I thought I was above systemic racism, but in my assumptions about “normal” I discovered I was complicit.
The Color of Life
By Cara Meredith
Keisa had been a regular in our Monday night program for a couple of years, and she also held a standing date in my calendar every Wednesday. The scene was usually the same. Pick her up from school. Grab a smoothie, find a spot to chill and hang out for an hour or so. Talk about God and boys and high school. Gab about her identity as a first-generation Tongan. I thought we’d talked about everything, but then one day she uttered a sentence that changed it all, a conversation that my husband James and I would rehash for years afterward.
“I don’t like white people,” she said bluntly.
“Um, Keisa, you do realize I’m white, don’t you?” A quippy, slightly sassy reply. Surely this didn’t apply to me. Did it?
She strummed her ukulele absentmindedly. Her eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, friend, that is not who you are, not in the least,” I replied, wrapping my arms around her as she cried on my chest. My mouth whispered a thousand “I’m sorry’s,” unsure how to respond or what to say.
I wanted my words to fix the situation and take away the pain inside of her. I wanted the ministry I was part of and the God who loved her more than anything else to be enough to bind up her brokenness. I wanted to erase the wounds of racism and hate, but this wasn’t about the white lady with good and moral intentions swooping in to save a brown girl’s experiences of racism and hate.
A change had taken root deep inside of me. But it was a change bound by a force greater than ourselves, a liberation that could happen only if the two of us chose to walk the path together.
Even though Keisa had told me I was different, I knew that I was complicit. I wasn’t exempt from her beliefs about white people. Now, more than ever, I wanted to listen for the sounds and the stories I hadn’t listened for before.
“Before you do anything at all in your new job,” an old supervisor had once said to me, “just listen. Don’t bring any sudden changes to the place but just get to know the culture. Listen to it.” His advice had to do with a culture of ministry, but when it came to conversations of racial justice and liberation, if I wanted to learn how to walk on the path with people, I had to learn how to listen first.
I also wondered about the intricately woven threads of Christianity and whiteness, of a religion and a Jesus I tended to believe looked just like me. Had my version of faith somehow contributed to my thinking I didn’t have to listen in the first place?
I thought about how quick I was to brag about the kids of color I worked with, about how although San Mateo County boasted a 61 percent white majority, I spent most of my time working with teenagers who didn’t look a whole lot like me. “They need an adult to mentor and befriend them,” I’d say. “And for some reason, they seem to want to hang out with weird, quirky grown-up me.” This was my image of the work I got to do, these broken teenagers like baby chicks waddling behind their proud mama hen. To be honest, though, I liked hanging out with them because I liked the way we looked together. I liked hanging out with them because they made me feel like I was helping to fight racism, our coffee dates tearing down walls of injustice, one sip at a time. But I also liked hanging out with them because they seemed to be the ones who most needed fixing, the ones who could most benefit from friendship with an adult like me.
Not only had I bought into images of a white Jesus but I had also purchased, in bulk, images of the white savior within me. I always had good intentions, embracing the mentality of a hero as I took up the white man’s burden. But somehow I had gotten it into my head that those who most needed my help probably didn’t look like me, believing it my duty to seek and to save those whose skin happened to be darker than mine.
As I wondered whether this paradox of beauty and struggle would always be, I wondered whether a thousand utterances of repentance would ever be enough to say I’m sorry, to take away the pain I had caused. Should I quit? Had my time in ministry begun to come to a close?
Truthfully, my friendship with Keisa changed me in ways I never expected, overtures of my theology tumbling down into the practicalities of everyday ministry work. In a way, she helped me wake up to my privilege and to realizing that what I labeled as normal wasn’t the same for a girl who lived in brown skin. This oftentimes left me feeling like I had more questions than answers, but maybe that’s where God wanted me in the first place.
Excerpted from The Color of Life by Cara Meredith. Copyright © 2019 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. Zondervan.com