Repenting of 'Colorblindness'

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

“They dress the wound of my people
    as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
    when there is no peace…
They have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.” 

    - Jeremiah 6:14

In her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander notes that “racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference…” Or, as Martin Luther King put it, they need only “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” 

I ran headlong into my own “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” just two weeks ago when I gave a lecture for a writers conference at Princeton Theological Seminary and in reference to Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers, described God as a “generous master” whom we serve with our faithful work. Afterwards, a black woman approached me and with far more grace than I deserved, reminded me that to African American listeners like her the image of God as a cosmic master is not only discomforting but frightening and oppressive. 

It seemed so obvious the moment she said it, but in all my preparation, it simply hadn’t occurred to me to reconsider my phraseology because privilege had rendered the word “master” neutral in my mind. (After all, the landowner in that parable had paid his workers, right?) Had I been more aware of how people of color view the world, had I spent just a little more time listening well and considering context, I would have known better and avoided a hurtful error. 

In this case, and in so many other cases, the problem isn’t that I hate black people. I don’t. The problem is that being white in America means I get to be oblivious. I get to be ignorant. I get to be “colorblind” when it suits me, and that luxury is exactly what keeps me and so many other well-intentioned white people from doing more to confront, repent of, and combat white supremacy and racial injustice in America. 

See, many of us have spent years believing that we combat gender inequity by raising awareness and calling it out, we combat human trafficking by raising awareness and calling it out, we combat corruption by raising awareness and calling it out, and we combat racism by not breathing a word. The goal with race, we’ve been taught, is to “not see color,” to treat everyone exactly the same, to avoid the topic altogether like it’s the imaginary lava in a children’s game. 

But as Alexander puts it, “the colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today—i.e,. the widespread belief that race no longer matters—has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system… Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love.”

It think it’s this misguided notion of “colorblindness” (which isn’t even supported by science) that leads people to say things like: 

“Why do they [people of color] have to make this about race? They’re being oversensitive.” 

“This murder/ excessive force/mass shooting/act of discrimination/imprisonment was an isolated incident and not indicative of a larger cultural problem. We need to get all the facts before we start talking about race.”

“I’m not a racist. I don’t even see color.” 

“The Confederate flag is about heritage, not hate.”

“We need to return to the days when America was a Christian nation.” 

Like my reference to God as “master,” such statements don’t necessarily arise out of overt hostility or hate (though of course sometimes they do), but rather out of ignorance regarding the historical and cultural context from which recent race-related events have emerged. It’s a failure to connect the Charleston shooting with the hundreds of other church fires and bombings that have terrorized black churchgoers for centuries, or the violent breakup of a pool party by police with memories of segregated pools, gunned-down teenagers, and brutalization against black women.  It’s thinking the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray are just “isolated incidents” when every statistic and study under the sun suggests the justice system is rigged against black men.  It’s the notion that black people have “made this about race” when it was white people who, convinced their own race was superior, captured, enslaved, raped, lynched, and discriminated against an entire group of people because of the color of their skin.  

This selective “colorblindness” is a mighty convenient approach to race in America for white people, for it allows us to paper over America’s troubled (and decidedly anti-Christian) history, to discount racism as a thing of the past for which we are no longer responsible, and to ignore persistent racial injustices like mass incarceration, police brutality, voting rights issues, white flight, and economic inequality, all while consistently benefiting from an oppressive system we claim we cannot even see. “Colorblindness” means I can attend a Christian conference with all white speakers and not even notice or consider that a problem. It means I can be shocked by appropriate use of the n-word because it’s never been inappropriately directed at me. It means my default is to consider police heroes because, unlike my black friends, I don’t get pulled over at least once or twice a year. It means I can describe God as my master without even flinching.  

Meanwhile, “colorblindness” is a luxury people of color in America simply cannot afford. Black mamas don’t get to opt out of seeing color, for example, when they sit their ten-year-olds down for “the talk” about how to avoid getting shot by police. Our black and native American brothers and sisters don’t get to join white pastors and politicians in uncritically celebrating America’s “Christian heritage” when that heritage meant rape, enslavement, genocide, lynching, and discrimination against their families. Theologians of color don’t benefit from “colorblindness” when their perspectives are discounted as “contextual” while those of white, Western theologians are considered the objective default. 

“Colorblindness,” rather than being a goal for which to aim, ought to be a sin from which to repent. God doesn’t want us to close our eyes to injustice. We are not called to be neutral. God wants us to see—even if it makes us uncomfortable, even if we’re not exactly sure what to do. Yes, the Apostle Paul spoke about how there is “neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile” in the family of God, but he was also quick to acknowledge those same categories when he saw one group oppressing the other. Listening to, believing, and standing in solidarity with those who are crying out in pain strengthens Christian unity not weakens it. 

Sometimes it takes a while (and a few mistakes) to shift from a posture of avoidance to a posture of engagement. I’m still learning, still growing, still screwing-up. It would be nice to have a list of 10 Things to Do to Achieve Racial Justice This Month, but no such list exists. Instead, I suspect meaningful change begins with a total reorientation, and total reorientation requires a bit of homework. 

In my own experience, I’ve found that a big part of what I was missing in understanding and engaging issues around racial justice was context—historical context, experiential context, and theological context. So here are some resources that have helped me in recent years

For Historical Context

The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark Noll: This book is a stunning eye-opener that details the religious-based arguments for and against slavery in the buildup to the U.S. Civil War. More than half of all defenses of slavery were written by pastors who cited Scripture to make their case, and Noll immerses the reader in primary sources to unpack and understand those defenses as well as the counter-arguments made by abolitionists. It’s an important read because a lot of Christians like to imagine that people of faith were on the “righteous side” of history on this, but the fact is, Christians were split. We must familiarize ourselves with the nature of these debates lest we whitewash Christian history or, worse, commit the same injustices again. Thankfully, Noll’s writing is lively and engaging, so wading through these arguments proves a sobering but easy task. 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone: This classic in Christian theology could easily fit into the “theological/religious context” category, but its horrific and detailed descriptions of America’s culture of lynching in the 19th and 20th century served as an important introduction to that dark (and often unmentioned) period of history for me. It’s an especially relevant read in light of the recent killings of black men that have made news and sparked protests across the country. There’s a tendency, I think, to jump from slavery/the Civil War to Jim Crow/ the Civil Rights Movement when considering the struggle for racial justice in this country, but that leaves quite a bit of the story out. The Cross and the Lynching Tree (and The Warmth of Other Suns) helps fill in those blanks. 

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson: I’ve only just begun digging into this one, as its considerable size can be intimidating! But far from being a drudgery of a read, this exploration of The Great Migration (the movement of African Americans out of the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast and West between 1915 and 1970) is a total page-turner, full of fascinating characters, gut-wrenching stories, exciting twists and turns, and a lively elucidation of an epic chapter of American history that few of us have deeply considered and which still affects our world today. 

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: This book may be the most important for understanding the immediate context for the protests and cries for justice emerging from the black community in recent years. In fact, if I had to pick one book from the list to send each one of you, it would be this one, as it proves the perfect primer for understanding how mass incarceration, police brutality, socioeconomic oppression, and racial prejudice affect people of color today. In it, Michelle Alexander masterfully argues that by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and by decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system relegates millions of our black citizens to a permanent second-class status. 

For Experiential Context: 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: If you’re looking for a novel to help you understand the complexities of race in America while also sucking you into a great story, Americanah by the brilliant, funny, and amazing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a great option. While it’s not necessarily my favorite of her novels, Americanah deals most directly with race in America and raises some important questions without being heavy-handed. 

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward: I actually haven’t read this one yet, but I absolutely devoured Salvage the Bones by the same author and anticipate that this award-winning memoir will be another powerful read. In it, Ward contends with the deaths of five young men dear to her, and explores the still great risk of being a black man in the rural South. 

Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity by Edward Gilbreath: Those in the evangelical tradition will benefit from this honest and insightful book that weaves together personal experience and historical consideration to explore the state of racial reconciliation in the church.  

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson: This touching, delightful, and short collection of verse, sung from the perspective of a child, is bound to make your eyes a little cloudy – a great one to pick up when your heart and soul get overwhelmed. 

For Theological/Religious Context: 

Sisters in the Wilderness by Delores S. Williams: This is another one I’ve only just started, as it’s considered to be a classic introduction to African-American womanist theology. 

Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith by Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, and Soong-Chan Rah: This book is both powerful and practical, great for personal study/reflection or corporate worship. In Forgive Us, authors Soong-Chan Rah, Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Troy Jackson provide historical information, reflection, and prayers around Christianity’s complicity in sins against God’s creation, indigenous people, African Americans and people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, Jews and Muslims.  See my interview with the authors here

Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart by Christena Cleveland: As a sociologist, Cleveland is able to apply the latest research on social psychology and communication to unpack the ways that common social dynamics affect they way Christians relate to one another.  Perhaps the most practical of all the books on this list, Disunity in Christ will give you concrete ideas for how to move forward in your relationships, church, and community. Check out my review here. 


What are your thoughts on the notion of “colorblindness”? What additional resources would you recommend? 

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