I awoke Thursday morning to a news alert via email: Nine dead in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter had not yet been apprehended, but unless you’ve been on a media sabbatical, I don’t need to elaborate any further as to who was murdered or who the murderer is.
I’ll be honest–I didn’t turn on the news. I avoided social media for much of the morning. Because I knew that this would become what it had become: a fight about what this was and what it was not. We can’t even mourn the loss of human life without it becoming a political debate. Instead I prayed for the families, the church and the city of Charleston. I just needed to wrap my head around such a senseless and despicable act.
When I did steel myself enough to venture onto Facebook, one of the first things I read was a post condemning those who had not posted anything about the events in Charleston, telling me that if I hadn’t made my opinion known via social media that clearly I “did not give a shit” about what happened to the members of Mother AME Emanuel Church. That’s just not true. Not everyone posts every thought and opinion on social media. I would argue that sometimes it’s best to think and pray (if you’re so inclined) before you share your thoughts with the rest of the world.
But then something amazing happened. Rather than granting the wishes of the evil, despicable person who perpetrated this act to “start a race war”, the people of South Carolina joined together in mourning and in prayer.
“Though they plot evil against you and devise wicked schemes, they cannot succeed.” Psalm 21:11
They acknowledged the scourge of racism while turning away those who would use this tragedy to advance their own political agendas. I have always been proud to be a Southerner, but today I’m just a little bit prouder.
Which is not to say racism isn’t still a problem in this country. It most certainly is. As a friend of mine pointed out last week, every time some racially motivated incident occurs, the first thing you hear is, “We need to have an open and honest conversation about race relations in this country”, and then we don’t. We just express our own opinions, or retweet and share those voices we agree with. That’s not a conversation. A conversation involves listening to each other.
So here I am attempting to begin an open and honest conversation about race. I read an excellent post by Deidra Riggs, who paraphrased Randy Alcorn’s book Deadline: “For black people, race is like a marinade. It is soaked into us, all of the time. We cannot escape it. It infuses everything we do. But, for white people, race is like a condiment, If you want to deal with, you can. But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”
I do not know now or will I ever know what it means to be black. Although I do know what it’s like to feel less than. I was born in 1965 to a white father and a Japanese mother in Virginia. My early elementary school years were spent at a public school in Charlotte, North Carolina, and while there were probably close to an equal number of black and white children at that school, the only faces that looked like mine were my siblings. I had friends. I didn’t identify them by their race, but I’m guessing my friends’ parents identified me as “the Chinese looking girl”. (As I said before, I’m half Japanese. But in the early 70’s, it was my experience that whites assumed Asian countries of origin were interchangeable for the purposes of describing physical attributes.) We did not talk about Japanese culture in our home nor did we eat Japanese food. We all just did our best to fit in with everyone else, with varying degrees of success.
But I’m not white. Legally speaking, I can choose to identify as either white or Asian/Pacific Islander, but I am not white. As so succinctly described in the above description of what it’s like to be a person of color, my heritage is soaked into me.
Here’s how I know that to be true: I cannot watch any war movies about Vietnam or World War II that depict the deaths of Asians. The famous black and white photo of the naked girl running in terror as her village is being bombed by Napalm? It rips my heart out just thinking about it. I have a knot in my stomach as I type these words. Not because I think Asian lives are somehow more valuable or sacred than other races–ALL lives are sacred.
No, it hurts because it’s personal. It hurts because she looks like me.
Am I correct to assume that even though the deaths of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson are heartbreaking, that if your face looks like theirs, your heart breaks more?
I’m not saying any of this to be provocative. I’m trying to start an honest conversation. I need to acknowledge my own biases–not against anyone else, but for the people with whom I identify. I’ve shared this clip before, but I think it speaks to what we’re facing. I would like to face it together as a community acknowledging our differences while finding common ground.