The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly.
I would never have defined myself as a racist.
I would have easily spouted off such lines as “I love everyone, regardless of race or color!” or “A person is not defined by the color of their skin. It’s what’s inside that counts.” Yet if I were being entirely honest (and now, finally, I am), those cookie-cutter lines all Christians are expected to say– and pretend to believe– were my intentions, but not always my true feelings.
My true feelings came from growing up in the South, in the midst of the Bible Belt, where racial prejudice is the underlying norm. Where we treated all people with kindness to their faces, but there was always the whispered warning to avoid that certain part of town where all the black people lived. Or to steer clear of Mexican men (who were all lumped together as Mexican, despite the fact that many of them likely came from other South and Central American countries) because they liked to flirt with white girls and couldn’t be trusted. In my small southern town, white people were actually the minority, and yet there was always this unspoken, maybe even unacknowledged, sense that we should be grateful we were born white. That we were born the right color.
My feelings of racial prejudice grew even deeper when I moved to the Midwest and started working in a children’s hospital in Milwaukee. Here I was met with every different race, religion, and culture imaginable, and over time I began to notice patterns and habits among different people groups. I began to lump them together in my mind. I began to judge harshly, although quietly, and make excuses for the way that I felt. While this was true of most of the cultures I encountered, the ones I saw most and was most inclined to judge were African Americans.
Well, if they just weren’t so entitled…
They don’t have to live this way, you know. They could get out of it if they wanted to.
They’re letting the color of their skin define them.
If they would only work hard and have a little determination, they could change their circumstances.
They, they, they, they…
Without any excuse, without any right, I became a judge in my mind. And the worst part? I was dead wrong.
A couple years later, my husband, Jordan, and I fostered and eventually adopted our wonderful son. The color of his skin? A beautiful chocolate-caramel brown. Due to his medical needs, visits with his biological parents took place in our home during most of his time in foster care. Jordan and I, both from white, evangelical, conservative upbringings, were plunged into an education we didn’t know we needed. We spent hours and hours with these people, most of them tense and unpleasant. We had several deep conversations with them, learning more about their lives than we wanted to know. We began to get a glimpse of what life is really like in the “ghettos” and “projects” of America. To our shock, we could eventually trace through the generations a clear picture of why our son was in foster care–“In need of protection or services”, as the law states.
We adopted our son and my frustration and anger with his biological parents soon eased and became compassion and sadness. They had always wanted him. But their lives had in no way prepared them for what it meant to be parents. Their loss was great, even as our gain was so precious. A crack appeared in my prejudiced mind. Questions started to filter through.
The morning after the adoption ceremony, we set out on what we called “Robert’s Adoption Tour.” We spent two weeks traveling, visiting friends and family. The defining moment of the trip, the time when the seeds God had planted in that crevice of my mind began to flourish suddenly and abundantly, came when we visited an old historical plantation in South Carolina. There before my face was the harsh, heartbreaking reality of what slavery had been in our country. I was torn apart completely. I was crushed. I held my sweet, brown-skinned son close to my heart, and I couldn’t stop crying.
This could have been his life. It WAS life, for millions of children just like him.
Oh, America. What have we done?
When we got home, I began researching furiously. I went to the library and came home with a stack of books about slavery. Not just books full of the facts and dates and historical timelines. These were STORIES. True life stories about real people and their real experiences. I watched documentaries and movies about the civil rights movement and what it had really looked like for the black citizens of our country. If I had felt crushed before, this weight of knowledge was even heavier.
At the same time as I was exploring history, the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining steam. Police brutality was in the news almost daily, and in return policemen were now being threatened all over the country. A year before I would have rolled my eyes, and said “Oh, come on, people. Can’t we all just get along and respect each other?” Instead, I found myself opening my eyes. And the more I opened them to truth, the more tears poured out.
Oh, America. What have we done?
My own shame was one of the greatest burdens–the realization that for my entire lifetime, I had been intentionally ignorant. I had formed my beliefs and thought I was right enough that I didn’t want to explore the possibility that I could be wrong. I had judged and been unkind in my heart, even as my face smiled and my voice spoke politely. Now I was walking around with new eyes and a broken heart. Suddenly I was ravenously hungry for one thing:
I was sickened by my ignorance. Now I wanted to know, REALLY know, what life in America had been like for those brutally kidnapped from Africa and forced to serve their captors in this land of opportunity. I wanted to know what life had been like for hundreds of years for their descendants. I wanted to know – I WANT to know – what life is like for them now. Here. In modern America. In our inner cities, small towns, schools, churches, rural areas, the corporate world. What are their opportunities and hardships? Although we have equality by law, do we have equality in practice? What is life like for an African American child? Do they feel hope and opportunity growing up in this country—their own country?
This journey started over a year ago. I feel like I am only beginning. It’s as if I have a thick, dusty book in front of me, and I’ve only read the first chapter. And this book is only the first volume of hundreds, and new books are currently being written, piling up before me. I want to know it all, but I also realize the heartache in store for me as I learn. And even more so as I one day teach my own son about his heritage and ancestry. Teaching my children American history will no longer be a common educational experience. It will be an education in LIFE. And hopefully, if I do it right with the grace of God, it will be an education in compassion, love, true equality, and how to fight injustice with courage.
I don’t want to just teach them facts. I want to give them KNOWLEDGE. Because I am learning in my own life that, as the Ecclesiastical preacher said, “But the excellence of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to those who have it.” (Ecclesiastes 7:12)
I crave that life that comes from wisdom. From opening my eyes and heart to truth and to knowledge. The need for change in this world is becoming so painfully obvious to me, but the need that I see most clearly?
The need for a change in myself.
Here’s to the journey.