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.
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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)