On Race, the Benefit of the Doubt, and Complicity

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

The morning after the jury reached a verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, I watched the sun rise over snowcapped mountains from the coffee shop at the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park.  Dan and I were vacationing there with friends, and I’d arrived at our designated meeting point a little early so I could  "pray and meditate" [read: drink my first cup of coffee without having to talk to anyone].

At the Many Glacier Hotel, we had no TV, no Internet, and only spotty cell phone coverage, so I learned the news by eavesdropping on the conversation happening at the table next to mine. 

“Not guilty,” a middle-aged man wearing a North Face fleece said to the group of four—all men, all white. 

His declaration was followed by nods and murmurs of assent from the rest at the table. Something was said about self-defense, something else about “thugs.” 

Then, “Those people need to learn some respect.” 

Those people? 

Surely I had heard him wrong. 

I turned to face the table and opened my mouth to speak.  

And then I closed it. 

Surely I had heard him wrong.  

I’ve been doing this all my life—giving white people the benefit of the doubt, imagining that racism is largely a thing of the past, not nearly as bad as others say.

I did it when, on a double-date, my friend’s boyfriend used an ugly variation of the n-word to describe a group of Black children at the park. Surely I’d misheard him. No one says that sort of thing anymore, right? 

I did it when a Black friend in college divulged to me how difficult it was for her to be a minority on a Christian college campus. Surely she’s just being oversensitive. People aren’t racist here; she must be reading into things. 

I did it when Trayvon was first shot. We need to wait to get all the facts before we react, right? No need to jump to conclusions; there are two sides to every story. 

And I do it every time my first response to a report about police brutality or a story about racial prejudice is,  well it couldn't be THAT bad.

...But it is that bad. 

I do it thinking I’m being careful and gracious and deferential, when the truth is, I’m only being careful and gracious and deferential to the people who look like me. I’m more likely to believe a white person than a black person, to give the former the benefit of the doubt. Thus, I become part of the problem. I am complicit—via ignorance, via unchecked privilege, via selective curiosity and engagement—in a culture that places more value on the stories of the fair-skinned than the stories of the dark-skinned. 

Robin DiAngelo describes the problem as racial illiteracy, and she puts it like this: 

“Like a nontechnical user trying to understand a technical problem, our racial illiteracy limits our ability to have meaningful conversations about race. Mainstream dictionary definitions reduce racism to racial prejudice and the personal actions that result. But this definition does little to explain how racial hierarchies are consistently reproduced. Social scientists define racism as a multidimensional, highly adaptive system — a system that ensures an unequal distribution of resources among racial groups. The group that controls the institutions controls the distribution and embeds its racial bias into the fabric of society.”

I’ve been told all of my life that we live in a post-racial culture, that my generation is essentially free of racial prejudice. And from my small, predominantly white town in East Tennessee, that’s an easy enough lie to believe. It’s a lie I want to believe. 

But wanting to live in a just world is not the same as living in a just world. And as the events in Ferguson this week reminded us, our country is far from just. Racism isn’t simply an insensitive comment your elderly relative makes here and there, it’s a pervasive, unjust, and ongoing system that actively oppresses millions of people. And white Christians have absolutely no excuse to ignore it. 

In the U.S., African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. And even though five times as many white people use drugs as African Americans, the latter are ten times more likely to be sent to prison for drug offenses. 

One study suggests that in 2012, a black man was killed every 28 hours by police, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes.  This week, it was Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager from Ferguson, Missouri. Last week, it was John Crawford, shot and killed for holding an airsoft gun inside a Walmart. The week before, it was Eric Garner, choked to death by police after he was caught selling cigarettes illegally. And as many parents of Black children will tell you, their greatest fear is that it will be their sons or daughters next, so much so that they often give their kids ‘The Talk,’ warning them that they will be treated differently by police because of the color of their skin. 

If you’ve never had to give your kids that Talk, think twice before you call this an “isolated incident” to which our brothers and sisters are “overreacting.” 

Multiple studies have confirmed the presence of racial bias in law enforcement, and yet Pew reports that when asked the question, ‘Do police treat blacks less fairly?’ only 37 percent of whites said yes (while 70 percent of African-Americans said yes).  How can this be reconciled with this week’s images of a highly-militarized police force using tear gas on peaceful protestors? How can it be reconciled with the stories our Black brothers and sisters tell us about being harassed and treated with suspicion? 

“I have no criminal record,” writes Ryan Herring at The Ghetto Monk, “however I have had numerous run-ins with the police, none of which my actions provoked. The most common of course is being followed around a store. I have never committed a traffic violation but I have been pulled over several times. A few of those times I was asked to step out of my vehicle to be frisked and forced to sit on the curb in humiliation while being verbally intimidated and having my car searched. The reasons I was given as to why this type of action was necessary or to why I was even pulled over to begin with were always made up out of thin air.” 

What has perhaps struck me the most in the six days since Michael Brown was shot is the difference in my social media feeds. Among my white friends and followers, things pretty much carried on as usual up until Wednesday afternoon when I began to see more tweets and Facebook statues about the events in Ferguson. But among my friends and followers of color, this story elicited a passionate, focused response, right from the start.  

This is not to say white people don’t care, or that delayed responses should be chastised as “too little too late.” Not at all. We’re all learning here, and we all communicate our concern in different ways. I just wonder if it simply reflects the painful reality that one group’s “let’s wait and see” is another group’s “not again!” Perhaps if we, the privileged, were in a better habit of listening, the response would have been more universally shared. Rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep happens more naturally among those who have listened long enough to know the depth of one another’s stories, and to know their context. 

I was reluctant to post this article when so many others are writing better, more practical things about race and reconciliation. To be honest, I’m scared—of saying the wrong thing, of revealing my ignorance, of detracting attention from the voices that really ought to be heard.  (And I think, in the long run, the best thing I can do is share my platform with others through guest posts and interviews.) But several friends encouraged me to go ahead and speak up. “Show solidarity with the oppressed,” they said, “and challenge the privileged.” 

Well, that means challenging myself. 

To listen better. 

To educate myself. 

To remain open to correction. (That one's hard!) 

To speak up, even when it’s risky. 

To confront my own privilege, even when it’s uncomfortable. 

And to actually believe that racism is real and pervasive—present not only in the power structures of the Empire, or in the conversation around a neighboring table at a restaurant, but also in the dark corners of my own, dangerously-biased heart.  

Lord, have mercy. Forgive us our sins. Light the path to change. 

[For some great insight on how white allies can best respond to this situation, check out "Becoming A White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder" by Janee Woods.]

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