When I was younger my mother used to tell me that I looked like Tiger Woods. I hadn’t yet had braces, and she thought our mouths and jaw bones looked similar. It probably didn’t hurt that Mom knew that Tiger was my favorite athlete—this was pre-scandal, back when he was almost everyone’s favorite athlete. My friend Zane always agreed with Mom’s assessment, but almost every other person laughed at the idea. How could a white nine year old boy look like a thirty year old black man?
Even though Tiger and I may have shared similar jaw lines, the truth is that there was always something that differentiated us: Tiger is black, and I’m white. I think the lesson my mother was trying to impart was, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to not evaluate someone “by the color of their skin, but by their content of the character.” This is an important lesson and one that I hope I’ve embraced in word and deed. But I think many in our society misunderstood King’s proclamation as a call to ignore race, even though our cultural norms and the effects of our laws do not. I will never have certain experiences solely because I’m white. When I see videos of police brutality against black girls, I am outraged, but I am not filled with same concern and fear as was expressed to me by my prayer partner, Marcharkelti McKenzie, when she asked me after the latest episode in South Carolina, “when is that going to happen to me or my sister or someone in my family?” I have not had to see my friends and extended family disappear behind the veil of mass incarceration and broken windows policing. I’m not followed in malls, I don’t worry when I put on a hoodie, and I don’t have to represent my entire race whenever I speak or act. Just to name a few.
For the last four months I’ve been serving as a racial justice advocate in and through the Missouri Annual Conference. Ministry with* looks different in my context, but it’s incredibly important and there can be serious consequences if I engage in ministry for or ministry to persons of color. I know that white people have a vital role in changing the system, but I need to be sure to put my contributions in perspective and be aware of the harm I can unintentionally inflict. Referring to activists of all races in his book Faces at the Bottom of the Well, legal scholar Derrick Bell writes, “We must first recognize and acknowledge (at least to ourselves) that our actions are not likely to lead to transcendent change and may indeed, despite our best efforts, be of more help to the system we despise than to the victims of that system whom we are trying to help.”As a historian, I have seen the white savior narrative too many times, such as with President Lincoln and President Kennedy. What do we lose when a 2012 major motion picture about the Thirteenth Amendment ignores the contributions of those like Frederick Douglass or slaves who escaped to the Union army? I’m no Lincoln, but I still have to be intentional as I listen and learn how I can help and not hurt.
It’s been an interesting journey so far. I tried to design my job in a supportive role for black leaders and use my whiteness to my advantage and not as a hindrance. I don’t want to be the voice people hear, I want to hold the megaphone so that others can hear the voices that need to be heard. As far as practicing ministry with*, I have to check myself almost every day, and other people have to hold me accountable. And frankly, though my intentions were always good, I have caught myself more than once using my privilege to push my agenda of how I think things should be done. It feels terrible when you hear the cock crow, but it’s a helpful reminder of humility and that ministry with* requires being proactive! Join me as I pray these words of Dr. King:
Thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.
Racial Justice Advocate, Columbia/Ferguson, MO