Like you, I am trying to make sense of Charlottesville and its aftermath. But after nearly a dozen years of stepping beyond my comfort zone to see the world from different angles, I recognize how disturbingly common it is for people to live in close proximity but very different worlds. I offer some insights that may help folks respond to this moment with greater consciousness of racial injustice.
1. Recognize How Little You Know.
The first time that I visited Haiti, I met a man named Max. Haitian-born, Max had spent decades in the United States building a comfortable life. When he eventually felt the urge to return and assist his people, the poverty and desperation that he saw shocked him. He remembered thinking, “This is not the Haiti I left.” But he came to realize the more inconvenient truth: that this was, indeed, the Haiti that he left, just not the Haiti that he knew. This sentiment is echoed throughout my experience.
When I left my hometown of Seattle to volunteer in the US South, racism suddenly entered my field of vision like never before. The bigger shock, though, was returning home to recognize that my very progressive, tolerant city was actually much more segregated and unequal than I had realized. My perception of the city had become much more complicated based on my experiences outside of it.
2. Looking for Inequality is a Good Way to Find It.
Once, in Guatemala City, I walked a visiting US delegation to a high-end mall. On the way, we passed the typical sights of a busy city—crowded buses, street vendors, people asking for spare change. Stepping into the mall was like stepping into a different world, where the clothes were cleaner and the people wealthier. I whispered to the members of my group, “Do you notice how most of the people in here are light skinned, and most of the people on the street are indigenous?” Looking around, a member of the group said, “You’re right. I didn’t notice that, but it’s true.” With my previous experience in the country and deeper understanding of its (and our) racial politics, I knew to look.
I also knew to look when I came back to Seattle. And in looking, I realized that certain truths were staring me in the face all along. The northern suburb in which I grew up was at one point a “Sundown Town,” meaning that people of color were welcome to work but not stay. This helps explain memories, such as attending a high school basketball game as a child on Seattle’s South Side and being surprised to see mostly (really, any) black faces on the opposing bleachers. Today I live elsewhere, but continue to track how the explicit racial segregation of the past is adapted as economic, criminal justice, and educational policies that achieve similar ends.
3. Injustice Is Injustice, No Matter the Degree.
I once spoke with a man in the US who argued that Africa is “where our attention needs to be,” because “Latin America is really on the upswing.” This assessment is hard to square with the heartbreaking poverty that I have witnessed firsthand in Haiti, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Mexico. I cannot compare these realities to those in Africa, but then, why try? Within my own experience, for instance, I could possibly say that Haiti is “worse off” than Guatemala, or that Guatemala is better off now than during its civil war, but either way people are still suffering.
In the US, people often treat the end of Jim Crow and the passing of civil rights legislation as the sole measure of racial justice. But progress is not justice. If it was, Jim Crow would be judged primarily by the notion that slavery is worse.
4. Don’t Accept for Others What You Wouldn’t Accept for Yourself.
A dentist in Juarez, Mexico, recently showed me multiple molds of children’s mouths. On each mold, front teeth were missing and broken from falls off of bicycles with defective brakes. Those bikes had been “charitably” donated to the community. Angrily, she said, “A gift should be given as if it is for you.” This reminded me of the first time that I visited this part of the border, where factory workers labor for a little over $6 a day. The director of a project for migrants and refugees on the US side said, “People will say, ‘But at least that’s more than they would get otherwise, right?’ I always ask them, ‘Would you accept that?’”
That question resonates with me in considering racial injustice in the United States. When I taught at an all-black Catholic school in the deep South, I coached the girls’ volleyball team. We practiced outside on a torn up slab of concrete with a sunken net. Obviously, we could not host any games, and instead traveled around to play other schools, on lovely courts made for white students. For all that anyone might tell me about how great it is that the Church is providing an education to “those kids,” all I can think is, “They are not getting what I got, or what I would tolerate for my kids.” And it’s impossible ten years later to forget the looks on their faces as they saw in those rival schools a world of opportunity to which they had little to no access.
5. What You Hear Matters Less than Who You Listen To.
A white colleague living and working in South America told me that it took a long time for people there to feel comfortable enough to call him out on how he moved in their culture. For instance, he did not realize that, to them, his habit of refusing favors or simple gifts was seen as a power play—he was unwittingly saying to them, “I don’t need or value what you have to offer.”
I grew up with all of the benefits of a liberal, justice-oriented education. I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in school, took courses on race and class in college, and jumped boldly into post-graduate service to those most in need. That all looks great on paper, but in fact did not counteract the racial privileges and biases that occur when a white guy spends the first two decades of his life with few to no meaningful relationships with people of color.
This, sadly, is the case for the majority of white Americans. In a 100-friend scenario, the average white person has 91 white friends; one each of black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races; and three friends of unknown race. The average black person, on the other hand, has 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, zero Asian friends, three mixed race friends, one other race friend and four friends of unknown race (Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post, August 25, 2014).
Since then, most of my progress in understanding and addressing racism has come less from reading about it and more from being intimately connected to people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
Being a missionary teaches you that the world can look very different depending on where you stand in it. As you gain access to different perspectives, that view can and should become more complex and disturbing. But as Christians, we know that this disturbance is good—it means that we are paying attention to the Christ in others and the Pharisee within ourselves. I hope something here has disturbed you.