The reality is, you can’t care about someone you don’t know. And you really can’t know someone unless you listen to them.
I remember his hands. They were big and strong. They were soft and comforting. I remember noticing how his skin looked different than mine—dark on top and lighter on the palms. We liked our next-door neighbor Mr. Moore—my brothers and I. He was always smiling and making us laugh, giving us low fives and ribbing us in church.
The Moores were the only black family in our church. As far as I knew, they were the only black family in our town. That town was Hayden, Idaho—a place that was, and still is to many, synonymous with white supremacy.
Less than fives miles away stood the Aryan Nations compound, a large group of white supremacist “Christians” who were on the radar of the Southern Poverty Law Center and national media. We called them “skinheads.”
But even in this whitewashed, racialized environment, I never “saw” race growing up. I was “colorblind,” except I wasn’t.
Truth be told, from the moment I met him, I recognized Mr. Moore as different; as black. Not only the color of his skin and features, but in the way he talked and moved. He was the “cool” black guy. I wasn’t racist. I adored him.
In fact, racism didn’t even exist anymore as far as I was concerned. It was over. Fini. Gone the way of the buffalo. At least that’s what I told a young black man to his face at a friend’s house party 30 miles west in Spokane, Washington, or “Spokompton” as we called it.
I remember the anger in his face as I insisted that he basically “get over it” and that racism no longer existed. He was shaking. But I didn’t back down. I knew better than him. I, who grew up next door to the solitary black family and a functioning white supremacist criminal compound.
Even now, I look back at that person and I can’t wrap my brain around my complete ignorance and total confidence. Why did I think that I knew better than this young black man about the realities of racism in America? Why was I so sure it “was over” even as I grew up surrounded, almost exclusively, by white folk; some of whom were violently racist?
Today, I recognize that person in the comments section on Facebook, while watching Fox News, or talking to some of my white family and friends. And it blows my mind. White apathy, ignorance, confidence, and arrogance. How did we come to be so convinced in our collective racial expertise while simultaneously separating ourselves from any sort of exposure to racial diversity and experience?
As much as I’m searching for answers about white people in general, I’m also searching for answers about 20-year-old Jessica who would undoubtedly be an “all lives matter advocate” today. I recognized that Mr. Moore was physically different than me—that his race was different. But I refused to recognize that his experience as a black man might be different than mine. How did I “escape” race?
Race (and perhaps class) are the only grouping, only “other” that people can escape and separate themselves from. Against gay marriage? You might have a gay son. Don’t like “strong” women? Your first born may be a girl. In these situations, people are forced to confront their preconceived notions and previously held beliefs on a very personal, inescapable level. But for racist or racially ignorant white people, there is nothing forcing us to confront our beliefs and assumptions.
It’s easy for us, as white people, to build worlds where we are removed from the realities of the everyday struggles and racialized experiences of black folk. We go to church, drive home to our three-bedroom at the end of the cul-de-sac, and turn on Fox News—continuing to cultivate assumptions and lenses about race and racism that were seeded long ago as children.
Such “brainwashing” reminds me of a poignant observation by Martin Luthern King Jr. about the “real threat” in America. The real threat, to paraphrase, is not the Klans member but the “white moderate.” It is not, as I’ve heard many white Evangelicals bemoan, the Westboro Baptist Church member. In reality, it is the nice white lady who leaves copies of Our Daily Bread on public toilet tanks and goes home and posts on Facebook about “rioters and looters” and “black-on-black crime.” It is the swaddled and coddled white Christian.
Without exposure, this powerful programming will go unchecked and white folk will continue to believe we are being caring when we are really being callous. So the first step in “loving thy neighbor” is actually knowing thy neighbor. It seems obvious, but for many white Christian Americans, the division is pervasive.
But, as was the case in my life, simply knowing and liking Mr. Moore wasn’t enough to make me confront the realities of racism. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard my grandparent’s generation talk about how when they were growing up it “wasn’t like it was in the South” and “blacks and whites got along fine.” Knowing a black person, even befriending a black person, isn’t enough to guarantee understanding.
The reality is, you can’t care about someone you don’t know. And you really can’t know someone unless you listen to them. Communication is a key step in caring, or, as MLK put it:
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
Of course, some people, through no doing of their own, live in racially homogenous areas lacking diversity. They go throughout their day seeing one, maybe two, non-white folk. Are they supposed to go out and make the token “black friend”? Or pull an Angelina and adopt children from other races/cultures? Of course not.
The good news is, we live in a time where there is this wonderful thing called the internet. Videos, interviews, stories, and statistics are all within the click of a mouse. Even old-school media, TV and radio, can expose us to different perspectives and experiences.
My mother is a great example of this. She recently started listening to a black pastor on her Christian radio station who often acknowledges and talks about race. Although she admitted it made her “uncomfortable at first,” she continued to listen because she really cared to learn about the experiences of her black brothers and sisters in Christ.
I am encouraged by my mother.
When we start to see people like us, as us, we develop empathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, empathy is crying with them. When we stop seeing black folk as separate from us, both physically and emotionally, we will start to care about them as we care about ourselves. They will stop being “just” our favorite black quarterback or neighbor we talk with over the fence and start being like us, because we are like them.
When we see ourselves as inextricably connected to a person/people, we care for them as ourselves. There is no “them,” there is no “us.”
But what do we do with this newfound empathy? Do we sit around feeling bad and guilty? Of course not. To do so would make it about us and our feelings. No, we must move on toward confrontation. Not confrontation with black people but with their experiences and our assumptions.
A great example of this is Seattle pastor David Fairchild. As a white, conservative-leaning evangelical dude, he is challenging his congregation (which is mostly white) to confront and address race and racism in this country via a Christian lens. As he has done so, I’ve watched him take incredible heat from (and probably lose the admiration of) fellow Christians.
This may be the hardest step for white Christians. It’s one thing to expose oneself to people and experiences who are different—it’s an entirely different thing to challenge and uproot an entire sense of oneself and “how things work.”
But these are the white Christians I am encouraged by. The Christians who are brave enough to challenge their own discomfort and defensiveness and those of others to promote justice and humanity.
However uncomfortable it may make us, we need to recognize our white responsibility and power—a power that has everything to do with history, normalcy, and visibility.
“You need a white guy to join the fight. The white guy is super important to the fight. For people to really see social injustices, there must be someone from the other side of the race who recognizes the problem, because a lot of times if just one race says there’s a problem, nobody is realistic about it.”
“Really see social injustices” is the key phrase in Bennett’s statement.
If we, as white Christians, can expose ourselves to those who are different than us, whose lives and experience may vary radically from ours, then we, as a nation, can finally move forward. This is a call to ams—as in a linking of arms. A call for solidarity, responsibility, unity, and basic humanity. Only then, will we truly exemplify Christ’s entreaty to “love thy neighbor.”
Jessica Schreindl is a freelance writer and TV producer in Seattle, Washington. She is a contributing writer for Mic.com and has been published on Feministing.com. She graduated with her M.A. from Syracuse University where she studied film history and documentary filmmaking.