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9 ways to be a better white person

“Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism” by the Rev. Carolyn Helsel. Images courtesy of Chalice Press

A guest post by the Rev. Carolyn Helsel

(RNS) — As a Christian, I feel called to live like Christ, which means to try to be good and kind, loving others as Christ has loved me. But as a white person, I am part of a larger history that is not good. Not kind. Not loving.

While I may have grown up harboring no blatantly racist views, I have learned that racism continues to give me unfair advantages, and that racism continues to harm individuals and communities of color.

Some white people hear this and think they are being blamed for something. They assume others are trying to deny them the success and wealth they’ve fought for and intentionally worked to build. I want to affirm those reactions: Yes, you have worked hard and have overcome a lot, but there are other experiences that are also true that you need to be able to hear.

“Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism” by the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Helsel. Image courtesy of Chalice Press

My first book, coming out this month, is called “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism” (Chalice Press), and it’s an attempt to address those feelings. I want people who are working on addressing racism to know that their emotions are valid. Yes, this is hard, but we need to do this hard work in order to be more faithful people, living in community with our brothers and sisters of color.

I also want to emphasize the centrality of gratitude in this work. As a Christian, I know my sins are forgiven, that I don’t need to try to be good; God loves me the way I am. At the same time, my gratitude for God’s love makes me want to live better, to be a better person. I am also grateful for the stories that people of color have shared with me about their experiences with racism; these are painful stories and precious gifts. Grateful for these stories, I want to try and change the world so that these painful experiences happen less often.

So I want to know what I can do as a white person to be better. Maybe you do, too. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Accept that you are white. Accept that being “white” is part of who you are, whether you see it or not. Look for ways it has given you an advantage. For example, I go to a predominantly white church, so I fit in without difficulty. How is the place where you go to church a place of privilege or advantage for you? What about where you live? In your interactions with police?
  2. Listen to how you feel about being white. Notice your inner reactions to talking about race and the advantages that come with being white in our society: Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Resentful? Angry? Guilty?
  3. Look at those feelings. Sit with them and honor these reactions. Say to yourself: “Yes, and these others things are true, too.” Tell yourself: “This is hard, and other people are also going through hard things. I can be kind to myself as I recognize how challenging this is.”
  4. Entrust your feelings to God. Remember that God loves you, and that Jesus Christ, a Jew from Nazareth, is God embodied in particular flesh to show us that God is redeeming all of creation. Our bodies are part of that redemption, even amid the evils of racist discrimination. God is redeeming us not in spite of our racialized bodies, but in our very particular bodies. We can’t say “race doesn’t matter” when it matters to God: God cares about how people are treated differently on the basis of race.
  5. Read and watch. Find books about ways persons of color experience disadvantages because of racism, and learn how society has racialized persons differently across time and place. For a brief overview, you can read “Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds.” Other books you might want to have on your shelf include “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and the young adult novel “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. Watch the documentary “The Cats of Mirikitani” to learn about Japanese internment camps, or “I Am Not Your Negro” to hear the words of James Baldwin and their resonance for today.
  6. Be ready to listen. When someone tells you their experience with racism, be truly ready to listen, which means: Believe them completely and do not reinterpret what they say or discount their experiences. Become comfortable hearing the anger that comes with these experiences. Accepting your own emotions will increase your capacity for hearing and accepting the emotions of others.
  7. Find role models. Do you know people who are working to make a difference? Find persons of color and white people who have worked against racism, and see yourself as continuing their work. Learn about organizations that are working to address racial inequality today. My friend Greg Ellison, author of “Fearless Dialogues,” is doing tremendous work bringing people together for “hard heartfelt conversations.” Read his book: It will inspire you.
  8. Make a difference in your white networks. Look at your church and your neighborhood: Are they predominantly white? What about your workplace? How can you raise awareness about racism in these areas? Stop seeing “other white people” as the ones who need to hear this message. Remember, you are not a good white person, and you probably never will be. You do this work anyway not to get points with God or other people, but out of the gratitude you have for the love of God and the gifts of friendship.
  9. Repeat Steps 1-8. Again and again and again.

(The Rev. Carolyn Helsel is an assistant professor of homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she teaches courses on preaching. The views expressed in this op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

29 Comments

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  • All good things to think about. And pretty good suggestions.

    Better advice, and shorter.

    Don’t worry about being white. Strive to be a good person.

  • I agree. It isn’t the religion a person follows or whether they follow any, the only thing that matters is how we treat other people, how we treat other living things–plants, animals, our planet, and how we treat ourselves. All the rest, the doctrines, dogmas, laws are distractions that lead us astray.

  • Honestly I wish we could have this conversation in both directions. Recently when talking to a coworker I brought up my school by which she responded she wouldn’t want to go there beacuse it was “Full of white people”,(Which is actully funny beacuse it’s less then 50% white, and extreamly mixed for Utah, though maybe not as much as the local high school) I bet if it had been any other race she wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying it. I would fill a lot more comfortable socializing with people of other races if there wasn’t the expectation that we grin and bear it well they make derogatory comments about our race, and just stand there and take it when they call us out in front of everyone when we say something that might be considerd offensive.
    I don’t know, it might just be where I live. It seams extreamly “pc”, and by that I mean people will call you out if you unintionally say something that could be construed as homophobic, sexist against woman, or racist against any race except whites. But they feel comfortable advocating violence against men ( my coworker to me. Though to be fair I think she might be on the spectrum), singling out they wouldn’t want to be around large amount of people with one of my characteristics ( another coworker to me), and claim gay couples as superior to straight ( Coworker to a customer at checkout, so everyone with in ten feet might have been able to hear it.)
    Now back to the artical
    Honestly I don’t think it should even be about race. Do they feel like they don’t belong? Help them feel included. Are they lonely? Be a friend to them. You said something that they took offense to? Hear them out. And do these things wether there apart of your race or not, and hope they do the same for you.
    And I’m not going to do those things as a white person for a colored person, but hopefully as a freind for another friend. The only thing I’ll do as white person is call out double standards.

  • I think the 9 suggestions are good. I have to admit that Christ and religion are not necessary to address racism and in fact has contributed to it.

  • Isn’t there a better way to solve the problems of non-whites, without bringing white guilt into the picture?

  • Then entrust your feelings to Ben, preferably in a notarized statement double-spaced and single-sided.

  • I am part white and part black and an atheist, should I just remain neutral and hope for the best, or do I need to lecture my parents on the issue?

  • Got half way though this silliness……..someone actually published it? I’ve got a book I wrote in the 90’s. It’s on a few floppy disks……think they’ll print that too?
    (edit)
    Just saw that it is from a female pastor. That says it all.

  • What are the seven detestable sins according to the Bible?.

    1. Greed – Wanting too much of something.

    2. Gluttony – Similar to greed, but gluttony is the action of taking too much of something in.

    3. Lust – The need to fulfill unspiritual desires (not just sexual desires, but this is usually what lust is associated with.)

    4. Envy – Jealousy; wanting to have what someone has.

    5. Sloth – Being too slow or lazy at doing something.

    6. Wrath – Vindictive anger; angry revenge.

    7. Pride – Being too self-satisfied

  • Just drop the atheism, hook up with the invincible God, and you’ll do just fine on the color palette.

    Check it out: The color God selects for a person, is invariably the perfect color.

  • Hurrah!!! it’s ok to be nasty to be people who are different than I am. God doesn’t mind! ????????

  • Did someone forget to tell this lady that “Race is just a social construct”?!
    Good thing she didn’t write — “9 ways to be a better black person”. She’d be crucified…..literally.

  • Exactly…..especially when these SJW’s have in their manual the belief that ‘race is just a social construct’. Race is just a social construct except when they want to castigate white people for all their 6 million faults.

  • “Remember, you are and you probably never will be. You do this work anyway not to get points with God or other people, but out of the gratitude you have for the love of God and the gifts of friendship.”

    Well, golly….. I thought I had heard a pretty flawed statement over the weekend from a Facebook warrior. But, I’ve got to tell you. This is THE most ridiculous statement I’ve ever read. You waste a page of ‘ink’ on how to be a ‘better’ white person, and then state it’s near impossible!

    As a Christian, I believe you need to defrock yourself and allow someone who has a better process of thoughts to take over the Sunday morning pep talks.

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