As a white person, I don’t have to talk about race. I mean, I have the privilege of choosing whether to acknowledge and think and talk about it—or to think of it as other people’s problem. As a white person, it’s way easier not to think about race at all. But as a person of faith, I see this as part of living into the life of love God has called us to.
When people ask me to tell them about my novel The Means That Make Us Strangers, I usually say something like, “It’s young adult historical fiction about a white, American girl who grows up in Ethiopia and then moves to South Carolina the first year there are African-American students at the white high school. It’s a story of belonging and identity, and race as part of that.”
I then wait to see how people will react. Usually people’s eyebrows go up a little when I identify the character as white, as if they’re surprised I should mention it—as if it would go without saying. Sometimes people stiffen at the word race, like I’ve said something impolite or mildly offensive. Most often I get this reaction when I’m speaking to another white person, and, unfortunately, it happens so often that I’ve come to expect some variation of it.
Maybe everything that’s been happening in the U.S. over the last few weeks has made it more acceptable for white people to talk about racial justice—I hope so. There are a lot of conversations we need to have, a lot of stories we need to hear.
White Christians especially have, for too long, turned a blind eye to our brothers and sisters who have been unjustly accused, killed, locked up, misunderstood, and shouted down. Worse, we as the white church have participated in harming our brothers and sisters—and have refused to acknowledge that—for years, decades, centuries. We have splintered the church by giving preference to people who look like us rather than people who follow the same God we do.
As a white person of faith, I’m troubled by my complicity in the harm my brothers and sisters have suffered, and so I process and respond as I know how: by writing about it.
Racial discrimination is part of my story, too. I grew up as a racial minority, surrounded by racism. The difference was, I was the privileged minority. I was born and raised in Latin America, where my light-colored hair, pale skin, and blue eyes won me favored treatment. I fit the ideal: I looked the way people pictured an “American,” even before they knew what kind of passport I held. The split-second associations people had when they saw me made them assume things would go well for them if they were nice to me. I got picked for lead roles in elementary school productions not because I could sing (I can’t), but because I looked “angelic.”
Now, as an adult, I live in the suburbs outside Chicago. One time I was driving home around midnight in the car I’d recently purchased. When I saw the police lights in my rear view mirror, I knew I was in trouble—my car didn’t yet have plates, and the temporary license plate taped in my back window was expired. I’d broken the rules and deserved the consequences. The cop shined his flashlight in my face and flashed it around the car a bit, then politely asked for my license and registration. A few minutes later, the cop came back and returned my papers, saying he’d let me off with a warning because I “didn’t look suspicious.”
I was furious. What did the cop know about me that would qualify me as “not suspicious”? He didn’t know I taught Sunday school and got a Christian character award in high school. He based that decision mostly on what I looked like. And I knew the chances were pretty high that if one of my black or brown friends had been driving that same road at that time of night—even without the blatant violation of no license plate—the assumption of innocence wouldn’t have worked in their favor.
We live in a world where people make assumptions based on appearance. And, unfortunately, in U.S. society, there’s also a deep-seated tradition of valuing white lives more than our darker skinned brothers and sisters, a tradition that goes back to black slaves being considered property, when it was written into our Constitution to count slaves as 3/5ths of a person.
This tradition was reinforced in daily life under Jim Crow laws, and it was enforced through lynchings and other acts designed to control black people through fear. It continues today in a judicial system that is six times more likely to arrest an African-American man than a white man, and—after arrest—is more likely to send the African-American man to prison and give him a stiffer sentence than a white man would get for the same crime.
As a Christian, I believe that these things should trouble me. The Bible is pretty clear: God cares about how we treat other people, and he cares about injustice. A lot.
Throughout the Old Testament, God repeatedly told the Israelites to not oppress those who were vulnerable in their society. Usually that meant orphans and widows, but the law also includes protections for minorities. For example, Leviticus 19:34 says, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” The Old Testament prophets railed against the way God’s people turned their back on him and mistreated and oppressed others.
When Jesus came with his revolutionary love that gave dignity to social outcasts, women, and the poor, his command to “Love one another” (John 13:34), wasn’t limited to the members of God’s family who look and sound like us.
When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost (Acts 2), the church exploded to include Jews who spoke different languages and had radically different backgrounds and life experiences. Some of the first challenges of the early church involved dealing with racial and cultural divisions. It is to such a church that the New Testament says, “We love each other because [God] loved us first. […] Those who love God must also love their fellow believers” (1 John 4:19, 21).
I write about race because, as a person of faith, I see that my brothers and sisters are being treated unfairly. When your family is hurting, you do something. And for me, that means writing fiction that looks at some of the problems around race, not because it’s easy or a trendy topic, but because I think facing this painful topic and talking about it—even if we accidentally say the wrong thing and need to ask forgiveness and try again—is helpful and healing to the family of God.
What else can someone do to help against racism?
- Most importantly, listen. Pay attention to black people who are willing to share their experience, whether that’s a friend or neighbor, a TV show, a movie, or books. If you say anything, ask a question. (Just make sure the question isn’t trying to prove or defend anything.)
- Educate yourself about history. Equal Justice Initiative has some great online resources to help. They also have a museum and a memorial to help the U.S. face its history of racial violence. Learn facts that can help correct your own thinking and that you can point others to.
- Work on yourself. Acknowledging “whiteness” as a subculture that influences how we view the world can be an important step to helping us come to terms with our own complicity in a system that privileges us. Lament and repentance are also important. When your own assumptions about other people come to the surface, notice that and take time to repent. Practice speaking truth in love when people around you are saying things that are untrue and unloving.
Christine Kindberg is the author of The Means That Make Us Strangers, a YA novel set in 1960s South Carolina. Christine lives in the Chicago suburbs and works as a Spanish-language editor at Tyndale House Publishers. When not reading or writing, she enjoys running, cooking with friends, and watching shows that feature British accents. You can find out more on ChristineKindberg.com, and you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Check out Christine’s novel!