It took a car racing down my neighborhood street for me to recognize that there is, in fact, an I in racist.
My brother is black. My daughter is Asian. I am intentional about building friendships with people who don’t look, think, dress, speak, or act like me. I raise my children to do the same. I don’t pretend to be color-blind and can make a case for why that shouldn’t be our goal. I can think of multiple times in the last few years that I’ve spoken out, stood up, and tried to use my white privilege (yes, it is a thing) to defend those whose voices don’t get listened to quite as easily as my own. If anything, I’ve been overly proud of my “not a racist” stance.
But then there was the street racing a couple of weeks ago and I saw myself more clearly.
I live on a quiet street. And the quiet street is usually overrun with neighborhood children who consider it their personal racetrack and basketball court and playground. My dog sometimes goes and literally lays in the middle of the street, soaking in the warmth of the asphalt as though she owns the place. Given all this, when I was in my backyard and heard the sound of fast-moving cars and I knew my kids were playing in the front, I know my fear-turned-anger is easily understood.
A few houses down, a neighbor girl was celebrating her 6th birthday. In the time of Covid-19, that means parties look a little different. For her party, her older brother invited his friends to come over and do a fast-car-loving version of the Birthday Parade. They lined up in front of her house and spun their wheels — a burnout birthday parade. And that’s the moment when I came out of my house, frantically looking for my children.
They were down at the very same neighbors. The adults in the house knew the cars were coming and so they had gathered the children playing outdoors to watch the excitement from a safe distance. (They had also called the police to let them know it was happening.) But at the time, I didn’t know that. And as I ran towards the gathered crowd, with my anxiety-turned-anger rising while I frantically hoped to see my children in the mix so at least I’d know they were safe, the cars came around for round two — this time driving far too quickly down the street in their teenage-hormone-pumped-up-eagerness to give the best show they could to the small crowd.
And that’s when I felt it. The suspicion. The anger. The resentment. The “who do you think you are, coming to my street.” The you-don’t-belong-here stereotypes I thought I didn’t have.
Every driver I saw had skin some shade of darker-than-me brown. And while I would have been angry no matter what — racing down our street is unacceptable no matter if the drivers were white, purple, black or green — I have thought about the moment a lot these last few weeks and the deeper truth of what I felt in my heart of hearts has settled like a rock in my stomach.
It’d be easier not to confess this dark secret of mine… this little odor of racism. After all, I didn’t shout profanities at them like some other neighbors did. (Nor did I throw a child’s scooter, which also happened.) You’d never know what was flickering in my heart if I didn’t tell you. I’m sure many would offer a rigorous defense of my indignation — it’s not ok to street race down a residential street where everyone knows children play. I could pretend that’s really all my anger was about. I’d much rather write a blog post about how those more overtly racist neighbors of mine need to be more like me. But at the end of the day, I know what I felt and I know where it was rooted and I know it was wrong.
There is an I in racist.
There is a me in racist and I’m willing to bet there is a you in racist too. And if admitting my dirty little secret helps you see yours more clearly too? Well, that actually feels like I’m doing something to fight back against this tragedy that’s burning us all down.
I don’t care what color you are, this is humanity’s ugly side. And if we stop our introspection at “I’m not a racist,” we’ve not gone far enough. We all — white, purple, black, or green — carry within us biases and experiences and perspectives and histories that come together and inform our subconscious thinking and responses in ways we may not even believe to be possible until it is too late. And while we all carry these biases, it’s generally not the white people who are dying. So white friends, the onus of the response is on us.
Rooting ourselves in a smug “well at least I’m not a racist” worldview is what will keep killing black men and women. Our almost-imperceptible biases do not get uncovered when our primary goal is simply avoiding the appearance of racism. And those almost-imperceptible biases are the first domino that can start an ending-in-tragedy chain reaction when we find ourselves in a situation where snap judgments based on race may lead us to drastically different outcomes.
As long as we believe that the true “race problem” exists only in other people, we will not see change. Whether we are a police officer or a person calling 911 or a woman watching cars race through her neighborhood, if we spend all our time comfortable with our status-quo and bent on defending our own perceived lack of racism, we will remain complacent and complicit. We will find reasons to explain away or even justify the tragedies and we will remain silent, as long as we aren’t being accused of being racist. In short, we will not see our own capacity for racism to be a part of the problem.
I am a woman of faith, and I know that change starts in repentance, in turning away from my sin and towards the Savior who came for all people from all nations of all colors who speak all languages — even languages I don’t understand or appreciate, like the language of streetcar racing and burnouts.
This is our sackcloth and ashes moment. I am past the point of simply saying their names and calling out other people for what I see as their downfalls and their shortcomings when it comes to race. Sure we can all make ourselves feel better about the fact that we’re not as racist as Amy Cooper. But that is not going far enough. I must see the I in racist. We must see the we in racist. Until we get brutally honest about the depravity of our own hearts and minds, we will not see ourselves clearly. We must own our own biases and prejudices and be willing to admit how far we really are from seeing the Imago Dei in the lives of people who don’t look like us and do whatever it takes to repent and turn from this depravity… becoming not just “not a racist,” but an anti-racist too.
Until we do, nothing will change.