What Racism Feels Like (to me)
There are many things Christians need as they are processing racial injustice and racism but one key thing that stands out to me is empathy. Empathy often comes from vulnerability. It is hard to understand and enter into an experience unless someone lets you in. And, often around racism it feels unsafe and uncomfortable to ask to be let in and to let others in. But, even so, there is no substitute to love than sharing our heart with each other.
Sadly, I see many Christians who just do not see their own and the world’s racism. Much work must be done to address this but most of the stories I have heard from when someone went from “not getting it” to “getting it” came as people shared their personal experience. So, in an effort to build empathy, and perhaps give a glimpse into what it can feel like to live with racism as an ongoing part of one’s story I am going to share some of my experience. In doing so I don’t speak as an expert, a professor, or a representative of all people of color. But I do speak as a biracial, Puerto Rican man, that has lived with racism as a constant backdrop in my life. I know what it feels like and I want to let you in. And maybe in letting you see me you will be better able to see others.
So, what does racism feel like…
It feels dangerous.
One of the first experiences I remember of knowing that racism was a danger to me was on a family road trip when I was 10. We were driving through Idaho and one of my parents joked that there was a lot of KKK in Idaho and my brother and I should duck down in the car while we were driving through the town. That imprints something - knowing that potentially violence and hate could come at you because of your skin color. While that was meant as a joke, as life went on I experienced many things completely devoid of humor. I have had racial slurs shouted at me by strangers. I have been walking at night and had three men follow me, mumble racial slurs and expletives, and kick a glass bottle at me (not to over dramatize – it hit my feet and caused no pain). I was pulled over for “suspicious walking” in my own neighborhood. That means someone felt like they needed to call the cops because they saw me...walking. That’s it. And it means the cop felt justified in questioning me…for walking. I don’t know if that was racism but it sure felt like it and it made me aware that I might be subject to harassment for just walking. I have been thrown up against a bathroom wall, had a hand tightly gripped over my throat, and been told, “You fu**ing Mexican. I could kill you right now”. All unprovoked. All dangerous. All painful. With all those experiences there is a caution I live with. It feels potentially dangerous just to be me. When I read last year about a shooter who intentionally hunted down Hispanic people at a Walmart I was definitely more aware and on alert the next time I went to Walmart. When I walk by the house in my neighborhood with all those bumper stickers and a giant confederate flag flying I get a little nervous. I am not saying I live in paralyzing fear but the reality of potential emotional and physical danger is a real part of my experience of life. It's not just a theory it's reality. It always will be.
It feels like a constant reminder that you are not normal.
Racism is more than derogatory terms and acts of violence; it’s also reminding someone they are not an insider. My Mom told me when she was a little girl she was watching the news. People were protesting against the Civil Rights movement. Someone held up a sign saying, “No Blacks, No Jews, No Puerto Ricans”. It was only then that she realized and cried out to my Nana, saying, “Mom…?! Are we different?!” Think what it would be like to be told over and over again that you are different. What happens when you have lived your whole life with a message both overt and subtle, through society and through individuals, with continual reminders that, “You are not one of us”, “You are different”, “We are normal.” I feel this every time (and it has been countless) that I am asked by a curious, white person, “What are you” or “Where are you from”. I have been followed in a store by a grown stranger feeling he had the right to know this answer. I felt this in high school when many people (behind my back) just referred to me as, “The Mexican”. No matter how innocent the intent or benign the comment, those growing up with that identity reinforced know that in some way they are seen as on the outside by those that are inside. They are seen as not normal.
It feels shameful.
Because people of color are living in a culture where they are not the majority and often not represented this means they often associate their own race in a negative way. If most the superheroes, movie heroes, historical heroes, and (wrongly presented) Biblical heroes are white then it’s hard to see the way you look as good and desirable. I’ve looked in the mirror more times than I care to admit and wished I looked different, wished I could have straight hair, wished I didn’t look as dark as I did in the summer, wished I didn’t, “look like a terrorist” as I have been told. Wished I looked a little less dirty. Less threatening. Wished I looked normal. Wished I looked white. This is part of why in contrast to this there are often voices, slogans, and anthems meant to counter this: e.g. "Black is Beautiful", "Brown Pride". These are needed. Add to this that often people of color are explicitly and implicitly associated with something bad or threatening. When I first moved to Denver and we were considering where to start a church we were asking other pastors to describe the neighborhoods to us. Many would say, without even thinking about it, unashamedly, (and probably without knowing that I was Puerto Rican) something like this: “This neighborhood is great, it’s really up and coming, lots of cool restaurants,” and then, “This neighborhood is kind of dangerous, bad, Hispanic…” and then move right along. Side by side, those descriptors were put one after another...repeatedly. DangerousBadHispanic. Often enough that my wife and I were both shocked at the frequency. Maybe they were just describing it. Maybe. But it sounded more like a subtle warning and an implicit association they probably didn’t even know they were making. And for me, a reminder of what, for some, I can be easily associated with.
It feels silencing.
There have been many times where I have felt like I had to hold my tongue not to rock the boat. I remember working for a church that had a church consultant come in and give recommendations on what they needed to change. One of the recommendations was diversity in the staffing. In the staff meeting, with dozens of people, the leader conveying the information joked, “We are supposed to grow in diversity. Caleb, you’re Puerto Rican right? Check! We’re good there.” The room erupted in laughter. I chuckled along but felt really uncomfortable having had my ethnicity be the butt of a joke. At the time I didn’t know what to say or do but go along with it. In high school, as the Cultural Awareness president, I gave an annual speech at our MLK assembly. One year I delivered a poem by Langston Hughes. It contains the lines:
For all the dreams we've dreamed And all the songs we've sung And all the hopes we've held And all the flags we've hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay— Except the dream that's almost dead today
O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
I remember believing this in my core but feeling unsure I wanted to say it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be criticized for being un-patriotic or making everything a “race issue” or even to have to defend my beliefs. I knew there were people I loved who would be offended by this. They may still be if they read this now. Racism feels like to keep your place you can't cross certain lines. Racism is having felt a need to calculate if I want to lose relationship, employment, approval, or being seen socially as someone who, “can’t take a joke”. Racism feels like It’s easier, safer to just be quiet.
As I write this more and more come to my mind that i could share: it feels tiring, displacing, hurtful, angering, and on and on but for sake of brevity I will stop here. This is just a window. Just a glimpse into the experience of one person.
So Christian, what do you do if your brothers and sisters live with this? What do you do right now as the national conversation is focused in on this with Black men and women in America? What do you do beyond the news cycle when your friends of color still live with this? You listen. Learn. Love. You seek to enter their world. You seek to understand them. We do not think only of our own interests, our own concerns, our own problems, our own experiences. Rather we consider others as even more important than ourselves. And we look out for, that is pay attention, care about, put significant thought into, what is weighing on others (Phil. 2:1-4). This is empathy. This is love. This is the church.
And we have the resources to do this. The gospel says that God, in Jesus, entered into our world. Into our condition. He took on our flesh. He walked in our shoes. The Bible says he is our great High Priest that sympathizes with our condition (Heb. 4:14-16). He was made like us in every way (Heb. 2:17). He gets us. He became us. That’s the incarnation. Do you know that? Do you know that God gets you? He gets your temptations and experiences, and struggles. He gets it. He’s been there. He knows. If you see that and feel that and let that hit your heart then it changes us to be more empathetic people too. Empathy says I want to feel what you feel. I want to get inside your world. I want to see what you see. I want to see you. Christian, look at Jesus. See how he has done this in the ultimate way for you and let that drive you, empower you, and compel you to do so towards others. There is no other way.
Let's all grow in this together.