Rejecting the lie of white superiority
On the road to Damascus
While on the road to Damascus, Saul, the infamous persecutor of Christians, was confronted by the divine. He was in search of believers to imprison when a voice from heaven bellowed: “Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked who was speaking. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” He fell to the ground, horrified to find he had been stricken blind. Still prostrate, the voice told him to enter Jerusalem and await instructions. Later, at the behest of a vision, a Christian man named Ananias visited Saul, laid hands on his trembling shoulders, and told him to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us that upon accepting Christ, scales fell from Saul’s eyes.
Two thousand years later, more than 60 Christians gathered in Newton, Kan., to experience some of the liberation that comes when scales fall from our eyes. We found ourselves in the sanctuary at Shalom Mennonite Church on Thursday night, nervous for what we knew would be a weekend of intense introspection about race, white privilege, and the damage done to all of our souls by the scourge of racism.
The Damascus Road anti-racism training’s stated purpose is:
“To lay the groundwork for the long-term work of dismantling racism in Anabaptist congregations, conferences and institutions by training teams, leaders and supporters from those organizations and to equip each person and team with:
- A biblical basis, grounded in the Anabaptist tradition, for dismantling racism;
- A basic analytical framework for dismantling systemic racism.”
Damascus Road is not intercultural awareness training in which participants learn how to bridge differences between people from different backgrounds. The subject matter goes much deeper. We spent the next three days learning about racism as an iceberg. The top level is merely what we see poking out of the ocean—racist jokes, slurs and prejudices. The invisible core of the iceberg is white privilege—the pervasive reality that white people in the United States enjoy unrequested and, often, unseen privileges as a result of the color of their skin. The ugly base of the iceberg—what our indigenous trainer called “the evil spirit”—is the result of racism on our identities. White folks like me develop an identity of internalized racial superiority—the inherent belief that I am superior because of my race. People of color develop an identity of internalized racial oppression—the belief that “white” is the normal standard they are supposed to live up to, and that they, as people of color, are inherently inferior.
The result, we learned, is that we are all imprisoned by the lie of racism. Some are relegated to the top of the bird cage, and others are stuffed in the bottom. But we’re all in the cage.
Examples of internalized racial superiority and internalized racial oppression were illustrated through people’s stories. One Latina woman, who joined the Mennonite church for its emphasis on peace and justice, left her congregation after years of fighting against the racism that existed in her church. The white people weren’t intentionally racist; it was just part of their identity. Our indigenous trainer, Harley Eagle, discussed the effect mandatory boarding school for indigenous youth still has on today’s indigenous people. He said that the public school failed him, and all of the white kids in his class, by ignoring the truth and horrors of colonialism. Others talked about the cruelty their children face at school—the racial slurs and attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.
Through the weekend, it became clear to me that in order to heal from the wounds inflicted by our inherently racist society, we need to confront the lie head on. This is difficult work for me as a white person, because it forces me to reconsider everything in my life. For example, the wealth my family has built up over generations, I assume, began amassing on land stolen from indigenous people. My ancestors probably didn’t do the massacring, but they benefitted from it mightily. Is my own wealth blood money? What about the education I have attained? Can I credit my success with hard work and intelligence, or the knowledge that I know how to work within the system, because the system was designed by people like me? These are hard truths. But facing these realities is nothing compared to the damage done by 280 years of legal enslavement of black people, or the colonization of a land already inhabited by 20 million indigenous people.
I better understand the importance of not only opposing racism, but claiming an anti-racist identity. It is not enough to treat other people well; I have to actively engage in dismantling this racist system, and bear witness to the truth that the Christ I follow abhors the racist system this society propagates. This means I must continue letting the scales fall from my eyes, owning up to my white privilege, and rejecting it when I can.
I also know that we at Albuquerque Mennonite Church have work to do. We say in our bulletin that every person is created in God’s image, regardless of “origin.” But how do we uphold a racist system? How do we advance the lie that the white people within the congregation are superior and that the people of color within the congregation are inferior? What scales continue to blind us?
The worksheet found here is a helpful tool in determining where our congregation is in becoming an antiracist church. This chart is a continuum—we don’t fall squarely into one box, and we may move back and forth on our journey. In your opinion, where do we fall? You can leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
Are we so committed to Jesus’s desire for shalom that we are willing to do the hard work of dismantling racism within our own church, as a witness to the community around us? I hope we are.