I have been watching, like most other people, the many recent events unfolding across America exposing racial tensions. To be honest, my first reaction has been to dismiss them, for I didn’t think they really applied to me, a white American. Other people have taken a more extreme approach by diminishing the events through rationalizing the extremes away. But to be honest, none of those approaches have settled well with me.
As a result of working through the book of Isaiah and seeing God’s anger poured out on the rich Israelites who had treated others as second-class citizens, I realized I could no longer dismiss or rationalize away what I was seeing. But I really had no idea where to begin. My daily life leads me along familiar paths, most of which are not populated with or frequented by others unlike myself. But not accepting ignorance and convenience as an option, I did something that was extremely awkward: I started a conversation with one of the few black people I know. I’m sure I came across as a clumsy oaf, and maybe even said some things bordering on offensive, but she was gracious and patient with me. After the awkward moments were behind me, I realized how glad I was that I started the conversation. Since that first day, I have learned quite a lot.
Among the many things I have learned, I think the most important one has been the need to start a dialogue. Far too frequently I have viewed others through the lens of my own experience, not realizing my experiences are not universal. I need to, we all need to, ask questions and listen before we are able to begin to understand others, and even then, we are only able to catch small glimpses.
One of the recommendations this kind woman made to me was that I read a number of books written on the topic. Not know where to begin, I asked for her recommendations, and as a result, I ended up purchasing five books. The first one I read was Black Like Me, the true story of a white journalist who in the 1950s underwent skin treatments to make himself appear to be black. He then spent about a month in Lousiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia as a black man recording all of his first-hand experiences with racism.
This was a challenging read for me as I frequently had to battle the inclination to dismiss the events of the book as not being pertinent today since it is no longer the 50’s and I do not live in the south. I also thought he had to be exaggerating as I found it difficult to believe people would actually treat others the way in which they did in the book, but evidently, they did. As I got to the end of the book (it was a short read of 164 pages) I realized many of the things being said still exist today, maybe not as overtly as they did in the 50’s (or maybe they do?) but it seemed obvious we are living in world tainted by the racism of our past. I realize I don’t have to be directly affected by it, I don’t even have to hold racist views, but if I ignore it, I am in many ways just like the rich Israelites God punished in Isaiah: I need to take care of the oppressed because God cares about the oppressed.
In the Epilogue of Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin says, “Our experience with the Nazis had shown one thing: where racism is practiced, it damages the whole community, not just the victims.” It is with these thoughts that I recommend Black Like Me, especially to my white friends who may think America’s racial problems are being blown out of proportion or who may be tempted to dismiss them: it will do us no good to continue traveling the well-worn paths of blissful ignorance.
Black Like Me can be purchased at Amazon.com by following this link.