On Being Helpful (and Sometimes Unhelpful) Allies of Black Image Bearers
Wendy Aslup is the author of Practical Theology for Women and The Gospel-Centered Woman. She blogs at www.theologyforwomen.org and gospelcenteredwoman.com. Wendy a white women, and I have recently been talking about the theology of Imago Dei and what that means for our White brothers and sisters when they see injustices happen to their black brothers and sisters. That is, how do white Christians live out the theology of seeing their black brother and sister in the image of God, particularly and especially when injustices occur. Wendy and I interacted with this thought on her blog and I would like to share it with you all. I hope you find it thought provoking and encouraging.
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.
I’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.