In November of 2008, I was living in Little Rock, Arkansas working a job where the employee racial make-up was roughly 50/50 black and white, mirroring the demographics of the city. I called in sick the day after Barack Obama won the election. Why did I skip work? Was I actually sick? Was I a Republican who was shattered by the political outcome? No. I skipped, not because of political or health reasons, but for spiritual and cultural ones.
I was working in a diverse environment, but instead of embracing diversity; I chose apathy, close-mindedness, and isolation. Instead of participating in a significant moment in our nation’s history, I chose absence. Surrounded by people who had waited their entire lives to see a person of color become president, I checked out. I worked with women who had broken through many racial and socio-economical barriers that had oppressed their families for generations. These were women who felt the outcome of that election more profoundly than I ever could, given I’m a white female who has lived my entire life inside the majority culture with privileges and safeguards.
I had the opportunity to witness a major victory for millions of people, but I chose not to engage and missed out on a historical celebration. At this point in time, my understandings of the complexities of racism were not fully formed. I didn’t have hatred towards anyone, but I was apathetic. Not realizing it at the time, I allowed this apathy to dictate my interactions and relationships.
I was tired of hearing about race and, honestly, I didn’t have much hope for change. I grew up in a place where racism permeated all of society. The cultural majority occasionally used words like “equality” and “tolerance” but their dialects were chock-full of phrases such as “they’re not like us.” It was a culture comfortable with disunity, discrimination, and racism while clinging to their segregated religious traditions that preached, albeit sporadically, unity and God’s all-encompassing love. Many views of God were seen through limited human lenses seemingly unaffected by the Gospel.
While I grew up in a Bible-preaching church, only parts of the Bible were implemented into most people’s lives. Rarely did I see Truth fleshed out in the area of racial reconciliation. The blinding stronghold of white privilege along with false ideologies taught from the pulpit had a vital impact on my apathy and judgment. My childhood Christianity was molded by leaders who were heavily influenced by these divisive societal norms rather than the transformative and counter-cultural worldview of the Gospel.
And while one’s childhood culture heavily influences their worldview, as I grew, I continued to internalize these false ideas. For instance, I was judgmental about people who were on public assistance. I did not assume that they were doing their best. They were “plain ole’ lazy,” not people who needed help to rise above their plight. I also knew it made no sense for a racially diverse population to worship completely segregated, but I accepted this without question despite the Bible’s call for unity of amongst Believers.
Thankfully, my innate curiosity and constant questioning of leadership led me to search for answers myself instead of relying solely on the instruction of the spiritual “leaders” in my life. In college (a privilege that many victims of institutional racism do not get to experience), I studied history and learned about institutional racism. Through seeking Truth, studying, and opening up I found prejudice, ignorance, and misunderstanding. I realized I had allowed ignorance and fear to take root and shape my perceptions and relationships. God opened my eyes to see that this is sin. He still gently leads me to repentance, causing me to search for solutions to the overwhelming problem of race relations within our country and the Church.
As I later pursued a Masters of Education I was led to the Boys and Girls Clubs where I worked as a tutor while finishing my education degree. The Clubs didn’t have much money, but they had a grant for after-school tutoring. I worked at a club that was located in a housing project, and it was there that I began to see the devastating impact of poverty and institutional racism firsthand.
Because of these experiences, I do not assume to know anyone’s story. I don’t form thoughts based on gender, age, race, or even public persona. I read the writings of people who make it their work to uncover forms of racism and prejudices that are often unseen or ignored. Stories of others allow me to see Him more fully. Celebrating diversity is one of the most powerful ways I’ve found to keep me from humanizing God; from making Him like me. When I open myself up to another’s experience, I see a new way to relate to God and a new way that He reveals Himself to His children.
I love the fact that the global Church, full of every race, gender, nationality, language, and ethnicity worships together. Before we know Jesus, we are all dead in sin and after grace allows us to see and trust Him; we are made alive. We were all dead, now we are alive. The beautiful differences between us help us remember the grandeur and majesty of God. Diversity helps us remember He is the creator and ruler of the entire universe. We create divisive culture, not Him.
Because of my close-mindedness and decision to call in sick, I missed out on sharing victorious and joyful moments with others. Instead of carrying the regret of this decision, I am choosing to share what God has shown me to encourage mutual respect for all of our brothers and sisters, counting each one valid and worthy just as our Savior does and I pray the Church leads the charge in dismantling institutional racism.
Here is a transcript of President Obama’s inauguration speech.