“But I’m Not racist.”—Responding to Protests and Riots

In this series, I share what I have learned about racism in my journey of understanding my white privilege and the story of race in this country. I address this mostly within the framework of what I have learned about Black people’s experiences in the USA because it is the story of our headlines currenlty (and for the sake of focus in writing), but that doesn’t mean my desire to understand and humility towards the subject doesn’t stretch to the stories of all people of color. To all people of color reading this—please correct me, my language, and my insights and points of view when I get it wrong. I am still learning.

To my white Christian friends:

Please, let us be careful with our words right now. How we label and discuss what is going on with current riots and protests matters greatly.

A few years ago, I read Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I learned then that it was a group of white Protestant clergymen who “had expressed measured approval of civil rights in principle, but had also cautioned King and his associates about moving too fast or becoming too radical in pursuit of their goals.” (p 11)

Letter from a Birmingham Jail was Dr. King’s response in 1963 to these clergymen. He reflects on these white Christian leaders call to basically ‘go slow’ and ‘be careful’ in asking for change; they were saying, ‘Sure change needs to happen, but not like this.’ Dr. King writes:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

Please, let’s be careful in how we talk and react right now. Let us not make the same mistakes that white clergymen made in 1963. Let us not be more outraged by protests and riots than we are by the condition that led there.

If you want to be angry and label something as “not okay,” then be angry at the injustices committed against Black people for centuries in this country. Be angry at the systemic racism that afflicts your Black brothers and sisters. Join your Black brothers and sisters in anger over the fact that change hasn’t happened sooner and isn’t happening fast enough to prevent deaths like George Floyd’s and so many countless others. Turn your anger not against the reaction; turn it against racism and against the fact that Black communities have been suffering injustice, great pain, and deep grief in this country.

Please take the time to read Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail today, you can read it here: http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/letter_birmingham_jail.pdf. And consider reading Letters to a Birgmingham Jail, a response from Christian leaders published in 2014.

Please be careful not to add insult to injury in telling Black people how they can and can’t react. We do it all the time, whether accidentally or on purpose; it causes immense additional damage. Please be careful with your words.

“But I’m not racist” Series
Part 1: Responding to Protests and Riots
Part 2: Choose Empathy for Change
Part 3: Definitions of Racism (forthcoming)
Part 4: Confessions of Racism (forthcoming)
Part 5: Recognizing the System (forthcoming)
Part 6: White Privilege (forthcoming)
Part 7: Thoughts on the American Church (forthcoming)
Part 8: Humility, Repentance, and Listening (forthcoming)
Part 9: Resources

Photo Credit: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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