A White Pastor’s Letter to the Dominant White Culture
Brothers and Sisters, these are hard days to watch the world, particularly because we can “watch” almost everything. Thanks to cellphones and their cameras we can see people’s everyday life in unprecedented ways. Generally, it’s harmless typical life. But, other times, it’s not. Other times we see the actual pictures and videos of long disagreed-upon and disputed topics, even as they happen. This is what is happening in the discussion of race and America.
For decades African Americans have been telling the dominant white culture that they live under a different set of rules and laws. That the laws, which were supposed to be applied to all, were not. Instead they said they’ve experienced a harsher, unfair, and inequitable America. I have heard these words said since I was a child in the 70s. However, generally there wasn’t “enough” proof for the dominant white culture to take much notice. Over and over I’ve heard white folks say, “Oh, it’s just a few bad apples who do such things. These are isolated instances. I’ve never seen these things and I know for sure I’m NOT racist.” And because of that narrative, racial attitudes among whites have generally remained the same. Instead, what I’ve heard white people say to people of color is, “Stop complaining.” “Stop whining.” “Stop playing the victim.” All while the list of black, particularly male, victims grew and grew and grew.
But with the invention of the cellphone camera a new reality has come for many white people. Now the dominant white culture can watch with their own eyes and hear with their own ears the cruelty and vile evil that people of color endure on a daily basis. It has become harder and harder to ignore the cries of systemic injustice. With each new video, it’s no longer “one bad apple” but a culture of oppression and repression. This is systemic racism. A system of laws and the enforcement of those laws that disproportionally affects a sub-dominant group of color. Individual racism isn’t socially acceptable today. But systemic racism is normative.
If you’re a student of history, you’ll know that this was the plan of many, if not most, of the Founding Fathers all along. Despite what the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights say, many, if not most, of the Founding Fathers did not really intend to have liberty and equal protection for all. It was liberty and equal protection for those in the dominant white culture, especially and exclusively males for many, many years. Sub-dominant cultures were allowed to participate, but only to the level the dominant white culture wanted it. If the dominant white culture didn’t like it, our history shows us that it would reach out and crush them.
Today, due largely to technology, it is impossible to ignore or brush away the clear grip systemic racism has on our country. The constant video evidence is simply undeniable.
The dominant white culture has decided individual racism is wrong, but it hasn’t yet addressed systemic racism, that is the system of laws and enforcement of those laws that targets a particular sub-dominant group of color.
This is one reason George Floyd was murdered. The system didn’t value protecting him. The system is built to punish him. The system is working like it was designed to work. He knew it. His parents knew it. His grandparents knew it. The only people who didn’t seem to know it is many in the dominant white culture, which is why many white people are shocked by the protests, the riots, and the anger.
Therefore, here are seven recommendations for those of you who are a part of the dominant white culture:
Accept the fact that systemic racism is alive and thriving. Denying it does violence to our brothers and sisters of color and is a lie from Satan. The white people must stop arguing with people of color that “it’s not that bad” or “they should try harder” or “they should stop being a victim”. It’s insulting, sinful, and untrue.
Don’t ask people of color to speak for anyone other than themselves and their experiences. Far too often white people want their “black friends” to explain why society is okay and the world isn’t really so bad. It puts people of color in a terrible position as they know well what white people want to hear, so they feel stuck. Please stop asking people of color to explain the world to you from their perspective. It’s not helpful and doesn’t advance the discussion.
Listen. We white people are known for not listening. We justify. We defend. We make excuses. We attempt to placate. We do almost everything but listen. People of color have something to say. They want us to hear them. Many are angry and fed up. Some want to place blame. All want to be heard. White people need to listen and stop seeking opportunities to respond. As members of the dominant culture, white voices are heard best and loudest. This is (again) the time to actively listen and respond with phrases like, “I hear you.” “I’m sorry.” “I’m trying.” and “I’m learning.”
Go join the struggle for justice for all. Go join one of the many, many groups actively seeking justice for all. Join a group that promotes justice for everyone at a systemic level. Go to their meetings. Sit among those angry, hurt, and full of grief. This is what Jesus did for us. And while you’re there, don’t talk. Don’t offer solutions. Go, sit, and be quiet. If they want something from you, they’ll ask. Experience what life is like for them from their perspective, not the one you’re most familiar with.
Read. The amount of literature about this topic is staggering. It’s excellent. Many people of color have written very helpful books for white people to see and understand its sin. They aren’t condemning and look to help the dominant white culture walk in a way that leads to equality and righteousness. Read one of those books. Read it with some friends. Have the discussion. (I have several of these books and I can help you find them.)
Never again say, “Why are we talking about race or racism and not Jesus?” This is a highly offensive statement. It devalues people of color’s experience of race and Christ. It shows how little of Jesus white people know, expect, or understand. It reveals white people’s lack of understanding of who Jesus was and is. And it demonstrates how little Bible reading white people have actually done. I am embarrassed every time I hear a white person say this because it exposes a lack of understanding of why Jesus came. It pains my heart.
“Black Lives Matter” v. “All Lives Matter” There is a great deal of writing by many others explaining how wrong and harmful this thinking is, so I will refer to the others for the larger discussion. However, here is just one metaphor I read somewhere that I think helpfully distinguishes between the two. If your house is on fire and you call the fire department, you want them to come right to your house to put the fire out. That’s Black Lives Matter. They’re saying their house is on fire, come and put out the fire before all the black folks are murdered. To that, All Lives Matter says, “We see your fire, but we want the fire trucks to go to all the houses on the street to make sure they’re safe. Because, all lives matter. We don’t see a fire in other places, but because we value all lives, we’re going to use our resources to care for everyone.” The problem here is that All Lives Matter doesn’t recognize or acknowledge the systemic problems and racism inherent in our culture. It accepts that there’s a fire but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of those dying. (I also think the All Lives Matter movement is threatened and afraid of Black Lives Matters and is attempting to again placate the sub-dominant culture with a “we’ll get there when we can” position.) But the fire – which the dominant white culture has created and designed – is real. It’s here and it’s now. It needs to be addressed today. Black Lives Matter more right now because they are being destroyed at a disproportionate rate. Yes, everyone matters, but the fire is in the black community. That’s where our focus and attention need to be for as long as it takes to bring equal opportunity and enforcement for all.
The United States of America has two systems of justice. One for the dominant white culture and another for sub-dominant people of color. It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s evil and it must be named. It is sinful. Christians should not allow it. Scripture says in Luke 15 that Jesus leaves the 99 for the 1 because the 1 is valuable and needed. Luke 10 gives us the Greatest Commandment as Jesus describes true religion in the Samaritan who stops and cares for the intentionally passed over and scorned. There are hundreds of these stories and verses in the Bible. Verse after verse is meant by God to compel us to be the first to protest injustices. To be the first to stand up for victims. To be the first to bind up the broken and crushed. None of it is new. None of it is controversial.
Christians have always been called to add our voices to the neglected, discarded, and oppressed. We are called to love with action every single person Jesus loves, which is every single person. Right now, this means joining and listening to our African American brothers and sisters. It means standing with them until these deliberate inequalities are corrected. And it means staying with them once the protests and political pressures have subsided.
This is my commitment. I pray you’ll join me on this journey, going wherever Jesus leads us.
Father Jonathan French
Grace Episcopal Church