It has been a little over a month. A month that I have used to lend my voice to the discussion on race relations here in my very own city after the shooting death of Alton Sterling and the following shooting deaths of multiple officers. I’m still having trouble processing it all. I’ve been thrown onto the front lines, and by now have decided to just fully embrace it and keep going. Because this is what is happening whether we like it or not, and if it is not addressed now it will never get better. But every day I cry. I cry because it’s really this bad. Read my first post to see how we are not fine here.
Although I was certainly aware of the existence of racism, systemic issues that contribute to inequality, white fragility, and other things, it wasn’t always that way, and I’m not sure before this I even fully grasped the meaning of such things the way I do now. I am a white female who was raised in an upper-middle class family in the South. I went to all private schools with only a handful of black students (who were mostly all there based on athletic scholarships), and attended churches with only a handful of black people (who I rarely ever saw). I can’t really remember any people of color who were in authority over me although I’m sure there were one or two somewhere in there. It never occurred to me that it was strange that black princesses weren’t a thing and that all the baby dolls at the store were the same color I was. It never even occurred to me that there were probably more than a few black people in the world. I believed that if I knew black people that I couldn’t be racist, I believed being “color blind” meant I was an enlightened person. When I transitioned from being comfortable around racist comments without even noticing, to noticing and being uncomfortable, I believed I had “made it”.
I was raised in a society that taught me black people were “lesser”. They went to the public schools because they didn’t have the money for the private schools. No one said this of course, but why else would everyone at your school be white except for the scholarship students? (Even the black students whose parents were equal to or even better off than my family were still labeled “scholarship kids”.) They rode buses to and from school because their parents didn’t even love them enough to take them to school, and when they came home their parents were at work and left them all alone (forget this was how many of my white friends grew up, for their families it was a “responsible choice” not abandonment). The very first mission trip I went on was to an impoverished, majority black community 45 miles outside of the city I was living in. Those were the experiences with color that shaped me. Forget the fact that my best friend in middle and highschool was one of the few black people at my school. She was such a small impact in my life compared to the bombardment of messages about black people that came from all sides for so long. Although I never used the statement “I don’t see you as black,” because I always did see her color and I always loved the things that made her such a strong black girl in a sea of white faces around us, my brain subconsciously still put her in a category “different” from the rest.
I was raised in a society where white girls dated black boys if they were rebellious, or if they were “just like the blacks”. (If any of this sounds super racist, that’s because it is. Please forgive us.) The thought of blacks and whites being compatible was not a thought any entertained. I can’t remember seeing any inter-racial couples or families. If a family had adopted a black child it was because they were the “white saviors” to these “poor black children”. The black community only mingled with the white church community when we had VBS in the summer and the “parents just wanted to get rid of their children” so the churches would “do what they could for them for a week”. These things are ingrained in me so deeply I can’t separate if they were things actually said, or simply implied over and over and over by the actions I witnessed. There were no black families in my neighborhood. It was a safe, country neighborhood where we rode our bikes everywhere and I began babysitting when I was 10 years old for the neighbors. I heard about the “black side of town” and I was always so thankful I didn’t live there. I’d never seen it, ever, but I didn’t want to based on what I knew (and based on what I saw in that poor city on those mission trips). In fact, my black best friend only invited me to her house once. This was the way I “did life” with black people for a majority of my life. Not because my parents were some horrible, awful, racist, KKK members. Because this is the way you live life in the southern Louisiana city I was raised in, and I didn’t even know anything different, I don’t think they knew anything different. “Everything was fine.”
Enter the shooting of Alton Sterling…
It was July of 2016. I had seen these things happen in other cities, I had heard all the conservative talking points. I was well-versed in the “white side” of the story: It was their fault they had been shot. They are thugs. We need to protect ourselves from them. The end. 4 years ago, when I was seriously involved with a man getting his masters in History. I remember having many discussions during which he actually tried to teach me how slavery was “not that bad”. That was a legitimate talking point for a very educated, respected, strong Christian man. “Slavery was not that bad,” And he is not the only person I have heard this from, these are the things you hear as a white person in the south. Maybe we don’t even agree with them, but we hear them so much and with so much force that we don’t even really argue with them. “It is the way it is.” The way it has always been done. People take a lot of pride in their plantation homes and their southern heritage. I will admit, that part has never been something I related to since my mom’s family is a bunch of German Dutch Yankees from Michigan, and my dad’s family is from Oklahoma and the part of our heritage we always celebrated was the Native American bloodline. But I still didn’t escape the racially divided mentality that sinks in when you are raised here. It is something you just breathe in like oxygen.
The city of Baton Rouge is self-admittedly “two cities”. The white side and the black side, separated by our self-proclaimed “mason dixon line” (we use those exact terms here). The past few years my work has placed me in a position of relatability to the black community (yes, I understand that sounds terrible, my work is the thing that has made me able to relate to a group of people…) I have seen the division and the racism and the issues and struggles. In fact, a few months ago as I was praying for God to reveal His plans for me moving forward in my ministry He laid on my heart a plan to specifically address these issues. But I wasn’t prepared. I knew these things, but I had never experienced them on the level I was about to experience them. Alton Sterling was not the ‘beginning” for me, but Alton Sterling was the call to action. Because in that moment there was an understanding: choose your side. In fact, just a week before the shooting my article on the violence reduction strategy here in BR was published and I knew, I knew that because of that I automatically looked to the public like I would be 100% on the side of the police officers. But I wanted to be 100% for the leaders of our city as well as 100% for the people who were crying out for help. It was a moment in my spirit when I knew that I would be choosing a side of history. I didn’t want to be seen on the wrong side.
In fact, every single moment of the past month has been a moment of making history. Not in a “put me in a textbook” way, but in a “shape and mold the direction we are headed in” way. But it has been so very hard. As I write this the image of a stream of water pounding into the side of a mountain pops into my head. In the future the water will have cut its way through, but it took a steady, forceful stream pounding into the rock for countless years to break through. It has been 52 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There was constant work done before that and there has been constant work since. I have to believe that we are almost there. That maybe this will be the year, that maybe all it will take is one more FB post, one more blog post, one more article, one more news broadcast, to break through the mountain so that the waters of change can truly come rushing in. Because we’re not even at a place where we can have change when we are blinded to and refuse to have our eyes opened to the mountain that is in the way.
Jesus said when we have faith as small as a mustard seed, we can move mountains. But He never said that mountain would move in an instant.