So I posted a simple word of affirmation on my Facebook page about Harriet Tubman becoming the new face on the $20 bill. For me, choosing her was a no-brainer, so I wanted to express my opinion that I believe it to be a wise move from those who make such decisions regarding our paper currency. I can think of no other reason than either gender bias or racial prejudice for anyone to protest the change. I never expected the debate that ensued in my Facebook thread. I should not have been so naïve.
You can do the research for yourself about Harriet Tubman and the man that her face will replace on the $20 bill, Andrew Jackson. I will only summarize this decision to exchange the two faces as the removal of the self-presumed racial and social superiority of President Jackson, and the replacement of Jackson with the brave and selfless sacrifice of Harriet Tubman. If we allowed the matter to remain about these two individuals, I think the issue would be objectively simple to analyze. But this current in our naiton is not primarily about Jackson and Tubman. It is about whites and blacks. It is all about the ever-increasing racial tension in the United States of America. That is why my Facebook post turned into a fairly disheartening and, as one of my black friends labeled it, disturbing, discussion. I will risk it with this succinct summation: the problem of racial hostilities in America continues to grow worse because individuals of different races do not listen to one another. Hostility is far easier than empathy, and we see this played out every day in America. Everyone seems fed up because they are waiting for a solution to a massive problem. We see the thick, suffocating smog of racism in our nation, and we cry out for someone to fumigate the problem. It will never work that way. There is no human solution to the broad issue of racism because it is a byproduct of the depravity of the human heart. Nobody is going to fix the system while bypassing the need to listen to and communicate with one another on individual levels. Racism has become the mushroom cloud that we seem to presume to be able to lasso back down to earth, and stuff back into the shell of the bomb that originated it. The explosion went off in 1619 when the first salve ships anchored off the shore of Jamestown, Virginia and commenced to unload “their cargo”. Almost four hundred years ago, nobody batted an eye at that atrocity, and we are a little tardy on trying to fix the system that began then.
I am utterly convinced that the better use of our time and energy would be for me, a man with peach-colored skin, to spend more time with a man with brown-colored skin. As I listen to his story, I will understand better his world…which is very different than mine. Neither he nor I voted to be placed into our distinct categories of race. Yet, because of our racial distinction from one another, we are viewed differently by society. His family, community, church and educational experiences were and are different than mine. Music, entertainment, fashion, food, vernacular, friendships and hobbies were impacted by his social norms within the black community, as were mine from the white community. Racial stereotypes are, indeed, insufficient but they are not entirely inaccurate. It is not the physical pigmentation of our skin that makes these differences between whites and blacks. It is the influence of the two cultures associated with those two skin colors that have partially shaped us. Additionally, it is the reactions of other people to our associations with those cultures which have also shaped us. When I was in Africa, I was often identified as the mizungo, which proclaims only one thing: my skin color. I heard the African people say it regularly – Mizungo, mizungo! – to one another as I walked down the streets of Moshi in Tanzania. I stood out with my Anglo pigment and hair, and it would be silly for me to expect that they wouldn’t notice. Yet, they were never able to know the man underneath the mizungo. It is easier to apply the label than it is to apply the love. We do the very same thing to each other here in America, and neither you nor I will change the entire system. We can, however, change our own attitudes, prejudices and presumptions. That is, if we think it is worth it.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, I know one thing for certain: Jesus came to the world, but He came for individuals in that world. I take this same approach in my desire to promote racial reconciliation. I make myself available to the black community (or Asian, Latino, etc.) but I am looking for meaningful relationships with individuals within the black community. Simplified, let me say that I am eager for across the board racial reconciliation between blacks and whites, but I am not willing to wait for that to occur before I am personally invested in healthy relationship with black individuals. The answer for racial hostility is not going to come through any attempt to modify the entire system in one fell swoop. Meaningful change must proceed on an individual level, person-to-person. My primary goal is not to change the minds of blacks about whites, my desire is to understand black people as individuals when I meet them, and I believe a black person is best qualified to help me understand the heartbeat of the black community. We need to quit constantly viewing the other races through the lens of “how they are affecting me”. I currently know less about black people than I should, but I do know that, broadly speaking, most white people live with a massive detachment from what it means to be black in America. Protest all you want, white folks, but the system is stacked and always has been. The anger and demands that we see from the larger black community is the pent-up response of having been ignored for so long by the white establishment and, frankly, it makes sense because there does not seem to be any other recourse for them as a race of people. What would you do if you were part of a people group who have been historically enslaved, murdered, oppressed, unjustly treated and ignored in the nation in which you live? I believe I would have something to say too. We whites can protest that the laws have changed, but that does not mean that the underlying current of the overall system has changed. I would be equally honest with black people and say that you can overcome a stacked system – multiple millions of black people have done so. If you wait for the system to change before you live in an unapologetic pursuit of victory, then you will be defeated, and always able to blame someone else for that defeat, because the system does not favor you. I grant you that the system is racially stacked against minorities. Overcoming the system, however, is an option for anyone who desires to experience it. Defeatism is the option for all who choose it.
In this never-ending blog post, let me say something further to whites: instead of listening to a black person, we hide behind our addiction to constantly point out the issue of the problems in the larger black community. We are, as a race of people, tired of the issue being flung at our pale feet. We kick it back to them with a fairly cavalier attitude. The reason for that is because we have failed to comprehend how deeply historical and present racism impacts them, therefore we tend to dismiss it at a level that is unfeeling and inaccurate. There is a reason why the black community is angry in America. It is because black individuals who make up that community are angry. I will be a part of the ongoing problem if all I see if a “bunch of blacks stirring up drama” – that dismissive attitude is itself at the core of racism. Yet, if I sit down at a restaurant with my friend, Jeremy, and listen to his story of what it has meant to be a black man in the southern United States, I quickly become a student of these issues instead of a sideline commentator. When I listen, I learn. That learning cannot occur when I am constantly rebutting. To be fair, the same is true among many blacks in their attitudes toward whites. Many black people fail to see that white ignorance is not the same thing as white hostility or racism. I have black friends that are reluctant to verbalize with the mouth what they know in the heart to be true: that a white man living today is not responsible for the crimes done against blacks years, decades or centuries ago. Something within some of my black friends does not want to admit that. Victimization seeks out an object upon which to enact justice and, since all the slave owners are dead and buried, some in the black community believe it would be justified for their white descendants to pay the long overdue bill. Objectively, that is foolish. Emotionally, it might make perfect sense.
So I have solved nothing today. That was not my intent. My aim was to be one voice, hopefully a reasonable one, initiating dialogue on the issue of racism that will likely never go away. I do not wish for the blacks to win the argument. I don’t want the whites to come out on top. I want to listen to my black friends (and also those who would not have me as a friend) and understand their world…because I love them. I want to be able, as a white man, to be heard in my own frustrations with having to tiptoe around racially hypersensitive potentials in conversation about race with non-whites. All of this is exhausting for all of us. You are sick of it, right? But the answer is not to ignore the system nor to try to fix the system. The remedy, if ever, will be played out as we seek to value and love one another. I am a grown-up and refuse to classify another individual by the level of his or her pigmentation. I will not lose the individual in a sea of his color. At the same time, I will not fail to acknowledge the major flaws in both white and black communities. I am willing to discuss them so that we, you and I as individuals, do not live out the remainder of our years in racial insensitivity or racial hyper sensitivity.
Flawed as it might have been, I wrote this in honesty, desire and love.
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