Where White People Should Start

In Church by Caris Adel19 Comments

I guess all we can really do toward racial reconciliation is work on our own selves, right? Prioritizing understanding over self-defense is a good first step (although a doozy). Being heard is THE prerequisite to healing conversations. If you try to understand me then I automatically want to try to understand you. Humility and empathy draw us toward each other.

So here is what I’m going to do:

I am neck deep in conversations with folks in the black community. Facebook groups, Skypes, phone calls, emails, coffees. I’m listening. I am saying, “Tell me what it is like to live your life.”

I am going on a ride-a-long with my good friend Ryan who has served faithfully in the APD for years. I want to see what he faces and how the view looks from his police car. I will say, “Tell me what it is like to live your life.” 

I am going to deeply and truthfully examine my own heart, because I have some deep-seeded racial biases in there. I do. (Why else would a group of black teen boys walking perfectly normal down the street make me nervous? I got stuff.) I am going to repent and ask God to make me clean, which I suspect is harder than I even think.

It’s not everything but it is a start.

-Jen Hatmaker

184 shares.  4 thousand likes.  And dear Jesus, the comments.

I read this last night at midnight and got fired up.  This is not where white people should start. 

White people do not start by having black people explain their lives.  White people do not make black people be their teachers.  White people should not be depending on black people to do the work for them.

Instead of having a dozen conversations with black people to understand their lives, read one James Baldwin book.

White people need to begin with reading.  White people need to begin with history.  White people need to begin with people who have eucharistically broken their souls open in public, and sit with their words.

I think it is misguided, and actually perpetuates harm, when we temper our desire to understand with the requirement that we also be understood.  No.  Black people do not owe white people any understanding.  Black people do not need to validate white feelings in order to be heard and understood.


They do not, they do not, they do not.

There is an economic equivalent to social media, I think.  Social wealth.  When a socially rich person makes this kind of statement – well, actually, it’s an injustice.  We do not need any more famous white people sharing their own words.  We need famous white people elevating the voices of those in the black community.  Elevating the voices of wisdom.  Understanding the structural issues at play. (White people also should not ask famous white bloggers to talk about race.  And then either accept, or nominate other white people.  What they should do is step back and recommend black voices.)

You can have friends and family members that are police, and they can be very nice people.  That does not mean there are not structural inequalities and racism built into the system, and no amount of police ride-alongs can fix that.

The place for white people to start is the 305.896 section of the library.  The place for white people to start is with the words of Austin, Christena, Drew, Rod, A’Driane, Shay, Brenda, Daniel, Ebony, Lisha, Marvia, and Ta-Nehisi.  Start with black poets, black fiction.  Sit with the works of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.  Read and read and read, and wait for the dawning realization that these books don’t have happy endings.  That sometimes they don’t even resolve.  And realize what that means, why that is.

Healing conversations is not what we need.  What we need is a thorough understanding of the systemic racism that our country is founded on and that our laws continue to uphold.  And then we need to dismantle the system.  White evangelicals need to start with Divided by Faith and learn how our individualized faith is inadequate in dealing with systemic sins.  Examining our own hearts is great.  Examining how the white majority culture has seeded racism inside of us is even better. 

The place for white people to start in the pursuit of racial justice is not with our individualized opinions and conversations.  Our limited view of the world and our conditional and cautious acceptance of reality does nothing to help the situation.

White people being heard is not the answer.  It is a *privilege* for white people to set conditions on how conversations with black people happen, and whether or not they are legitimate.  I don’t expect black people to hear me or empathize with me.  Frankly, I don’t expect black people to like me or give me the time of day.  My learning and listening and dismantling of my white world has nothing to do with whether or not people in the black community are willing to talk to me.

And quite frankly, when you live in a city that has *serious* racial problems and a devastating history of injustice, the place to start is in your literal backyard.  Which is, you know, probably every city in America.  That’s another place for white people to start.  Study the history of your town.  Look into the demographics, and learn why they are the way they are.

Other simple places for white people to start – find your local hip-hop station and listen to it.  Drive down the ‘bad’ roads, in the ‘rough’ neighborhoods during the day and see it for what it is – places where people live.  Places where humans live, and notice how they do the best they can.  Notice the beauty in it, and let your heart break open over the unfairness of it all.

Practice the art of looking black people in the face.  Do you know not all black people look alike?  I know you logically know that.  But do you know it?  Look at their faces – sit with the fact that some of the faces looking backing at you might be filled with resentment.  But notice how many smile.  Notice how all of the people you see are people.  Notice how your fear of black bodies fades away.

Dismantling the prejudice that has been instilled in you is not as simple as deciding not to be prejudiced.  It requires a building up of habits, thoughts, actions that affirm the humanity and value of all people.  And, sometimes you might even have black people who mistake you for another white person, because all white people look alike, and it’s pretty funny.

The place for white people to start is not in our own little individualized bubbles.  The place to start is with the needles that pop.  And I wish to God that white people with over 230,000 followers would recognize that before talking about racial reconciliation.






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4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • http://christinatremill.wordpress.com/ Christina


    This is so, SO good. I’m guilty of using the language of “conversation about race,” and I do believe conversation is needed, but there is a hell of a lot of listening that needs to happen first. I was distressed by Jen Hatmaker’s blog post, too (saw it posted by someone else), specifically that the onus is being placed on African-Americans to somehow explain their experiences to white people, one by one. That just sounds exhausting, and it is not the job of African-Americans to somehow have therapy sessions with white people, especially at a time that is a time of lament, intense pain, and justified anger. And when black sisters and brothers DO share their experiences (online, in person, in writing), it is white people’s job to recognize that that is holy ground and listen accordingly.

    There are conversations that need to be had, just among the white community about things the black community has realized for years. Searching for the role to play in all of that (helping to facilitate conversations with people who are white like me) while still listening, reading, and learning.

    P.S. Reading the Alexander book right now and discussing it–as an attempt to carefully listen & unpack. Hop over & share in the reflection/listening if you want! http://aholyfool.com/discomfort-my-people/

    • http://www.carisadel.com/ Caris Adel

      oooh reading that for Advent. I’ll definitely be following along. That is such a hard book to read.

  • http://soulascriptura.com T. Denise Anderson

    My God, this is so good it hurts…

    • http://www.carisadel.com/ Caris Adel

      Thanks……I wish it wasn’t needed tho. :/

    • http://www.AniseSmith.info/ Anise Smith


  • http://cindywords.com Cindy

    Holy cow, this was preaching. I agree with this: “Healing conversations is not what we need. What we need is a thorough understanding of the systemic racism that our country is founded on and that our laws continue to uphold.”

    It gives people a great deal of anxiety to know there is a problem and there isn’t an IMMEDIATE, DO-ABLE solution. I think that’s why the 4,000 likes? Yes, talk to people, we can do this. This alleviates my guilt.

    Thanks for writing this, Caris, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a while.

    • http://www.carisadel.com/ Caris Adel

      “Yes, talk to people, we can do this. This alleviates my guilt.” – That’s a good point. Maybe my aversion to talking and conflict makes me lean more towards reading.

  • http://www.penwisperer451.com/ Ziva bat Binyamin

    “Tell me what it is like to live your life.” ?? Even this sounds a little too superior and condescending (to me, anyway) – almost like asking someone to justify their existence on the planet. If you want to experience what war is like, you go to the frontlines on the battlefield and find out. You don’t sit opposite a wounded soldier in a therapist’s chair and ask, “So, how does it make you feel?”

    • http://www.carisadel.com/ Caris Adel

      Yup. :/

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  • Tech Teacher

    Caris, you make so many good points! Thank you for your thoughtful and heartfelt message! I appreciate all of the links, as well, as there are some I haven’t read yet and will make it a point to do so.

    I hope, though, in our efforts to learn and grow and build reconciliation with our “habits, thoughts, actions that affirm the humanity and value of all people”… that we can hold space open for each of us willing to listen and learn. This is where the conversation can *start*…. not a solution, but a *start*…. or to start again. After reading back through several of Jen Hatmaker’s posts, it seems to me her intent is open-hearted and genuine. Let’s use that as a start. For me, for you, for each of us with different cultural experiences. Let’s not bash someone down at any stage of learning and growing as long as the intent is toward connection, respect, and honoring another soul. No matter if their followers are one or one million. In the words of sweet Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Peace to you.

    • http://www.carisadel.com/ Caris Adel

      I think I was critiquing, not bashing – I hope anyway. But leaders, especially hugely influential leaders should be held to a higher standard, and their words have more weight. I’m just kind of over white evangelical leaders getting cookies for putting a toe in the water.

  • DonnaReedSteph

    This is uncomfortable to read AND I LOVE IT. Thank you. And I hope we heed this humble and fantastic advice.

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  • http://www.AniseSmith.info/ Anise Smith

    WOW! I can barely form words right now so I will just say Thank YOU.

  • Angela Camille Smith

    Thank you. I retired from the job of convincing Whites that racism still exists and needs to be systematically dismantled. It’s very nice to hear White voices taking responsibility and holding themselves accountable for their complicity in the maintenance of the system of racial inequality.

  • Nancy White Kuykendall

    No real and lasting change is possible until white people’s hearts change. Is studying the long history of racism all that important when many of us have witnessed the ugliness of it in our own lifetimes? Are we willing to follow black leaders? Are we willing to speak up about racist comments? I am not even surprised that the frat boys of SAE learned their horrid songs at a national SAE conference. I am surprised that some of my close relatives were making Obama asassination jokes even before his inauguration. What are we coming to?