A while back I had a conversation with a white friend who was working as an activist in racial justice. I told her that I was beginning to study more and take an interest in the particular role that faith communities could take in racial reconciliation. She drew back and quickly replied, “we don’t like to talk about ‘reconciliation.’ We focus on ‘justice.'” She was so uncomfortable with the term, that even upon my clumsy attempt to clarify my point and to assure her that I understood exactly why she had recoiled at the word, our discussion ended and she turned to speak to several other people in the room.
I was able to infer from her reaction that in her experience, “reconciliation” was not to be trusted, particularly at the utterance of another white person. She had seen what I had seen: that reconciliation often meant a shallow and insincere decision to resist racism, but not oppose it. Reconciliation meant everyone shakes hands and agrees not to “hate” one another, but then we all leave and return to our separate corners. “Officially” we agree segregation is bad, and we abolish it in our laws, but it continues in our lunchrooms and our communities and our churches. I got my friend’s point, and while I shared her anger about this, I refused to release “reconciliation” to be defined in that way.
For many of us entering this discussion as white people, it’s hard to shake the “I come in peace” attempts of white folks past. A post from 2008 over at Resist Racism describes exactly what I’m talking about: the long shadow cast by a Well-Intentioned White Woman. We all know the type. A sister comes along wanting to fight her perception of racism, perhaps in her own effort to push back against what we southerners call, her raisin’. Maybe she was brought up in a home where the N word was used without pause or apology. Perhaps she was “warned” against dating a boy in high school because of his color. Whatever her baggage may be, she comes determined to prove she’s not “like them.”
And she talks about reconciliation—a lot. But what it means to her is that she comes to the discussion expecting to be welcomed, even rewarded for her participation. As if she is doing something exceptional by deigning to hang with the black folks, or what have you. Now while I do think it is a good thing for a white person to, in essence, abdicate whatever measure of comfort and privilege they have in their enwhitened communities, the act itself should be not be considered “exceptional” it should be “expected.”
Often when white people talk about reconciliation, they do so thinking that what it means is we say sorry and all y’all get over it. In their book, Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith examine the racial relationships and fractures in the evangelical church. At one point, they quote Carl Ellis, head of a ministry called Project Joseph and a participant in evangelical efforts at reconciliation:
Tears and hugs and saying I’m sorry is a good first step, but for me, the question is not one of changing the hearts of individuals as it is dealing with the systems and the structures that are devastating African-American people. [p.67]
While many white people of faith are willing to shed the individual behavioral markers of racism, very few are willing to engage in combating the systemic remnants of Jim Crow and the myriad of racially disparate structures in our society. Emerson and Christian add,
Without this component, reconciliation was cheap, artificial, and mere words. It was rather like a big brother shoving his little brother to the ground, apologizing, then shoving him to the ground again. [p. 58]
As a white woman, I often get frustrated by the suspicion that accompanies my best efforts to become a true anti-racist. Still, I cannot deny that mistrust is warranted in most of these situations. In my understanding, reconciliation is about putting the needs of others ahead of our own. Though that requires repentance at the individual level, it also requires that collectively we turn from the wicked ways of our past and present.
I’m not talking about a general apology for slavery or internment or death marches. I’m talking about actively considering the issues and concerns of our brothers and sisters of other races. It often means taking up their cause as our own. Because, ultimately, it is our own cause. White folks do not really benefit from our established system of privilege. These divisions rob us, too. But we have to be willing to see that and then to act in opposition to it: whether that means shifting our ideologies or physically moving ourselves into a different neighborhood or faith community. It may mean we take our turn as the minority for a while (a demographic inevitability anyway, if current trends continue in the U.S.). It very well may mean we risk the scorn of those who have been taught to distrust our motives.
Emerson and Christian conclude their book with this:
Good intentions are not enough. But educated, sacrificial, realistic efforts made in faith across racial lines can help us together move toward a more just, equitable and peaceful society. [p. 172]
These problems can and should be addressed personally and with individual efforts. Yet that alone will not bring us together, and none of it will happen overnight at a retreat or a conference of the well-intentioned. Genuine reconciliation requires humility and commitment. And for us white folks earnestly trying to prove ourselves in this movement, patience.