I Can Breathe – I Didn’t Know You Couldn’t
An open letter by Frank Zeidler, Jr., Executive Director
Have you looked up racism in the dictionary lately? The people at Merriam-Webster recently reported it to be the number one lookup on their website in the last month. Why is that?
The easy answer is that the term is all over the news right now. But, in general, people only look up words for two reasons: either they want to be sure they are using the right word, or they simply don’t know what a particular word means. Racism has been a part of the American lexicon since 1902, when Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt decried the deleterious effects of segregating people by race or class.1 So how can people in 2020 not know what it means?
While racism affects many minority races, the conversation recently has focused on the relations between white-skinned people and people whose skin is brown, from the lightest shades to the darkest. That is the conversation I am addressing here.
If you do not believe racism is systemic in America today, you have much work to do in educating yourself.
If you do not believe white privilege exists in America today, you have much work to do in educating yourself.
I believe both of those statements, yet I still have much work to do in educating myself.
When you ask a person of color, “is there racism in America?”, they might initially laugh – as if to say, “is that really a question?” But that same person will then answer honestly, “Of course there is…how can you not see it?” I know because I have had that conversation. Three hours later, I could not believe how blind I have been to racism in this country.
Today, I cannot even fathom the pain and deep sadness felt by our brothers and sisters of color when what they see so clearly, and their life experiences, are diminished and even dismissed by most white people. Yet it happens every day and white America, as a whole, continues to reject any responsibility for the current racial climate.
In my younger years, I had a job as a retail store manager, working for a single-owner business. In one of my meetings with that owner, I complained about the way my store staff reacted to a policy I implemented. His reply has stuck with me for 30 years now: “Do you know what they were upset about? Then get past their choice of words or actions and address the real problem.”
What is happening in our society today is that people of color – our brothers and sisters – are crying out in desperation: Do you not see me? Can you not hear me? We cannot breathe!
And, much like 25-year-old-Frank Zeidler, white America continues to focus on the words they are choosing and the actions they’ve taken without even making a real attempt to hear what they are saying!
(No, I do not condone looting and if that is your takeaway, then you aren’t hearing me either.)
Unfortunately, the attitudes and the actions (or inactions) that follow are indeed systemic – they are ingrained in the very fiber of white America whether we choose to admit it or not. Sure, we can point to societal advances like the abolition of slavery or the election of a person of color as President of the United States. But those are entirely hollow arguments when we are really talking about the attitudes born of racialization and the subtle ways white America lives them out every day.
In a book entitled, “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”, the author makes this point:
“… racial practices that reproduce racial division in the contemporary United States “(1) are increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology, and (4) are invisible to most Whites. [Racialization] understands that racism is not mere individual, overt prejudice, or the free-floating irrational driver of race problems, but the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups. This framework understands that people need not intend their actions to contribute to racial division and inequality for their actions to do so.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.” “I didn’t even know I did that.” “That wasn’t my intention”. Welcome to the wonderful world of systemic racism. The challenge now is to mean it, to know it, and to intend it. And I am talking to myself as well.
I have been married for 33 years to a wonderful, godly woman. To my shame, it took me most of those years to understand and embrace a basic truth: if it is important to her, it is important. For far too many years (and occasionally even still today), I was dismissive when she would mention something that I was certain was of little consequence. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong…but the fact is that my attitude conveyed to her that “you are using words but I am not hearing you because I don’t think it is important”.
Too often in public comment or private conversation, I hear that same attitude coming out of the mouths of white America when hearing people of color discussing racism. Haven’t you heard it too? “These are isolated incidents. “Most police officers are good.” “The real problem is….” “Statistics say ……” These are all versions of the same attitude I was guilty of at home for years. And I cannot find a passage anywhere in my Bible that says we should dismiss the concerns of our brothers and sisters – created in God’s image – because we don’t think they are important or valid.
I did find this, however: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2) Take that down whatever theological road you choose, accuse me of taking it out of context if you must, but the fact remains that being dismissive, defensive, or accusatory must be decried as an unacceptable response to any person of color pointing out the racism that is entrenched in daily life.
As a Christian, and a leader in a Christian missionary organization, the words of Jesus in John 10 resonate loudly to me: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”. Our enemy wishes to divide – and it appears to be working. But Jesus’ mandate to “love one another” fosters harmony, and that is the side I choose! However, “I love you, brother” is not enough right now, so:
I believe the danger in times like this is to be all talk and no action. I cannot change all of America; I am not the face of the entire white-skinned population…but I am the Director of a ministry that reaches predominantly people of color. So, after my own attitudes and actions, that is where I must start.
The first step will be to create a forum designed to have courageous talks about race as it relates to our call to share the love of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our brothers and sisters behind bars. I do not know the outcome of that forum – and if I told you I know the end result, this entire piece would be for naught. It will be real, and it will be uncomfortable, but I promise you it will be to the glory of God, and the furtherance of his Kingdom.
Serving Him gladly,
Frank Zeidler, Jr.
1 While Pratt denounced racism, his solution was no better. Read more: https://www.indianz.com/News/2016/08/16/first-use-of-racism-came-from-founder-of.asp
2 To be clear, I denounce all forms of police brutality; but this letter is specifically addressing the issue of racism, thus the identification of a specific form of police brutality.