Over the past eight months I have been a part of a pilot racial reconciliation women’s group at my local church, called ‘Be The Bridge’. It has been a pivotal experience for me personally and interpersonally, forcing me to engage in tough conversations around race and identity with myself, my teammates and my wider circle of friends and family. So I find myself, a black, Christian, American woman of Caribbean descent, trying to grapple with racial reconciliation in my church community and the country at large.
Lately I have been feeling overwhelmed and more hopeless than ever given the political and cultural context in which we exist today. In just this past year alone things have gotten so much worse, racially speaking. In the eight months our group has gathered, we have witnessed the Neo-Nazi/white supremacist protests in Charlottesville which put the undercurrent racial hostility in the country front and center. The country is still reeling from those events and what has followed. The ongoing controversy around NFL players taking a knee in protest of black oppression has reached the upper echelons of the White House. Racial tensions are at an all-time high in America. Devastating proof of the horrors of hatred surround us. This is a time of reckoning in the United States if there ever was one.
Not coincidentally, this past week I started reading the book, ‘Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone’, by renowned social scientist and author Brené Brown. The book is essentially the culmination of her research on “true belonging”. Americans are scared, she writes, and to offset our fear we have collectively hunkered around our “ideological bunkers”, sorting ourselves into more homogeneous groups so that we live, work and play with people who look, think and act like we do. Yet instead of these “bunkers” drawing us closer together, we are moving further apart. Ironically all this sorting has us more disconnected than ever and yearning for true belonging.
In the book, Brown offers us the clarity and courage we need to find our way back to ourselves and to each other. But she does not hesitate to underscore the challenge America faces. In this country, she writes, “our three greatest fault lines, cracks that have grown and deepened due to willful neglect and a collective lack of courage are race, gender and class. The fear and uncertainty flowing from collective trauma of all kinds have exposed these gaping wounds in a way that has been both profoundly polarizing and necessary. These are conversations that need to happen. This is discomfort that must be felt. Still as much as it is time to confront these and other issues, we have to acknowledge that our lack of tolerance for vulnerable tough conversations is driving our self-sorting and disconnection.”
Race, gender, class—America’s fault lines. When I read those words this week as I was crafting this post on racial reconciliation, I had to pause. Here I am writing about racial reconciliation in a month where the fault line that has cracked open wide is the one around gender. I cannot write about racial reconciliation in this season of America, without acknowledging what is happening in this country in the wake of the allegations of sexual assault of hundreds of women at the hands of powerful men in entertainment, politics and business. It is simply staggering.
Sexism versus Racism
I’m encouraged by the hundreds of brave women coming out with their #metoo stories, each one subsequently fortifying the other, because this too is a state of affairs that has long since needed reckoning in this country. I’m hopeful as I see man after man being stripped of his title, status and privilege for his gross misconduct against women because justice, however imperfect, is finally being served. And with the truth out these women who have been trapped by their stories can find true freedom. The dark secret of sexual harassment and assault in America’s workplaces is out and as a country thank God, we will never be the same. The balance of power has shifted and women are finally reclaiming their collective voice and standing united and courageous against sexism.
The movement is so powerful that Time magazine Editor-in-Chief, Edward Felsenthal dubbed it “the highest-velocity shifts in our culture since the 1960s”. To champion how ground breaking this movement has been, Time chose these very brave women, “The Silence Breakers” as the much anticipated Time Person of the Year for 2017. But Felsenthal acknowledges that we are just in the “middle of the beginning of this upheaval. There is so much that we still don’t know about its ultimate impact. How far-reaching will it be? How deep into the country? How far down the organizational chart?” We don’t know. Time will tell.
Sexism affects all women. There are no grey areas, no blurred lines. One is either male or female, and as females we have been subjected to sexism all our lives. We learn to orient ourselves as women in a male-centric world at an early age, being mindful that how we dress, comb our hair, walk, talk or behave can lead men to see us as prey. This is such an integral aspect of being female that most of us, myself included, aren’t even aware of the many ways we have contorted ourselves so we won’t be the victims of unwanted sexual advances. Unfortunately as recent allegations demonstrate, even taking these precautions don’t necessarily grant us immunity from attack.
But here is where I’m going with this. There has been a certain confluence of events that has led to the fallout from sexism in the workplace. Was it the close but no cigar almost Presidency of Hillary Clinton, the first woman to have almost succeeded? Was it Trump becoming President even after allegations of his own sexual misconduct had been publicized last year? Was it the Women’s March in January that united and emboldened women to start sharing their stories? We may never know what led to this domino effect that has given women the courage to stand up and speak out against sexual harassment. But it is happening. And it is changing the landscape of this country as we speak.
So I wonder then what sequence of events would need to happen to see real, substantive change along racial lines in this country? Race–that infinitely much more complicated and emotionally charged demographic characteristic than gender—which impacts an important sub-segment of the U.S. population, some who happen to be women too. What would that take? Can we hope to really see racial reconciliation in America? Can I look to what is happening now with the galvanizing movement against sexism, witnessing those chickens come home to roost, and hold onto hope for racial reconciliation?
This country needs to reconcile itself to centuries of racial oppression against blacks. Consider the challenge. It is daunting. But we must be fearless in wanting the light of truth to shine too on the nasty, grimy, filthy crevices of racial hatred. But I believe it will be much more difficult than what has occurred this year to begin to end the cycle of female oppression.
A Personal Confession
In my own racial reconciliation small group, I often had to lean heavily on our good intentions and the covering of our church in engaging in these hard conversations around race, knowing we were building bridges of racial unity in our church by our efforts. That didn’t make it easier, just more intentional. I felt anger, hurt and guilt repeatedly as I allowed myself to listen to other women’s experiences and views that sometimes offended me or were in conflict with my own.
I listened with a heavy heart as women shared their painful stories of racial discrimination or how they may have hurt others because of their white privilege. And I shared my own experiences, which as a black woman born and raised in the Caribbean are so very different from my African-American sisters. My blackness did not much inform my identity growing up as I lived on an island where people of color are the dominant culture. By the time I got to the United States to study at Rutgers University, I did not have that particular monkey on my back. I knew racism was alive and well here but I did not take it personally. And my experiences in college, Corporate America, in my own business and in my social circles, where I was often the solo black person among a sea of white people, oddly enough validated that way of thinking for me. I felt “free” to be me. I see things differently now.
Acknowledging this reality was difficult for me. And part of my personal journey during this process, was owning that as an American with black skin, I too am an object of hate and revulsion amongst racists in this country. I am not exempt, different, set apart or in any way spared just because I had a different socializing. My Caribbean heritage could no longer be a mask I could hide behind. With this understanding arose a righteous anger within me that scared me for a while. And if I’m being honest, at that low point, I just wanted out. I didn’t want to know, see or feel the things that were being stirred up within me, seeing myself, the way many white Americans see me with my blackness speaking for me before anything else about me. It pained and offended me. But this is the reality of racial toxicity. This is the struggle and I have no illusions about which side of the battlefield I’m on.
Racial Reconciliation is a Marathon Not a Sprint: A Quick History Lesson
In our groups at church each of the 32 women who participated in the pilot racial reconciliation program did so voluntarily, focusing mostly on our relationships with the increasingly ethnically diverse women of our church, with the hope that our efforts would slowly spread throughout our church at large. We’re at a juncture where we are hoping to double the groups from 4 to prayerfully 8, as wrap up the pilot groups, with the understanding that we are still figuring this all out as we go along. It continues to be an illuminating yet uncomfortable learning experience. But we are committed to doing the work.
With this awareness I’ve really been struggling with what racial reconciliation looks like at the national level. Getting to racial reconciliation as a nation seems virtually impossible to me. How can centuries old hurts, wounds and the systemic oppression of a race of people be healed? Since there is no precedent for racial harmony in America, what are we even reconciling to? These valid concerns can stop the attempt and intent to reconcile dead in its tracks. There are no easy answers. I would offer that meaningful racial reconciliation in this country is not likely in my lifetime, given its history.
Let’s look at America’s track record. The 13th Amendment was passed in America in 1865 abolishing slavery….except as a punishment for crime. In 2014, the U.S. at only 5% of the world’s population had 25% of its citizens behind bars. This is roughly over 2 million people. Of these roughly 2 million people behind bars, 40% are African-American men. Let that sink in for a moment.
So 152 years after abolition, “slavery” exists today for people of color in this country. As the decades have rolled on by, the dominant culture continues to find creative ways to enslave its black citizens, starting with the aforementioned 13th Amendment. Thereafter, this country enforced Jim Crow Law—the caste system that essentially relegated black people to second class citizenship– from Reconstruction in 1877 well into the 1950’s. Then the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr. and others who helped get the landmark Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 (outlawing discrimination based on race or color) followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which removed barriers to voting among African-Americans, made it seem like racial equality could be a dream fulfilled in America.
But it would be a dream deferred as the 1980’s and 1990’s witnessed the continued subjugation of black people. With the media dehumanizing and painting black men as criminals to be feared, these decades ushered in the “War on Drugs” in urban communities and the system of mass incarceration of black men to the prison institution. In the past couple years, African-Americans seeking justice have rallied around Black Lives Matter–an activist movement that campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards African-Americans. Black Lives Matter has highlighted the scores of (mostly) unarmed young black men across the country who have been killed at the hands of (mostly) white police officers, while the officers go unpunished.
2017 will go down as the year white supremacists rallied in broad daylight in Charlottesville resulting in clashes killing one. Racial tensions in this country are worsening. For a moment, I wonder too with Edward Rosenthal of Time what it would have been like in the 60s if Rosa Parks had a Twitter account, like the countless women who used the social media platform to share their stories of sexual assault and discrimination? Would the civil rights movement have progressed more? But after a moment, I shake my head to myself. No. I don’t think we’d be much further along. Because racism is way more complicated than sexism and harkens back to the root of how this country was founded.
America’s Bleeding Heart
Michelle Higgins, worship leader and a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement wrote a no holds barred article on racial reconciliation this summer titled, ‘The Idea of Racial Reconciliation is Bankrupt‘, essentially claiming that the term itself is bankrupt. She asserts that before the nation can even think of reconciliation that it needs to be repenting of its past atrocities, “I grieve the arrogance and presumption of “racial reconciliation” work among the diverse peoples of the United States. I believe that the terminology of racial reconciliation is bankrupt. When, in the history of this country, have racial relationships been conciliatory? We need racial righteousness, racial repentance. In this country and many others, we have worked harder to hide the truth about our history than we have to amplify the stories of people who’ve been wounded by historical lies.” For many black people, the day to day reality of being American is living in a country where we are not truly free. Where our very identities are shaped by what the dominant culture deems relevant, promotable or shameful. Where wearing a hoodie in the dark is immediately seen as predatory and where we ourselves buy into the negative stereotypes by often resigning ourselves to them. Because it gets so wearying having to prove that you bleed the same as your white brother. Every. Single. Day.
Since slavery first reared its monstrous head in America in the 1600’s (depending on the text book you read), there has never been a period of racial reconciliation between blacks and whites in this country. Ever. And the wounds inflicted on black men and women from the ravages of slavery are at the center of this country’s heartbeat. They are generational, endemic and propagating. They have never healed. And like any unhealed bodily wound that has been left untreated, the wounds wreaked from racial inequality and oppression have festered and infected the body collective of this country. Whites, blacks, browns…all are infected and affected. This racial hostility in America will be all of our demise, if we don’t work through the reconciliation process in a meaningful way together.
In ‘Braving The Wilderness’, Brown offers hope. She has faith that we can build connection across our differences if we are willing to listen and “lean into vulnerability. She adds, and “mercifully, it will only take a critical mass of people who believe in finding love and connection across differences to change everything.”
I believe this critical mass of people gathering together and having these difficult, painful conversations around race has to start in our church communities. Starting in groups like the Be The Bridge group I have participated in at my church over these past eight months.
Racial reconciliation: The Paradox and the Imperative
There is no question that racial reconciliation is needed for us to move forward and thrive as a country. But this is the racial reconciliation paradox as I see it: this country needs racial reconciliation but we may never experience it in our lifetime. In over 400 years we are not even close. Yet we must strive for it. Hope for it. Dream for it. Pray for it. We do not have an alternative. We must press on towards that goal, step by step, individual by individual. If not for our generation, prayerfully for the next?
Here is the other paradox. Racial reconciliation cannot happen by our own good intentions or intent. “For everyone has sinned; we ALL fall short of God’s glorious standard.” (Rom 3:24. Emphasis mine). If we as a country could have healed on our own might we would be much further along on the reconciliation continuum. Many noble men and women have tried. So what do we do? Instead of hopelessness, we need to lean heavily, entirely, on the cross to move towards the racial unity I believe most Americans truly desire. In short, engaging in conversations and building relationships with others of diverse ethnicities in ways that are healthy and that promote peace requires a supernatural covering which can only come from the creator of the Universe.
In Christ who has already victoriously reconciled the world to himself, we can see an end to racial hostility in this land. In an article written in October titled, ‘Should we abandon the language of racial reconciliation?’ Duke Kwon, pastor of Grace Meridian Hill in Washington DC asserts, “The biblical-historical reference point for ‘reconciliation’ isn’t the birth of our nation but the birth of the human race in Adam. . . . When used in the church, ‘reconciliation’ harkens back to our creational unity, not a national or ecclesiastical unity.” I agree and believe that racial reconciliation needs to be under the covering of an authority greater than our collective selves as a country, and this authority is Christ.
One of the greatest stories of reconciliation between two hostile groups of people is what Paul describes between Jews and Gentiles in the New Testament. “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. 15 He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. 16 Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. 17 He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. 18 Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.” Eph 2:14-18
Praise God! I have to hold onto the confident hope in this: If Jews and Gentiles could come together to share the gospel, and build the early church under the Lordship of Christ, I hold onto hope that one day the walls of the racial divide in America will come crashing down as we unite together in love and truth. This is not pie in the sky. This is biblically sound truth. And this is true for people of all skin tones, nationalities and ethnicities, not just in America but globally.
Michelle Higgins argues in her article that the social justice work required for racial parity is founded on following Jesus’ example, depending on His Gospel, to continue His social justice work here in our world today. In his article, ‘The Burden and Promise of Racial Reconciliation’, Mark Gali editor of ‘Christianity Today’ went a step further and put it this way: “Our vision, then, is bigger and bolder than social justice. And we pray and work not simply for reconciliation of blacks and whites, but of both, and all, to Jesus Christ.” In our own strength, in our lifetime, perhaps racial reconciliation may seem illusive. But in God’s hands all things are possible.
Christ must be in our midst as we continue the long arduous work of racial reconciliation. He is our guiding light, our way maker and mountain mover. He is the authority we must cling to as we take each step and attempt to bridge the racial chasm in this country.
As Christians we are commanded to live in peace with each other: “And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.” Colossians 3:15 NLT. As members of the body of Christ, we are called to be disciple makers, to love one another, to make allowances for each other’s faults, to extend grace, to be ambassadors and reconcilers for Christ so he can reconcile us ALL to himself. This is the imperative of racial reconciliation. This is our imperative. This is the Christian imperative. This is my imperative.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.
As I have been crating this article over the course of two weeks (yes that long!), God has been guiding my heart and thoughts. In the sermon at my church just this past weekend, the pastor shared a point in a different context that is so relevant for racial reconciliation. He was speaking on 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” I interpret this verse in a racial reconciliation context as meaning we will never achieve perfection on this side of heaven. But we have to still press on knowing that our vision will be imperfectly executed, knowing that it is limited. If the majority of Americans desire peace and unity in our land, work towards it, strive for it, however imperfectly, we will be closer to the ideal we can envision in our minds’ eyes which may yet seem so unattainable. But we stand firm because even though we can only see dimly now, all will become clear when Christ returns. Then Light will permanently extinguish darkness once and for all for eternity. Hostility, division, hatred, racism, sexism, classism, discord and dehumanization will cease. And peace will reign.
I cling to hope in our future progress as a country on this journey to racial reconciliation. I stand firm in my faith in the Truth of God’s ministry of reconciliation for all Christians. I am encouraged by the personal growth I have experienced as a result of my participation in the bridge building reconciliation work in my church. And I trust in the love of God to heal all wounds. Racial reconciliation is guaranteed in Christ. But in this broken world, we have to let God fight this battle for us with our cooperation, just like he did for the Israelites– once they trusted him to get them to the Promised Land.
Natalie Jobity is an inspirational author, insight coach, and marketing & branding consultant. She is the author of the Amazon Best-selling style guide Frumpy to Fabulous: Flaunting It. Your Ultimate Guide to Effortless Style. Read more of her inspirational posts on her website. Email her at Elanimage07@gmail.com.