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Black Lives Matter: What if I am white?

Prior to attending Wheaton College, I had never approached the conversation on race and had experienced very little interaction with minorities on a daily basis. Upon arriving at Wheaton, I was quickly quickly exposed to the issues of race and discrimination in the church, at Wheaton College (gasp), and throughout the Christian community in America.

My first emotion was guilt, the kind often referred to as “White Guilt.” For nearly a year I wrestled with resentment towards God and my parents for my privileged upbringing, one that was lacking in racial diversity, sensitivity, and awareness. Without a certain background, or information and vocabulary, I felt unequipped to engage the issue, and I was unable to reconcile and recognize my value and voice in a movement that I now viewed as overwhelmingly important.

While being part of the Wheaton in Chicago program and living in Chicago, my guilt and anger were magnified to a point that forced me to vocalize these ideas. After repeatedly expressing my thoughts and emotions, while simultaneously internalizing those of many others, I reached a point of emotional exhaustion and, again, took a step back on engaging the race conversation.

Fortunately, my lack of engagement dissipated quickly when I entered into a series of difficult and thought-provoking conversations about a friend’s experience as a minority at Wheaton College. These discussions forced me to confront my guilt in a constructive way, and provided a safe, honest space to hear a personal perspective on the discrimination and racism that is so very present at Wheaton.

My next emotion was frustration. How can I live with myself as a white female, a part of the majority, and advocate on behalf of a group for which I had no “right” to advocate? This felt like another abuse of my privilege—I had the convenience of being able to engage in and influence the conversation without ever experiencing the pain, oppression, and discrimination experienced by those for whom I was speaking.

While attending the Christian Community Development Association conference in Memphis, Tennessee last month, I heard many speakers discuss issues of racial identity and reconciliation in the church. Much of this was somewhat repetitive for me simply because I had heard similar discussions about these issues in my classes in Chicago. Simultaneously burdened by the depth of the issue and the recurring feeling that I had no place or part to play in the racial justice movement, I began to shut down emotionally yet again. A feeling of hopelessness overwhelmed me.

Rahiel Tesfamariam, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist and founder of online media platform Urban Cusp, shared wisdom at CCDA at CCDA that reached my heart in a new way: “Resist invisibility. Who do you have to be to create the world you want to live in? Don’t you know that hurt people hurt people, but free people free people?”

Rahiel’s words struck a cord with me. I had been living in chains. I was allowing the mental and emotional weight of sin, historical oppression, and systemic discrimination to prevent me from playing the role God had created for me. I would argue that this is a problem for many other members of the church body as well. Many of us right here at Wheaton are allowing the heaviness of the issue to keep us from the role God has created for us as Christians.

Christina Cleveland, a social psychologist who spoke at CCDA, said, “Losing hope is a sign of privilege, not trusting God’s wisdom and power.” I am as guilty as the next person of losing hope and feeling exhausted about the race movement and conversation. But these feelings cannot continue. As a white Christian, I have the privilege of allowing hopelessness to overwhelm and silence me, while my minority brothers and sisters do not always have that option.

As Christ followers, we cannot passively avoid this conversation. If we truly believe that Christ’s blood was shed for every human being, then the oppression, pain, and discrimination experienced by any person should matter to every one of us. Unified in Christ, we are one body. The suffering of some ought to be the suffering of all.

On Monday evening, I attended a Christian Prayer vigil outside the Chicago Police Department headquarters with many church leaders and local Christians from all over the city. We gathered to pray for peace and reconciliation for Chicago in light of the recent Laquan McDonald case. It was at this event that I experienced the beauty of physically standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, as a small representation of my community and my role as a Christ Follower.

I have begun to realize that, as a white American, one of my roles is to influence my white brothers and sisters to understand the weight and value of this conversation and movement. I have the opportunity to challenge them to get involved and enter into the tension of these issues no matter how overwhelming they may seem.

As a white female, I will never have a true understanding of what racial minorities experience on a daily basis—at Wheaton or elsewhere—but I can listen. And I can attempt to persuade others like me to recognize the importance of listening to others’ stories about what it means to be a racial minority.

My purpose in sharing all this is not to emphasize my personal journey through these issues, but rather to motivate students with a similar story to my own and show why we as Christians—perhaps even especially at Wheaton College, where we claim to work for “Christ and His kingdom”—need to be involved in this movement in order to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

We must thoughtfully engage the issues of the world, even the controversial, difficult ones where we feel awkward, clumsy, and inadequate, in an effort to cultivate a state of shalom for all people. This is not a time to use our privilege of hopelessness to step back from such a movement and leave the conversation. The conversation cannot wait for us to catch up. Our brothers and sisters experiencing suffering cannot wait for us to get over our own insecurities and attitudes. Now is a time to trust in God’s hope and sovereignty while also understanding that our responsibility as Christ followers is to thoughtfully, humbly, and lovingly engage in this complex conversation. The issue of race is not just another part of a politician’s platform or a controversial Facebook post—this affects real lives every single day, the sacredness of which that we as Christians have a certain responsibility to uphold.

As Wheaton students, we have been been committed to to academic engagement for the Kingdom. But it does not end there.  We should be committed to civic engagement as well. We should be physically standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, who are or have been oppressed, in an effort to show our love and commitment for justice. I encourage fellow students to attend prayer vigils, protests, and other physical signs of solidarity to live up to our calling towards justice as these are powerful, tangible ways to get involved no matter what color you may be.

Though these are powerful suggestions, they are sometimes unrealistic to a place commonly referred to as the “Wheaton bubble.” But there are plenty of opportunities on campus to be radical in our approach to the race conversation. Intentionally broadening our friend groups to get to know students who have different backgrounds, making an effort to listen instead of feeling the need to contribute to every conversation, going to events put on by those that come from a different background than us, and intentionally making your engagement in the race conversation on campus a priority. Wheaton needs radical change, and that can only come through the mobilization of students to advocate for what is just, what is right, as we are called to by our Lord Jesus Christ.

As one of the pastors at the Chicago vigil prayed, may this also be our prayer: “Oh God, bring us Justice tonight.” Amen.

4 Comments

  1. Voice of the City holds sessions called Break It Down, a program dedicated to working with white folks to better understand and challenge whiteness, white privilege & white supremacy. We would welcome you coming sometime. We meet this Sunday from 6 PM to 8 PM. 3429 W Diversey, Chicago.

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  2. Susan Michelfelder

    “Hurt people hurt people; free people free people.”
    That quote has just changed my life. Protest marches are essential to get people’s attention and I have shouted and sung my way hoarse on more than one occasion, but it is those who have a solid foot in both worlds who can help gather people into freeing communities and dissolve the illusion of separateness. I’m thinking God has given you a calling and equipped you with an open heart. Keep on loving!

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