It was a chilly winter evening in December back in 2005 when my college boyfriend and I headed out together to attend a friend’s ugly Christmas Sweater party off campus. I was a senior at the University of Southern California, right in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. I love my college experience–as a super-involved, type-A achiever, I had managed to amass a ton of friends and connections. I never walked across campus without running into at least half a dozen people I knew well.
But off campus was a different story. Most of the off-campus housing for students was north of the university, but my friends throwing the party lived west of campus. They lived amongst the Angelenos, folks who, in the low-income neighborhood surrounding USC, were largely minorities, many of whom had never been to college themselves. I can’t tell you how many stories I heard from friends whose bikes were stolen, cars broken into, apartments robbed, presumably by the locals. And then there was the fact that our university regularly reminded us to always be “alert” when we were walking at night–to avoid wearing earbuds or being distracted in case someone might be tempted to rob us. It was never said, but I can admit that it was always implied who those “someones” were.
It was into this context that my Navy ROTC boyfriend and I stepped out into the darkness. We had barely left campus and were about to cross Vermont Ave when my boyfriend suddenly grabbed my arm. “We have to cross the street,” he whispered urgently. And so we ran across the street, jaywalking across multiple lines of traffic to get to the other side.
There was a young black man walking towards us in the dark.
I often find myself returning to that moment. Because the truth is that I was incredibly embarrassed that we ran across the street that night, but not for the reasons you may think. I was embarrassed because of how relieved I felt when we we found ourselves on the other side. And I was ashamed to admit that I felt that way. Ashamed to feel, in my own body, the evidence that all of my intellectual and conscious efforts to combat racism and to overcome bias were in direct conflict with my own body. Ashamed to admit that I had allowed skin tone to color my assumptions about the character of stranger as he shared the sidewalk with me.
It wasn’t the first time that I was faced with my own racism, and it probably won’t be the last. Because the truth is that racism isn’t just about the words we use (or don’t). It isn’t even always a conscious decision. The truth that I was confronted with on that street is that racism is within me, even as I fight my hardest to combat it.
Years later, I am still confronting the truth of my implicit biases that favor my european american brothers and sisters over my african ones. Because despite my best efforts, despite nearly a decade in which I have regularly confronted my bias and owned my own racism and wrestled with it, I know that I still have a ton of work to do. Because it is in me. It is down there so deep that I cannot always predict how it will show itself. Because it is always finding new ways to reveal itself.
These days, when I think about that moment in the dark, I find myself wondering about that young man. About what it felt like to see two young, blonde white kids running across traffic to avoid sharing the sidewalk with him. In what ways did we wound him by our actions, or confirm his experience of “less than” in the company of white folk? Or were we just one more example piled up on top of a mountain of discrimination?
As a Christian, my faith affirms that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And I want so badly to live in a world that honors this truth. But it will not happen until I look inward, wrestle with my own demons and get to know them firsthand. It will not happen until I stand before my God and own my own complicity, my own sinfulness, my own part in the structures of racism that underpin our culture. It will not happen until I start listening to those to whom I must repent. It will not happen until I seek forgiveness from those who have borne the weight of my bias, my black and brown brothers and sisters who have walked this lonesome valley before me, and who pray to the same God I worship for justice, peace, and righteousness.
This is the work of a lifetime. Its been over 10 years since that moment at USC, and the work is far from done. But I take heart in the words of my colleague the Rev. Diane Kenaston, who writes,
Racism, sexism, ableism, and all the other -isms are the powers and principalities of our age. We are part of patriarchal, white supremacist structures whether we choose to or not. As my favorite academic dean is fond of saying, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”
Even our best efforts at “doing good” are going to in some way fail because we are trapped in this body of death, in this creation that groans and aches for redemption. Yes, Jesus has already won and the kingdom of God has begun — but the full working out of Christ’s reign and the ultimate reconciliation of the world to himself are still ongoing.
And as part of that ongoing reconciliation, I confess my own sin. I’m led to repentance. And that’s what we need. We need a whole nation of white Christians willing to look honestly at ourselves in the mirror and say, “Yes, that’s me.”
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy, indeed.