To my African American brothers and sisters: I’m so sorry

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I was incredibly touched by a sermon on forgiveness two weeks ago at my church.  It was particularly moving to me because it touched on themes of collective forgiveness that I’d been thinking about for quite a while.

The visiting priest who spoke has a special gift in generational healing, which is seeking healing and reconciliation for our ancestors: either our blood ancestors or those who came before us in a community we identify with.

The priest spoke about a time in which he, as a Protestant visiting with a Catholic group in Northern Ireland, was moved by God – out of the blue – to apologize on behalf of the Church of England and the English people for all the horrible things that had been done to Irish Catholics for hundreds of years.

He felt incredibly awkward doing so, because he was a “nobody” from “nowhere;” who in the world was he to do something so audacious?  And the reaction he received was initially mixed.  But healing eventually ensued.

I took this as a moment in which God was speaking to me, because I’d been wrestling with something similar for a while.

I’m an average, 30-something white guy raised in a moderately conservative, stereotypical family in rural North Florida.  I never thought much about race at all.  It just wasn’t a big deal for me; I knew plenty of people of other races, but there was absolutely no reason why I’d need to stop and think about racism, because it wasn’t in my world.

As far as I can tell, that’s how it goes for most white people in America.  We don’t like talking about racism because we think it’s ancient history.  Because we aren’t as individuals actively racist, and we don’t often witness what we’d label as active racism in our everyday lives, we think it’s gone except for rare, isolated incidences.

I balked at the idea that, just because I was white, I was privileged.  That made no sense to me, because I didn’t recall ever receiving special treatment just because I was white.

But I was also, and remain today, a committed Christian.  My Christian faith has been very important to me for many years.  And when you take Christianity seriously, you have to help and listen to those who feel marginalized and neglected in a society, because we are committed to caring for others.

And as the years ticked by, and as I met more people, read more books, and continued to draw closer to God, a funny thing happened: my eyes were opened regarding race in America.

And I feel convicted by God to apologize to my African American brothers and sisters for everything you’ve been through and everything you continue to go through just because of the color of your skin.

I’m so very sorry.  Please forgive me.

I’m sorry that for most of my life I haven’t been part of the solution.  And as a consequence, that made me part of the problem.

Because if you find yourself as part of the group that has the power to act for change in a situation, yet don’t act for change, then you’re guilty via neglect.

I’m a nobody from nowhere with no power and no influence, but none of us are born into this world as isolated individuals, so because I am part of the particular group I was born into, I share in its collective benefits and in its collective guilt.

White privilege is real.  Ironically, the fact that it seems to be a fiction to white people is the largest indicator that it’s true, because the largest privilege about being white is it is perceived as being “normal.”

Most people you see every day are white; most movies and TV shows you watch are white; most dolls and action figures your children play with are white.

When you’re white, you expect life to be “normal,” because you don’t even realize that you assume the society in which you’re interacting is catered towards who you are as a white person.  That doesn’t “seem” like privilege at all; it just seems “normal.”

But if you aren’t white, of course that isn’t “normal” for you.

But I’m not apologizing for being white, as if that is what the problem is.  No, the problem is that white people have systemically held black people down and out in America for hundreds of years.

We don’t want to talk about it anymore, though, because we feel like those were the mistakes of our ancestors and not our own.  The only problem with that is, our ancestors never rectified the horrible mess they made, so the same problems that were real then are still real today.

Yes, slavery ended in name after the Civil War.  But only in name.

Because African Americans received “freedom,” but had no cash, had no property, and had no jobs except to be dependent on white people who still mostly hated them and thus continued to take advantage of them (read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations; he explains this far better than I ever could).

South Africa set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help heal the massive wounds left by apartheid on its society.  It dealt explicitly with reconciling those who were involved in a relationship of human-rights abuse through the long and difficult process of forgiveness.

The closest America ever came to something equivalent was when Congress passed measures for formal apologies for slavery in 2008 (the House) and 2009 (the Senate).  Congress could not resolve the two apologies, however, out of a concern that they might be used in an argument for reparations (for more thoughts on what Americans could do, please read How to Apologize for Slavery).

I hope others are encouraged to own their role, passive and involuntary though it may be, and be voices of reconciliation: apologize.  Strive to listen.  Strive to help.

Because, yes, I am culpable just because I am a white American.  I need generational healing.  More than that, I want to be a source that can help others heal if they want to.

We are all products of those who came before us.  We live in a world built by others, and we are their inheritors and are answerable for what they have done and left undone.

If I take generational healing seriously as a Christian, I have to be on board with this.  It has to be important to me.  If I don’t seek to be healed and to heal from what I inherited, there is little hope to be healed and heal from what I alone have done.

Start the conversation and please consider offering an apology on behalf of our ancestors who mistreated our brothers and sisters and on behalf of ourselves who have been complicit in a continued pattern of unjust thought, beliefs and behavior.

Healing starts with acknowledging the existence of a problem.  Let’s start with the smallest gesture.

I’m truly and genuinely sorry.

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