It has been several months since I last wrote to you with a few reflections on race and the importance of “double listening.” I have been doing a lot of listening since then: reading, watching, praying and meeting for one-on-one discussion. I have delved into Scripture, history and the personal stories of friends and strangers. It has been helpful and challenging. I have a lot more listening to do, but I wanted to share a few thoughts with you from what I have been learning.
Many of you know that I am color-blind. Yes, literally color-blind. I see colors, but only a small portion of the full spectrum. I see roughly 50,000 shades compared to the one million seen by the average human being. So if you ever see me wearing a shirt that doesn’t quite match my pants (or socks), you’ll know why. One of the consequences of being color-blind is that I miss details. Usually they’re minor, like a purple flower that appears blue. Sometimes, though, they’re major, like the flashing red light I thought was yellow! Although the negative impact on my life is typically small, there is a cost to being color-blind. I miss out on the beauty and subtlety of visual experience.
The irony of my situation is that for a long time I thought that being color-blind was the best way to approach personal relationships with people of other races. I thought that the best thing I could do was to treat all people – no matter what they looked like or where they came from – the exact same way. Rather than attending to differences with others, I thought that focusing on our similarities and what unites us as people made in the image of God was the best thing I could do when it came to building relationships. These are, of course, great and important things to focus on! But there was a
problem with this limited approach of mine. Not only did I miss out on some beautiful and subtle things about other people by trying to look past the color of their skin, I ran some relational red lights and caused real pain to friends by ignoring the fact that the color of their skin has powerfully shaped the course of their lives.
I have learned the hard way that color blindness doesn’t work when it comes to building relationships, and that sometimes it can be dangerous. Whether a man is white, black or brown, his skin color is a God-given part of his story. And it plays a critical role in his everyday experience of life. When we look past race, we can miss the person entirely.
When I was in college, I sang in a gospel choir. No, I am not making this up! Of the 120 people in the choir, 118 were black, one was brown and one was white. That last one was me. I spent a year with this choir, traveling around Virginia and singing in churches and at concerts. I loved it. But it was hard. Almost everywhere we went, I was the only white person. People would look at me with bewilderment. I noticed that sometimes when black people talked to me, they would subtly shift their vocabulary and tone. I was introduced to foods I had never tasted before. And when no one talked to me, I couldn’t help but wonder why.
During that year I got a very small taste of what it’s like to be a racial minority. For me it was complicated, often confusing and a constantly present reality. One of the hardest things about my experience that year was that it was really hard to talk about race. There were times when I just wanted to say, “Are you all really okay having me here?”
One person who did talk to me was Reggie, the leader of our choir. One Sunday morning while singing at a Black church, I was singled out by the preacher and asked to stand. He then complimented me on my soulfulness in a playful way and let me sit back down. I was both proud and embarrassed. Later that day after we had returned to campus, Reggie called me. He said, “I just wanted to check on you. The preacher meant well this morning, but I know how painful it can be to be singled out because of your race. Are you okay?”
I have thought about that phone call and Reggie’s question a lot over the last few months. Whenever we got back to campus after one of our concerts, I was immediately in the majority. Reggie wasn’t. He knew the power of racial difference and what it’s like to be in the minority. If Reggie had been color-blind, he never would have called to check on me. He never would have put himself in my shoes, and I never would have experienced that moment of grace. But Reggie took responsibility in that situation to reach out to me. He understood that it was “on him” to take the initiative. Part of what it means to care for our friends and neighbors is to recognize that those of us in the majority (racially, ethnically, socially, etc.) have a responsibility to take the initiative, to check in and to reach out to those on the margins. This can be hard; conversations like this require a lot of trust. Several black friends have told me recently about painful conversations with white acquaintances who wanted to dive into a discussion about race without having a history of trust with each other. Those moments led only to deeper frustration and hurt on both sides. But it doesn’t mean that these conversations can’t happen over time.
If we are going to understand what the gospel has to say in our present cultural moment, we are going to have to stop being color-blind. I do not mean this in a legal sense, nor am I speaking about public policy. I am thinking relationally. I’m thinking about our friends and neighbors and the city of Raleigh. We need to recognize that the color of a person’s skin continues to affect the shape of his or her life in modern America. And we need to talk about it with each other.
The early church is a powerful model for these kinds of conversations. The very first conflict in the church in Jerusalem came about when Jewish widows were getting priority treatment while Gentile widows were being shunned (Acts 6). The apostles dealt with the problem head-on by dealing with the root issue of racial preferences. Racial and ethnic tension continued, however, and had to be addressed again in Acts 15. The letters to the Galatians and Ephesians show that these issues bedeviled the church for many more years, but that the gospel of Jesus Christ enables believers to address these tensions, heal divisions and grow in unity no matter what has transpired.
Someone who has helped me to understand the problems with color blindness and to properly grasp the hope we have in the gospel for breaking through racial division is George Yancey. His book, Beyond Racial Gridlock, is one of the most helpful and challenging books I’ve read about race in recent months. That is one of the reasons we have invited him to speak during a special Zoom event on October 14th − Kingdom and Race. Yancey is a black man, a committed Christian and a professor of Sociology at Baylor University who has long studied race relations in the United States. He wants to see the Church lead the way in shaping honest conversations about race in our society. And he sees the gospel as the starting point. I hope you’ll join me on October 14th as Josh Chatraw interviews Professor Yancey and we have an extended time of Q&A. Sign-up here on Eventbrite.