Twice in the past three years, our family has had the privilege of “adopting” an international college student for the school year. Two years ago, we hosted a girl from Japan; this year, we have a girl named Ruth from Rwanda. The students live on campus, but we hang out every couple of weeks.
My husband, kids, and I recently went with Ruth to an International Food Fair on her college campus. When we got there, Ruth introduced us to a white-haired woman named Jeanne, who lived at a retirement complex in the area. My husband asked Jeanne, “So how do you know the students who are here?”
“Well, when I moved back here after my retirement,” Jeanne explained, “I asked people at the college where I could find international students. They told me that there’s a regular gathering every Friday night on campus. So, I walk over from my condo on Fridays to meet with them. It’s so lovely.”
This is how it’s done, people.
Do you want to see racism squashed in our land? Be like Jeanne.
Go out of your way to find people who are different from you.
Sacrifice the time. Ask the questions. Make the effort.
Do whatever you need to do to find people who don’t look and sound like you, and make friends.
The remedy for racism is relationship — first with Jesus Christ, then with people of different ethnicities.
We will always have biases and skewed perspectives unless we’re willing to actually get to know each other at more than just a surface level. But in order to truly love one another, we first need to know and accept God’s love for us.
Racism is a complex, multi-faceted issue. It isn’t only about policy and privilege.
“I feel like you’re always working against me!” I complained to my kids. “I wipe up the mess you made on the counter, turn around, and you make a new mess! I clear your papers from the table, and you leave your toys on the carpet! If we could work together on the same team with the same goal of keeping the house at least somewhat tidy, it would make life a whole lot easier!”
They listen dutifully, then go and play.
I look at them through the window now. It hasn’t stopped snowing today. A slow, steady snowfall with light, fluffy flakes. They’ve been begging to go outside for days. Finally, I open the door and set them free.
They’ve been outside for over an hour.
I watch them through the kitchen window and marvel, “Wow. Nobody has come in crying yet.” Usually at least one of the three comes stomping in with fresh tears on red cheeks, “He threw a snowball at me and it hit me in the FACE!”
But today, they’re working together. They’re crouched low, gathering heaps of snow into mounds.
They’re building something. Together.
They’re playing on the same team, not against each other.
And it’s lasting.
And I think to myself, “If only all of life were like this.”
I let myself imagine what it would be like if everyone were playing on the same team. What if we were all working together toward the same goal? How different would the world look?
I think of dear online friends like Deidra Riggs, Trillia Newbell, and Thabiti and Kristie Anyabwile, who are out there laboring in the cold, fashioning bricks out of tiny snowflakes, heaving one on top of the other. They’re building the kingdom of God with the work of their hands. Brick upon brick, they’re doing all they can to promote racial unity in diversity.
I think of some who have looked at their efforts and thrown snowballs right into their faces.
But Deidra, Trillia, and the Anyabwiles — they haven’t come in crying.
They’ve brushed the wetness off their faces, and turned back to their work.
What if we joined them? What if we pulled on our snow pants, our boots and our gloves and got to work alongside them?
What if we wiped up our own messes in the kitchen, instead of leaving someone else to do it for us?
Don’t you think that would make life so much easier?
Don’t you think it would diffuse the frustration and leave fewer people in tears?
If we really stopped to think about it, maybe we’d realize we’re already on the same team.
Brown, white, caramel, bronze — together, we make up the human race, and we’re all fighting for life.
You and I, and your neighbor and my neighbor, and your boss and your mother-in-law, and that guy who works at the gas station — we all bear the image of God. Every single one of us has been made in His image.
“In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22).
So let’s stop leaving our messes on the counter for someone else to wipe up, and let’s stop throwing snowballs in each other’s faces. Because when we work together, on the same team, the kingdom is built, brick by snowy brick.
The conversation took place way back in my Bible college days, but for some reason it stuck with me. I was playing table tennis with a guy friend of mine, like we did most days, when we weren’t in class or playing euchre. And like most days, we talked as we rallied back and forth, the lightweight plastic ball a picture of our conversation. It would usually alter between lazy, nonchalant flicks of the wrist to the more serious, intentional points.
And one day, I don’t remember how we got on the topic, but we started talking about race. Specifically mixed race marriage. And then, as we tapped the white ball back and forth, my friend said this: “I might consider marrying a girl of a different race, but I don’t think I could do that to my kids.”
I challenged him, as I did in most of our discussions, and hit the ball back over the net: “What do you mean?”
“Well, if I married a woman of a different skin color, that would be her choice, but the kids wouldn’t have a say in it. They would just be stuck in the situation, and it wouldn’t be fair to them.”
My friend went on to explain that the kids might get teased or ridiculed, or feel out of place having parents who didn’t look the same. They might struggle with identity issues as they grew up, and feel like they didn’t belong.
I have to say that I don’t hold this conversation against my friend. At all. We were young then, and both thought we knew everything. Shucks, neither of us had yet made it out of our teens.
But it does make me wonder if it’s this kind of thinking that plants the seeds which grow into uncontrollable weeds like the sad, sad situation in Ferguson. If it’s not these kind of notions that cause worldviews to form, stereotypes to be shaped, racism and biases to emerge.
And I wondered, nearly fifteen years after that conversation, if my friend thinks I’ve done my children a disservice by marrying a black man. If he thinks giving them a biracial identity is not fair to them.
So I asked him. I sent him a rough draft of this post, and we bounced the virtual ping pong ball back and forth over the net.
He said he remembered the conversation, and even agreed that he’s a good example of “dumb things said.”
He pointed out that at the time, his 19-year-old self naively held the view that one of the greatest goals of parenting is to make life easy for children. Now that he’s a dad, he knows that making life easy for kids shouldn’t be a parent’s ultimate goal, even though children obviously ought to be protected.
But what about those who do think having children of a different skin color would just make life too challenging? Too complicated? Too awkward?
What about those hopeful adoptive parents who are faced with a jillion questions on the adoption application, and have to tick certain boxes regarding racial background of potential children?
What should they choose?
I’m not implying that white parents should never choose to adopt white children. Where there is a need, we should be ready with open arms to love any child the Lord gives us. But I am posing the question of priorities and motives.
Is it possible, that in some cases, our desire for comfort trumps our desire to show Christ? I know it often does for me.
As a white mom of biracial children, I’ve been on the receiving end of a fair number of awkward comments, however well-intentioned. And I anticipate many more to come, as well as the potential conversations I may have with my kids as they get older and wrestle with their own identity.
But by raising my kids in an environment where the people who filter through our home cover a wide range across the color spectrum, my hope is that they’ll learn by experience that one’s identity is not wrapped up in the external. That it’s not defined by the shade of brown infused in our skin.
And my prayer is that as my children grow up, they will be so firmly rooted in their identity in Christ Jesus that they’ll never question whether they belong, because knowing that they belong to Him will be more than enough.
The following letter is a play on the brilliant work of C.S. Lewis in his book, The Screwtape Letters — a collection of letters written by a chief demon, Screwtape, to his nephew and protege, Wormwood. The idea was also inspired by a very thought-provoking post written by my friend, Bronwyn Lea, on the World Vision debate earlier this year.
My dear Wormwood,
I see from the news headlines recently that much of your work in generations past has caught the public eye and caused a bit of a ruckus. You really should have kept it under wraps, but I’ll excuse your negligence just this once. I realize that sometimes, the Enemy allows for these things to happen to expose us and all of our labor in the hearts and minds of our patients.
Nevertheless, I commend you for the way you’ve worked hard in the midst of the situation at hand.
That headline that appeared on the CNN homepage, for example, was a brilliant tactic:
“More money raised for Ferguson officer than slain teen”
As long as you keep them thinking it’s a competition and choosing sides, you can kick back and relax for a while.
Don’t concern yourself with the ones who are using their platforms to preach the importance of unity and diversity. Sure, they might get a handful of “Amens” in the comments section, but don’t fret — it’s only temporary. In fact, go ahead and give your patient some slack in that regard. It’s fine if he gets all riled up for a while. Let him vent and huff and puff to the masses. He is a highly emotional being, but his whims change with the wind. Next month he’ll have a new hobby horse and will forget all about the words he so passionately penned with great spiritual fervor.
Your greatest offensive strategy will be to make him think he understands. Better yet, get him to believe he’s making a difference with his words from the climbing statistics on his site and the comments on his writing. Just don’t let it go beyond the computer screen. As long as his heart and lifestyle don’t change, his lip service is no threat to our plan. He’ll make a concerted effort here and there and maybe even have a conversation or two that he wouldn’t have had before, but this too shall pass.
Whatever you do, don’t allow the differing factions to actually get to know one another. Make every effort to keep them out of each other’s homes and churches. You must never allow them to realize the strength they could possess if united. Once they actually become genuine friends, the Enemy has won.
Oh, and one more thing: Keep distracting your patient with the pleasures of this life. Let him continue living for himself, as is quite easy for you to do, given his nature. As long as his focus is on the here and now, he’ll forget that there is life to come, and won’t care about who else will be there with him.
I don’t have to go further than my kitchen table to experience diversity, and yet
I still have racial biases.
Sometimes I don’t notice skin color. During my ten years in South Africa, I could sit for over forty minutes in a room full of people before suddenly realizing I was the only pale face there.
I often don’t realize the color of my own kids’ skin until we’re at the beach and I’m nearly blinded by the paleness of other children running around in their diapers, and I think, “Wow, those kids are really white.”
Other times, I see it. Like now, when we’re living in a predominantly white suburb of West Michigan, and a black person rides past on a bicycle, and I think, “Oh look!” because it’s such a rarity here.
My kids often get invited to play dates with adopted children, so the mocha kids in otherwise all-pale families will see faces that look more like their own. And I wonder about that sometimes, like, “Does it really matter?”
But maybe it does. Maybe it matters a whole lot more than I will ever know. Because while skin color really doesn’t matter to me, it does matter to many, and they matter to me. And most importantly, they matter to Him.
But also, maybe if we all just checked the tags in our shirts, we’d realize we were all made in the same Place. Different shades of the same fabric, a rainbow of material woven by the same Person.
And while this might come as a shock to most of the children’s Bible illustrators out there,
Jesus wasn’t white.
And you know something else? Neither were Adam and Eve.
So why don’t our books reflect that? Why don’t our churches mirror that? Why don’t the faces gathered around our tables, both online and in real life, look more like the table we’re anticipating at the wedding feast of the Lamb?
In South Africa, cashiers at the grocery store would recognize the surname on my debit card as a Tswana name, and their perplexed eyes would move from the card to my face and back again before they’d venture to ask, “Is this your card?” and then sometimes, “Why does it say ‘Motaung’?”
“Yes, it’s my card, and that’s my surname,” I’d reply, and they’d furrow their brow and ask, “Why?” As if it would be easier to believe that I were using someone else’s debit card than to believe I would actually marry a black man.
And when I’m in the grocery store with my kids, I wonder if the people looking at us assume that my kids are adopted. Because don’t I presume the same, when I see a white woman with children of darker shades?
And maybe they are adopted, and maybe they’re not, and does it even matter? Because aren’t we all made in the image of our Creator, all just lost souls that desperately need to be adopted into the only family that really matters, the body of Christ?
As the white mom of a beautiful caramel girlie, I’ve had to learn what it means to relax hair, and how to braid. And I believe with all my heart that my life is richer and fuller because I have a mother-in-law who makes koeksisters and teaches me to cook dombi and samp, who speaks multiple languages in one conversation and who might not understand why I like to wash my hair every day.
But there were also times when I’d sit with a group of friends in Cape Town who happen to be black, and the guys would joke with each other about how they would walk past cars stopped at traffic lights, and they’d hear the “click” of the doors being locked, and I’d let out a half-laugh of understanding while my face would flush with shame, because haven’t I done the same?
But wouldn’t I scoff or maybe just chuckle at the white woman who locks her doors when my black husband walks past, because doesn’t she know he’s a pastor?
Of course she doesn’t, and maybe that’s the point.
If she knew him, she wouldn’t be afraid.
Maybe our fear stems from the unknown, because we don’t know enough people who look different from us, like, really know them. Not just follow them on Twitter, or ask them to speak at our conferences, or smile at them once a month as we serve ladles into bowls at the soup kitchen, and think we’ve paid our dues.
I have friends online who are #GoingThere. Deidra Riggs is a woman you should get to know online, and she’s been #GoingThere for a good long while now. But she’s getting tired. So others are coming alongside her and throwing wide their fears and slips of the heart and extending the conversation. Others like Lisa-Jo, a white girl from South Africa, and Jennifer, a white girl from rural Iowa, and Alia, an Asian American now living on the west coast. And they’re inviting you to go there, too.
To get uncomfortable with yourself, and with your monochromatic table.
And as both Lisa-Jo and Alia so eloquently challenged, just because we have a multicultural family doesn’t mean we get a pass from the race conversation.
So what does that look like for you? How might the Lord be prodding your heart with regard to racial diversity, both online and in real life?
Heaven, my friends, is going to be one glorious concoction of every tribe, tongue, and nation, every shade of skin … How can we do a better job of reflecting that now, in joyful anticipation of things to come?