tensions

I remember some time ago my father-in-law told me that I sounded angry about race. I was somewhat befuddled, confused and annoyed. Of course I was angry. Hadn’t he been watching what was on the news? Didn’t he see the same videos that I did? But it was at that moment that I realized that we were experiencing two entirely different Americas. This is not to excuse him. To be honest, in past conversations I might write him off as ignorant, misinformed or even racist. But I could not do that this time. My in-laws, who live in Kentucky adore my children. Every summer my children spend summers with them in Kentucky. They visit museums, learn about the derby and get pampered from head to toe by their grandparents. The relationship between my in-laws and my children is so strong that I believe there is nothing they would not do for my children—and by extension for me. Yet there exists this tension, or divide between the world I experience, the world my nephews, brother and father experience, and the world my husband and his parents experience. Because whites do not experience the same indignities, the same injustices, the same brutality, the same systemic inequalities, they question what blacks are seeing and feeling. This is heartbreaking and maddening at the same time.

My father-in-law did not mean me any harm when he asked about my anger. I have no doubt that he loves me. But here I was once again explaining the injustices, explaining the indignities, and giving reasons for the righteous anger that is part of my very existence. Sadly, when I need to prove myself to even well meaning whites, the chances of reconciliation and understanding feel slim to none. I feel once again that my views and life experiences are not as valid as those of white America. And we are back at the beginning, a place where I feel lesser valued than my white counterpart. When this comes from a white Christian, I am left to wonder if they really believe the doctrine of the Imago Dei. This is a tough place to be.

I believe God when he says in the second commandment to love your neighbor. I believe Paul when he teaches that the Church has a ministry of reconciliation through Christ. I believe the biblical text points us towards the need to be in relationship with each other. In these times especially, we need relationship not just with those that look like us, but particularly with those that are a different color.

One thing Wendy asked me to speak on is practical dos and don’ts for people who want to be in a place of reconciliation and understanding. The work Wendy did to address the lack of representation on her school’s PTA board was a good example (of both what to do and not to do). The most important thing for me is what Wendy alluded to. For Christians to really believe the doctrine of imago Dei. For my white allies to listen to their fellow Christian sister and brother of color, and to truly know them personally.

Thank you, Dierdra, for opening yourself up to us. Your story of two different Americas depending on race is valuable for those of us who have not lived your story to understand. I know it is painful to regularly have to defend yourself to those who only point out the anger rather than lamenting the injustices that provoked it.

To friends and readers who need to do the work to recognize biases and disconnects between what you say you believe about imago Dei and the reality of your practice – if you have to do the work, do the work, but understand why it is offensive and wearisome to your black friends that you have to do the work. If you don’t like black anger, first and foremost lament with your black brothers and sisters the causes of such anger and then work to address the injustices they reveal.

To black brothers and sisters who find the need of white folks to do such work offensive – yes, I understand that completely. It is offensive. You bear inherent dignity that should be as easily recognized in the church as that of the unborn infants we often rally to protect, and no one should even have to say it. And, yet, the work needs to be done nonetheless. My encouragement is that the harvest is plenteous in this particular avenue of gospel work. The kingdom of God is coming and His will is being done as many denominations and individuals within them recognize past and present sins and repent. Please stay as a worker in this harvest, God’s harvest. You will be blessed with fruit even as you endure through the weeds and thorns.

And always know that our God sees.

Psalm 10

10 The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might.
11 (The oppressor) says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

12 Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
forget not the afflicted.
13 Why does the wicked renounce God
and say in his heart, “You will not call to account”?
14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
you have been the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer;
call his wickedness to account till you find none.

16 The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land.
17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

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13 Responses to On Being Helpful (and Sometimes Unhelpful) Allies of Black Image Bearers

  1. Deb O October 7, 2016 at 10:24 pm #

    Women’s issues = 30-40-50 comments
    Gay issues = <10
    Race issues = zero

    Quite telling, Wendy. Keep it up; perhaps they'll get it someday.

    • Wendy October 7, 2016 at 10:30 pm #

      I think it’s a combination of not knowing what to say and fear of saying something that will offend. But I do think folks are listening and considering.

    • Dierdra October 10, 2016 at 5:02 pm #

      Deb, it is telling. But not surprising right? This work of racial reconciliation is tough stuff, but I am 100% sure, it is what God calls us to do. The uncomfortable, awkward, uncertain work that we must do.

  2. Alistair not Alastair October 8, 2016 at 6:19 pm #

    For me, it’s a matter of not living in the States. Race relations here focus on new immigrants – “new” being a relative term – and the indigenous people. I am especially interested in the latter.

    So, while I’d love to comment, Deb, that’s all I have to contribute.

    • Wendy October 8, 2016 at 9:35 pm #

      Thanks, Alistair! I forget that the experience of some readers is of a different culture and racy dynamic altogether.

  3. Wendy October 8, 2016 at 9:36 pm #

    race

    • Alistair not Alastair October 8, 2016 at 11:07 pm #

      Lol.

  4. Becky October 9, 2016 at 8:32 pm #

    I am white. And I need help. I read and appreciated this article. But. You explain halfway through that even your efforts to redress the racial imbalance on the PTA was offensive. I have read so many articles on race and have seen that theme over and over. And the message that sends to me, that roils in my gut and saddens my heart, is this: “Girl, you are so completely messed up by your white skin and white privilege that you will never ever ever be able to help this racial reality to even the smallest degree. No matter how you pray or work or study or reach out, no matter how hard you work to know and respect and honor and love people of color and invite them over for dinner and become friends together. Even your humblest, best efforts are offensive.” I come away from these articles with a feeling of hopelessness. And that’s not the message of the Gospel! What am I missing?

    • Wendy October 10, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

      Becky, the best I know to do in such situations is to remember that like whites, African-Americans are not a monolithic group. It’s an important topic on which to stay engaged, and there are many black brothers and sisters in Christ who are thankful and affirming of others who seek to understand and stand with them for social justice. Find those people. Subscribe to their twitter feeds. Amplify their voices on social media. Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns, Thabiti and Kristi Anyabwile, and others at the Reformed African-American Network are good people to learn from on how to be a help. I enjoy Jemar and Tyler’s Pass the Mic podcast a lot.

    • Dierdra October 11, 2016 at 7:37 am #

      Becky, thanks so much for sharing. I think that is the first step in these difficult, awkward conversations, admitting that it is hard stuff! I encourage you though to keep moving through your fear of being offensive. God calls us to be in relationship, regardless of our own hesitations, concerns and problems. We know being in relationship with each other is about living out the Gospel. So I would encourage you to think about that when you are feeling discouraged. I also want to remind you that white allies have been a part of the struggle for social justice, reconciliation and changing the racial reality since slavery. They were the abolitionists, the freedom riders, and the today while allies like Wendy. They pushed through whatever misgivings, discomfort, and I am sure hopelessness they felt. Push through! and thank you. I am sure others can relate to what you wrote.

  5. The Music Student October 10, 2016 at 12:12 pm #

    I also live outside the U.S., but we see reports in the news of unjustifiable actions by police against a visible minority all too frequently. Only, in this case, the minority is not one which was formerly kidnapped from their own countries and enslaved in our country, but rather is the indigenous population which was here before European settlers came to these shores. In these reports, the injustice is clear – the police simply do not respond in the same way to any other section of the population. Since the indigenous communities, for the most part, live within their own territories, it is difficult to have contact with them. Yet, when I hear them speak in the news reports, I realize that they would not trust us even if we did try to befriend them. There are far too many years of cruelty and injustice perpetrated by the settler/colonialist side for them to have any reason to believe us. It is often said, in broken family relationships where one party has wronged the other party, that trust must be earned by the party who wronged, before trust can be given by the party who was wronged. I think that is part of the answer to tensions from such origins, those who are associated, even if it is only by unchosen birth and genetics, with the perpetrators must work gently and lovingly to show that they can be trusted, and wait patiently for that trust to be given.

    • Wendy October 10, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

      That’s a good point. I think about the need to earn trust too. Suspicions of white folk have been well earned over many generations in my community. The gospel calls me to persevere when folks are suspicious of me.

    • Dierdra October 11, 2016 at 7:49 am #

      What a great point! When Wendy and I had the exchange on Facebook that led to us writing this post together, I was able to be honest with my feelings because I felt safe and I trusted Wendy. These conversations can only happen if there is genuine care. The hard part here is that many whites do not see/acknowledge the injustices and so the chasm exists where there is a lack of trust and also a lack of awareness that there is a NEED for trust.