I was about 10 years old, standing in the kitchen, hanging around as bratty sisters do, and listening to my parents talk to my 15-year-old sister. The only words I remember are my mother’s.
“You can’t grow up white in the United States and not be racist.”
Pause. Wait … I’m white.
My sister and I laugh about this moment, reimagining our response as a whimper of “Mommy?” and looking down at our pale arms in startled confusion. In truth, though, it was a defining moment. A freeing moment.
My mother had given us permission to confess something terrible, to be honest with ourselves about the images, attitudes and systems swirling around us. She removed the “boogeyman” of racism—the unknown, unidentified monster in a hooded robe—and said, “No, here’s the mirror.” My mother, in her stark, concise words, had given me permission to examine myself and my society and to be unafraid to admit what I found there.
To confess that when I was 4 or 5 years old, I told my family I didn’t want the black baby doll they had given me because I wanted a “pretty one.”
To confess that when I was in second grade, I told a friend, a little brown boy, that he looked like a gorilla, oblivious to the weighty horror of those words.
To confess that when I was 13, I misheard a young Asian boy’s name because I was expecting him to have an accent.
To confess that I am not exempt or unburdened by the racist images, language and structures of my society.
To confess that systems in this country have benefited and continue to benefit people who look like me.
I have come to realize that this was one of the greatest gifts of parenting given to me. I have encountered so many white Americans who are afraid to talk about racism—it is the boogeyman. It’s why folks start sentences like “I’m not racist, but …” or talk about their one black friend or start accusing others of being racist (“but not me!”). It’s why white people can get defensive or angry at any suggestion that we might need to examine ourselves or our society differently. We are afraid.
When white Christians confess our racism, blinders begin to come off and in shines light. We see what we had not before seen.
But we exist in a prison when we live denying that anything is wrong. People recovering from alcoholism know this: First, you admit to the problem.
Confession has long been a tradition within the church. “Let us confess our sins before God and one another,” our pastors say. We do this in community. We do this together. And when we do it genuinely, honestly, we find how uncomfortable it is. Those confessions of mine? They were painful to type. They are filled with regret and grief and disgust.
But still—the confession frees.
I am not defined by what I confess, but I am called to repent from it. To turn around. Which is why I must do this confession and repentance in community—to hear the testimonies of others who have swallowed their fear and spoken out; to listen to people of color; to sit quietly with the anger and pain of those wounded by racism; to organize for justice and march in the streets.
My mother’s words gave me permission to confess that I am not alone in this, and that this brokenness is shared. When white Christians confess our racism, blinders begin to come off and in shines light. We see what we had not before seen.
Throughout last year, many were shocked by a growing sense of emboldened racist language and action. But the images of hate seen in the news, the white supremacist rallies and speakers, are not surprising when we’ve already confessed that its seeds are found in the policies of our criminal justice system, our schools, our government, our communities and in our very hearts. We confess and we begin to see. We hear God’s call to turn and to act. We give our lives to this call and we invite others to join us.
Confession reminds me that I have not arrived, however. I come again and again to God and cry, “Lord, have mercy!”
And let me tell you, as heavy and weighty and sorrowful as this confession is, as dark and painful and hateful as the images of white supremacists marching in the streets are, the Lord does indeed have mercy. There is freedom and life in God’s mercy.
There is no boogeyman. There is only us. And God’s love.
Find out more about the ELCA’s racial justice ministries.