BY MICHELLE WILLIAMS, GRACE ATTENDER
God has opened my eyes to the fact that kindness simply isn’t enough. Fixing the broken place of hatred, and specifically, racism, is going to take a lot more than just kindness. I wish it hadn’t taken so long for me to realize this. When I think about the 38 years I’ve spent trying to exhibit kindness toward people of other races, I understand now just how many opportunities I’ve missed to actually take a real stand against racism.
My life story of kindness started early. My aunt and uncle adopted my cousin, Jamie, from Jamaica when I was very young. Finding kindness, even love, in my heart for people of other races has never been a challenge. I grew up loving Jamie just as if she were my own blood. Loving people with a different skin color than my own has been completely normal to me for as long as I can remember. It was so normal that by the time I learned racism was even a thing, I considered it completely absurd! In a way, I actually find myself wondering if my own sense of normalcy and confidence that I was not prejudiced kept me from waking up to the ways that racism truly operates. As much as I know that I’ve loved my cousin all of our lives, I now struggle with the understanding that I could have done much more to stand firmly as an advocate for her and so many others.
My story of kindness toward other races continued into my high school years. My junior year prom date was a young black man I worked with at a department store near my home. At the time, it seemed like such a simple equation to me: boy and girl like each other, and so boy and girl should spend time together! (Oh, and by the way, I need a prom date.) He had already graduated, so I approached him to “kindly” invite him to accompany me. At first, he gently asked if he could respectfully decline, but I was very persistent and eventually convinced him to agree to it. During that time, I did help some people close to me become aware of and take healthy steps to address an implicit bias, but I also failed on so many levels. I missed an incredible opportunity to learn from his perspective. I was too selfishly focused on getting what I wanted to recognize that the “equation” was anything but simple for him. It’s only been in the past year that I’ve gained enough of a perspective to see that time in my life from a top-down view. Every time he drove to my predominantly white neighborhood to pick me up, the trip was loaded with risk for him. He showed up, despite knowing that the aforementioned implicit bias existed in my circles. Attending my prom, at a predominantly white school, was yet another situation in which he was likely outside of his comfort zone. And while I was putting the pressure on him to be my prom date, he may very well have been receiving pressure from other black people about the fact he was even dating a white girl. It’s taken me 20 years to recognize the sheer volume of grace he extended my way. I wish I had done better by him, but my naive and narrow focus kept me from seeing that a bigger picture existed.
Fast forward a few more years, I moved to Antioch, Tennessee just outside of Nashville after graduating college. I welcomed the new experience of being surrounded by diversity; only about 50% of Antioch’s population is white. During my career search, I waited tables at a restaurant in the area. Unexpectedly to me, racism reared its ugly head when some of my fellow servers explained to me how “black people never tip well” and advised me not to put too much effort into waiting on them. Unequipped with the necessary courage or articulation to speak against such ugly sentiments, I quietly made it my mission to ensure no person walked out of that restaurant feeling as though I had treated them poorly based on the color of their skin. My efforts didn’t go unnoticed, as the largest tip I ever received working that job was from a table full of black men during a lunch shift. (Those of you who have worked as a server know that lunch isn’t exactly the time to expect extravagant tipping!) BUT, I absolutely failed to take a stand against the most blatant racism I’d encountered in my life to that point. I succeeded in being kind to others, but I am ashamed to admit that I simply didn’t have the guts to take a firm stand for what’s right. Kindness just wasn’t enough.
Jesus was kind, but he also had the guts to stand up against the most powerful system of oppression in the world. He was full of gentleness, but he also demonstrated the grit to call out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. People asked him to be their king, but he had the faithfulness to die a martyr for the oppressed.
I would be foolish if I claim to follow Jesus, yet ignore the growing outcry of minority communities. I would be a poser if I claim to follow Jesus, yet condemn Colin Kaepernick without giving an ounce of effort to understand his perspective. I will be a liar if I claim to follow Jesus, yet remain silent now that I have a deeper awareness of just how urgent and severe the problem of racism is in the United States.
And let me tell you, my waitressing story is like a tiny paper cut compared to the cancer of racism in our country. If you love Jesus and you’re not nodding your head in agreement with me right now, your next step is awareness. I woke up to it by watching a documentary called 13th (watch it on Netflix). It’s a good place to start.
If we want to follow Jesus in radically loving and serving those who suffer under the oppression of hatred and building the Kingdom of Heaven, kindness simply isn’t enough. Kindness is the foundation of the Kingdom Jesus described, but no construction project ever stops at the foundation. The foundation is what’s necessary to begin building.
If you’ve got a foundation of kindness, awesome. We need you. Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our country; we’ve never existed as a nation without it. God has opened my eyes to the fact that many of us don’t even recognize the ways in which we fit into the systems of racism. And for those of us who are fired up about tearing down these systems, it’s daunting to even imagine how we can make much of an impact. Because those of us who have woken up to the real consequences of racism in the United States realize that it’s like we’ve discovered this massive hole lurking just beneath our foundation of kindness. Sure, we can start drawing up the plans, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to repair the hole beneath our foundation before we can even think about building God’s Kingdom on it.
The effects of racism are not contained to places like Ferguson, MO and Charlottesville, VA (see PBS Film, Documenting Hate:Charlottsville). This is everywhere. Kindness simply isn’t enough. If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, you must adopt a posture of openness and you cannot remain in the comfort of ignorance to the racism that exists in our midsts.