Race was not something I thought about much until college. It wasn’t something I had to think about much until then, which I now know was an atypical privilege.
I was born and raised in a fairly racially diverse suburb of Los Angeles, itself a racially diverse city. Growing up in this environment, I was no stranger to ethnic enclaves, varied cuisines at the dinner table, hearing multiple native tongues in my own neighborhood, and socializing with people of all skin colors.
Racism and issues of race relations presented themselves here and there during my childhood, such as through the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots, and the boy who asked me why my eyes were closed when they were in fact just small. But because these incidents did not affect me directly or often, I naively assumed that in most of then-twentieth century America, people of all races interacted regularly and got along fine.
When I got to college, three things surprised me because they were new experiences: the degree of de facto segregation of students along racial lines; disproportionately low numbers of Black and Hispanic peers; and, in my college fellowship, a Christian community that actively engaged its members in conversations about issues of race, racism, unconscious bias, race-based privilege, racial injustice and racial reconciliation.
I’m no expert on race, but as I’ve continued to learn and engage with others about the race-related issues plaguing America, I have found it helpful to always bear in mind three truths:
1. Racial reconciliation matters to Jesus.
A review of any of the Gospels makes it clear that Jesus cared deeply about the oppressed and the ostracized. Often he intentionally pursued those who had been debased or alienated, advocating for them in the face of systemically unjust social structures and powerful cultural prejudices. He challenged people to rethink the sources of their identity and value as human beings, and he espoused radical ideas about how we ought to treat one another and why.
Knowing this, I believe Jesus grieves over the way we have allowed race to divide us. I believe he laments the way we mistreat one another because of racism and racial stereotypes and biases. I believe he cares—not only about the social divisions, tensions and abuses of power during his time on Earth, but also about those that exist today. I believe his heart aches to heal the wounds of racism and work toward racial reconciliation.
2. We are all contributors to the discussion about race.
I have met people who avoid engaging in dialogue about race. Sometimes this is because they think race-related issues don’t concern them: “This doesn’t affect me because I’m not racist,” they say, or “America’s race problem is a Black and White issue, which doesn’t apply to me.” Other times, it’s because they haven’t explored the topic much: “I’m not sure what I have to offer,” they say, “and I don’t want to offend anyone.” And then there are those who claim, “Race doesn’t pertain to me because I don’t see color. I only see people.”
Newsflash: If you are a human being, race affects you. You have a self-identified race and an other-identified race. Knowingly or not, you have enjoyed privileges and suffered injustices because of your perceived race. Like it or not, you have been on both the giving and receiving end of racism and unconscious bias. To deny that you see color or that race influences your life is to deny reality.
We all have a hand in shaping our country’s story of race and race-related issues. We are all participating in the discussion—and if you are not participating through your words, know that you are participating through your silence. Being quiet is not inconsequential; there are no bystanders in this discussion. If you think you can sit on the sidelines, I encourage you to consider the roots of your indifference and/or the effects of your passivity.
Broadening our understanding and challenging the status quo of race relations in America requires that we be intentional about asking honest questions, giving vulnerable answers, admitting our own prejudices and biases, and in general having conversations about race, even especially the difficult ones.
3. Each person’s understanding of race, race relations and his or her own racial identity is an evolving process.
If there were ever a forum in which we could all benefit greatly from exercising extra grace, this would be it. To say that race is a complicated issue, fraught with opportunity for misunderstanding and unintended offense, is an understatement.
It has helped me immensely to speak truth while also remembering that everyone is at a different place in his or her understanding of race and race-related issues. Rather than becoming frustrated with those who have little experience interacting with persons of different races or conversing about these topics, I’ve found that a little patience goes a long way.
If we truly want to address racial injustices, we must be willing to show forbearance with one another as we grow together. We all have areas of ignorance and of knowledge. And we all have a unique story to share that can enlighten, enrich and edify the conversation.