Like many, I was horrified over the weekend as I watched media images from Charlottesville, Virginia scroll across my social media timelines. The scene brought to the present so many aspects of a shameful past: Confederate flags waving, hooded men hiding, young white men spewing hatred, cowardly violence, lives lost due to racial bigotry. The scene also brought to present forgotten images from my own discarded past: I used to be a racist. That used to be me. Let me share some of my story.
I grew up in south Alabama with a hometown population split pretty evenly between black and white. I was raised in a culture where even good, church-going folk often had very strong opinions about those who did not share their own ethnicity. The n- word was acceptable around dinner tables during my childhood, but it was justified on the basis that “white people can be n*****s too,” or something to that effect. Cliché comments shaped a culture where bigotry was acceptable: “I’m not racist; I know several decent black men,” or, “I’m cool with black folks; I just don’t believe in white people marrying them.”
The truth is, you only noticed the other group’s existence when you were forced to. Other than integrated public schools, white people stuck to themselves, and black people did the same. Churches, social organizations, and friendships continued to abide by the unwritten rules of segregation long after the laws had been abolished.
The subtle dinner table racism of my upbringing made the more blatant forms of racism appealing. In the eighth grade, me and a group of my all-white friends applied for membership to the Ku Klux Klan. One of us found the organization online, and sadly, it appealed to our imaginations. We were drawn by the promise of joining a cause larger than ourselves. In a culture where it was normal to dehumanize people who were different from us, it made sense to our depraved and juvenile minds to unite and stand against those who threatened our perceived security. Who was it that threatened us? People who didn’t look like us, dress like us, talk like us, or hang out with us. People that our forefathers had enslaved, violated, raped, and cast aside. None of that mattered, though. What mattered to us was defending our way of life—having a cause to fight for.
Thankfully, our attempts to join the infamous hate group failed. I never joined the ranks of the outspoken racists at rallies like the one we just saw in Charlottesville. But tragically, my racism persisted long after in subtler forms.
I tell that story not because I’m proud of my past; I’m embarrassingly ashamed of it. I tell that story, because when I look at the pictures of hate-filled, young white men in Charlottesville, Virginia, I think, “That could have been me,” and I want people to know why it wasn’t me.
When I was 20-years-old Jesus invaded my life and turned my whole world upside down. He showed me that all men have sinned and fallen short of God’s standard. He showed me that the way to salvation comes only through him and that it is a way for all people. The divide among humanity is not between white and black but between sinner and righteous, and there is only one man standing on the other side of the dividing line. His name is Jesus, and he died to save us all. My racism was no match for God’s love. Over time, God replaced my hate with gospel-fueled love for all peoples.
In 2010, my wife and I adopted our son Elias and daughter Eden from Uganda, and for the first time in my life, I began to see race from a different perspective. As a father of two black children, I simply cannot ignore the angry faces of alt-right racism waving Confederate flags and proudly flaunting Nazi swastikas. I have to believe that these people would harm my children if given the opportunity, and I must think about how best to protect them. That much should be obvious.
But here’s what I’m beginning to notice that I might not have seen if I didn’t have black children: simmering under the surface and hiding behind computer screens all across our land is another form of racism, a subtler form that will inevitably threaten my children. Over and over again, I run into comments that seek to minimize the racist evil that is going on in our nation. Defensive white folks who would not self-identify as racists refuse to fully acknowledge that our fellow image-bearers are under attack. It seems there’s just enough racism left in our hearts to keep us from speaking out against what is clearly evil. Dinner table racism persists.
We must resist the urge to jump to the defense of people who look like us as an automatic response before considering the actual evidence. We must fight the reflex to defend wicked and violent actions from people of our own ethnicity, reflexively implying that those actions were somehow justifiably provoked because of what “the other side” has done. In short, we must determine to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mk. 12:31).
Silence in the face of injustice is coalescence with injustice. That’s a lesson we should have learned a long time ago, when so many of our forefathers were silent in the face of slavery and segregation. To cowardly refuse to call evil evil is to allow the assumption to stand that it might be good. But, “woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Is. 5:20). We must speak out, not just against blatant and outspoken racism, but also against racism’s more subtle forms. My story has taught me that dinner table racism produces Charlottesville racism.
We must search our hearts with the light of the gospel and ask our Lord to reveal pockets of racism that continue to hide in the dark places. We must teach our children that Satan works best with deception and that even subtle racism has no place in Christ’s Kingdom. We must not allow political loyalties to blind us to Kingdom priorities.
At the last day, a great multitude will assemble under the banner of King Jesus “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). How we treated those brothers and sisters will not be forgotten. We will give an account to the King, and our silence will be judged. Then, those in Christ will join with all ethnicities at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and dinner table racism will be abolished forever.
Photo courtesy of Karla Cote