A Candid Discussion of the Christian Response to Racism, an interview with Sarah Robinson
Sarah Robinson graduated from Lipscomb University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in History Teaching and in 2018 with her Master’s in Communications. Sarah currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she teaches AP Social Studies at a local private school. She is a part of Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance’s inaugural fellowship for this academic year and working in the areas of policy and advocacy as it relates to creating more equitable schools in Tennessee. Sarah is passionate about the helping the community she serves to embrace their authentic selves and to bring life to the communities they are a part of.
Would you be willing to share a bit about your individual experience of racism in America?
When I reflect on my personal experiences with racism in America, I go back to some of my earliest memories as a child. I am reminded of the story of how my parents got together and how their experiences as a young, interracial couple almost set the stage for the encounters I would have throughout my life. While there were many who were supportive of their union, some of the people closest to them were vocally against it and others refused to attend their wedding. Growing up and knowing this as my heritage if you will, allowed me to be aware of the nuances of racism. In America, we seem to understand overt racism much better than we understand covert racism. For me, I have experienced covert racism more times than I’d say overt racism.
Practically, this looks like having men telling me they could never date me because their parents or grandparents wouldn’t let them date a black girl. Being told I’m pretty for a mixed girl, that I ‘don’t sound black,’ “don’t look black” or being asked if ‘I can touch your hair?’ Those three phrases highlight how so often people mean to say these as a compliment which highlights the anti-Black racism within our country. Professionally, I have seen this when an individual says something racist either to me or around me and my complaints are often dismissed. I’ve been told “I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that” or “they have a good heart, I’m sure they weren’t being hateful.” I have experienced this on numerous occasions and not only does it minimize the damage done by that person to me and others but it also elevates their comfort over mine and other’s safety.
Such an important step in the work of racial reconciliation is the act of listening. Can you describe what good listening has looked like for you in this area? What about times in which you did not feel listened to?
Good listening means the conversation is centered on the one doing the talking. If it’s White people listening to a person of color, they should take that opportunity to truly hear what’s being said. To me it also means trusting that person’s experience as the truth about their reality. It means seeking to understand rather than listening to respond. People should also look to take cues from the speaker with the understanding that to recount traumatic racial events can be incredibly draining.
The times I have felt like I was not being listened to, I felt like people were trying to minimize my experience–that somehow since they hadn’t had a similar experience, mine couldn’t possibly be real. It also makes it incredibly difficult for me to want to share those experiences with others in the future. Because people typically have certain behaviors they would classify as “racist” they often dismiss anything that doesn’t fit their understanding of what it looks like. I can’t stress enough the importance of trusting the people to whom you’re listening.
How do you imagine white people can join God’s plan of healing love specifically when it comes to racial reconciliation?
You can’t have racial reconciliation without recognizing that systemic racism exists and is still present in our world. Or that White supremacy is ingrained in every single entity in America including within the church. Oftentimes racism is talked about like it only exists because a few bad people are stuck in the past. Racism exists because people decided to create a social hierarchy that benefitted them and oppressed Black and brown bodies. As God’s people, we are called to bring the kingdom here on Earth which means more than just acknowledging the sin and injustice that stems from systemic racism. White people who want to partner in bringing God’s healing to the Earth should be taking practical steps to do this.
First, White people have to be willing to listen and learn from people of color. That can look like listening to the people of color already in your life or reading books written by authors of color. Calls to action can range from joining racial reconciliation grow classes and anti-racist book clubs, learning about the specific ways racism is still present in your local and state governments to advocating for changes within the political and prison systems.
Racism is not new but the awareness of its existence may be new for some White people when living segregated lives. Typically, White people live in racially homogenous communities and are unlikely to be around those who are different. The kingdom of God is diverse and inclusive so if your life doesn’t reflect that, there’s an issue there. I invite White people to do an assessment of their neighborhood, friend groups, church community, etc. Do you only have one Black friend? Are there any BIPOC on your church leadership staff? How about your doctor? Hair stylist?
Lastly, it is essential that White people confront the people in their circles when they say and do racist things. Parents, friends, children, co-workers, everyone. It can feel uncomfortable to confront someone but it is actually unloving to allow people to say anything that devalues the image of God found in others.
It can feel paralyzing for White people to try and dismantle an entire system but it’s necessary. White people should remember that the road to racial reconciliation and dismantling White supremacy is a long one.
What does it look like for voices of color to be honored in relationships? In organizations? Specifically spaces of faith?
Honoring voices of color can look different to different people so I certainly don’t want to speak for every single person of color but I do think there are some general principles that can guide White people. For starters, don’t be color blind or color evasive! You may be tempted to say, “I don’t see color” to a friend who is talking about their experience as a POC. While probably well-intending, that sentiment is incredibly unhelpful. If you claim you don’t see color, then you aren’t going to be able to see how people’s race creates different experiences for them. You are willfully choosing to ignore a key part of their existence.
In relationships, honoring voices of color can look like showing understanding that they may respond differently to world events than you and that’s okay. Giving space when they say they need time and trust that they will reach out when and if they are ready to discuss what they are feeling. I know I have felt the most honored when my friends have given me space to talk but also didn’t push when I needed a break.
As far as organizations are concerned, I’d say, take a look at your organization’s policies, events, and mission. Are there policies that discriminate against BIPOC? Do people of color within the organization feel safe and included? Are there people of color in the organization? Do they feel like they are valued and empowered within that organization to be themselves? If you don’t know, ask! Additionally, if a POC has the courage to point out ways they experience discrimination or racism, that should be taken seriously and dealt with immediately.
Lastly, it can be easy for people to want to put racial issues in a box that may be deemed “not fit” for church or spaces of faith. Leaders might be fearful of coming off as political or being too progressive. But if people want to take seriously honoring and elevating voices of color that doesn’t just naturally happen within faith spaces. We will mimic the patterns and habits that already exist in the other areas of our lives.
What voices/resources might you point others to in order to further engage in racial justice work
Be the Bridge is a non-profit organization committed to bringing awareness to systemic racism in our world and equipping people with the tools to address it. What I love about BTB is that their values are rooted in scripture and highlight the ways in which Jesus modeled the work of reconciliation for us to mimic.
Books that I’d recommend are I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. The book is one of my favorites as it looks at the ways in which white, middle class, Evangelicals have participated in racial hostility but invites the reader to partner with God’s work in the world. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby is one I recommend for all church leaders and those who belong to a church community. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which was recently adapted into a movie, brings to light the brokenness of our justice system here in America. Lastly, for those who are looking for something to watch, 13th and When They See Us are both on Netflix and must watch documentaries and adaptations of real life events.
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