I grew up in West Texas- land of wide-open spaces, sky high teen pregnancy rates, and a colorblind racial ideology that masks racism instead of confronting it. In colorblind ideology, it is impolite to talk about someone’s race. I remember hearing a story about a friend who was trying to tell her son which store employee to ask his question to. She described his shoes, his pants, the cut of his t-shirt, the length of his hair- anything to avoid saying the word “black”. The kid just stood there and looked at her until she finally yelled, “THE BLACK GUY!” while everyone around her gasped at her impropriety. Growing up, I knew not to mention a friend’s race. We just pretended it wasn’t an issue, something we didn’t even notice.
But, of course, we did.
Colorblindness only serves to mask real issues of racism. When you assert that you’re colorblind, that you “don’t see color”, you’re erasing the lived experience of the people of color around you who instinctively know that color is an issue.
I cringe to think about how the two cafeterias at Cooper were racially divided, the larger cafeteria being dubbed the “ghetto-teria”. But we were colorblind.
I cringe to think about how racially motivated jokes about Black names and “typical” Black language were thrown around in front of the only Black female member of our youth group. But we were colorblind.
I cringe at thinking about how I processed the fact that my AP classes were mostly white, as if students of color just weren’t as smart or as hard-working (which is something I NEVER would have acknowledged consciously). But we were colorblind.
In colorblindness, instead of saying overtly racist things, we learn to use coded language.
- “Welfare queens” are not referencing poor white people
- “Illegals” arent’ referencing the Canadians or Europeans who come into the country and stay past their expired visas
- When I heard messages about poverty being equated with immorality from the pulpit, I knew instinctively that messaging wasn’t talking about the 8% of white people who live below the poverty line. We only talk about them when we’re talking about needing to help rural poverty. The immoral poor people were people of color, living off the government teat (cause that’s going so well for them).
- I learned how to dismiss cultural differences that made me uncomfortable as “weird” or “strange”.
- If we do talk about race, it’s to make jokes, “innocent” jokes that our friends of color laugh at (because what’s their other option?)
On and on and on. For being people who say they aren’t racist, we sure found a bunch of ways to talk about people of color, without actually talking about people of color. While I wasn’t a card-carrying member of the KKK, I certainly had some strong beliefs, beliefs that were based solely on my experiences and the experiences of the white leadership around me.
Truthfully, I think that my evangelical churches’ approach to evangelism is partly to blame for all this. While I don’t remember my Methodist leaders giving me a solid game plan for winning people to Christ, the Baptist church I occasionally attended with my boyfriend would line us up with tracts that walked us through the five steps to salvation. They’d equip us with an Evangicube, slap us on the butts, and send us out as soldiers into a battle for souls.
In truth, my colorblind evangelical upbringing gave me the blind confidence that I knew what I was talking about (or rather, the white men who taught me knew what they were talking about) and anyone who disagreed with us was potentially dangerous. The worst thing that could happen was that I would be swayed by the world.
Stand firm, soldier! Put on your armor so you can deflect the enemies blows! Read this book about why the Bible is right and true so you’ll have an answer to whatever they can come up with. You’re right! They’re wrong!
Talk about hard-hearted.
On the first day of an ethics class at A&M, I found myself seated next to a lovely Pakistani-American woman. Over the next six weeks, we became buds. When we exchanged numbers, my evil genius evangelical side did a wicked laugh and tapped its’ fingers together. In true evangelical fashion, my plan was to Trojan horse my way into her heart using friendship and then Jesus would clean house and kick Muslim ass.
But what I found behind the walls of her heart surprised me because, frankly, it looked a lot like my heart- a little sarcastic, a thoughtful relationship with God, a deep compassion for people, a feminist at heart. She wasn’t oppressed or depressed or a tortured soul like I’d been told. She didn’t need heart-cleaning so I abandoned my Trojan horse plan and just became her friend.
And then the worst-case scenario happened.
Her vulnerability, her kindness, her similarities to me, my surprise (and a tinge of jealousy) at her telling me that she chose to wear her hijab when she had bad hair days wormed past my armor and started to massage my hard-heart.
I let her in, damnit.
She trojan-horsed me with her kindness, that scoundrel. And my hard-heart started to reconsider what I thought about Muslims.
And then, THEN, a dear friend from high school, an almost little sister, had the audacity to come out to me over a cup of coffee. Her tears, her story, her fears found the cracks in my armor and suddenly, she had muddied the waters of my crystal clear stance on the wrongness of being LGBT.
Softer and softer.
I could go on and on- my best friend from high school who became an atheist, the undocumented women who came bleary-eyed and terrified to my job at the domestic violence shelter, the refugees who attended ESL classes, Black friends who have shared, time and again, how they are terrorized by police and our justice system, friends of color who have shared how cyclical poverty keeps kicking them down over and over and over.
Softer and softer.
You might be reading this and think that I’m a weak-willed, limp-wristed pushover who couldn’t put her armor on correctly if she tried. You might be thinking that I was never serious about my faith or my hard-heartedness. Maybe I can’t possibly understand the Bible or love it enough to stand firm in the face of people trying to change my mind with their sob stories.
Maybe you’re right.
Maybe I’ll get to heaven and Jesus will peer at me over the top of his readers and say, “LGBT+ affirming…really? Openness to illegal immigrants…how unlawful of you. What do you have to say for yourself?”
And my only defense will be to point to the crowd of people behind me and say, “Don’t blame me! Blame all these wonderful people who showed me kindness, who used their humanity to get past my armor. Blame them. You created them! Blame yourself!”
But I don’t think that will happen because I can only think about the story found in Matthew 15, the story of the Gentile woman, a religious outsider, who came to Jesus because her daughter had been possessed by a demon. At first, Jesus ignored her. He stood strong against this pagan woman and did not let her story or her cries past his armor. He finally told her that he had been sent to help God’s people, the Jews. She begged again. He stood firm again, the picture of not letting the world affect him. She responded vulnerably, humbly to Jesus’s last stand and like the walls of Jericho, the armor around Jesus’s heart came tumbling down.
“Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed.
From hard-hearted to soft and tender.
May we allow gaps in our armor.
May we allow the cries of marginalized people to find a place to echo in our innermost places.
May we recognize where our hearts are hard and resolve to soften them by letting others in.
God knows we need it.