White friends in America’s Southland, we are living in a scary world. In any given month it seems there are fresh stories of black people marching in protest, Muslim terrorists attacking, non-English speakers crossing our borders. Anyone overhearing us can tell we are afraid – of being attacked, of being taken over, of losing the power that has always belonged to us white people.
Can we talk about this a little – just us white people – and analyze the whys, the hows, and maybe the what-to-do about our fears?
Let’s begin with a look at where our fears come from. With issues as huge and historic as this one, we won’t attempt to reach any one simple answer, but let’s look honestly at some of our collective reality.
First, our fears were handed down from generation to generation. Most of us learned the fears of our parents who learned from their parents who learned from their parents. Almost all of us have KKK branches or roots in our family tree, known or unknown, and such history is never erased from our collective heritage. These fears are especially strong in rural communities where few outsiders are moving in. We naturally come to believe that if everyone around us shares the same fears then they must indeed be founded.
Second, our fears are confirmed through the media we choose to follow. Most Southern white folk prefer conservative cable news, listen to conservative talk radio, and attend small Christian churches where the leaders get their fears from the same news channel and talk shows. All of this confirms our fears, and the religious component adds even more glue, cementing our fears into our view of God.
Why do these media outlets, talk show hosts, and certain renowned religious leaders confirm our fears? We Southern white people are such a large block of people that, as hard as it is for us to ever admit it, we are being manipulated and used by many of these entities. They are getting rich and powerful by feeding our fears, and they have all learned that our Christian religion is so important to most of us that all they have to do is throw God into their mix and we will follow them anywhere. What’s sad, but not new, is that many of us will perpetuate these fears even when we do not benefit from them.
Third, we see legitimate news stories of violent crimes committed by black men or Muslim extremists. These frightening stories feed our already formed fears of all black people and all Muslims. The crimes are real, but do they really represent all black people, all Muslims.? It’s an easy leap to make, especially when our personal circles don’t include people from these groups. Most Southern white people can name several black people they have worked with or gone to school with and with whom they do not feel afraid, but stay with me now, and let’s be honest.
How many black/Muslim/Spanish-speaking people have eaten with you in your home? What if your daughter told you she was going to marry someone of this group? And here’s a big test: When you hear a tragic news story that someone in the community died in an accident, but the identity is not immediately released, are you relieved when you hear that it was (just) a ____ person? (You fill in the blank.) If so, can we agree that we have some work to do?
If we label all black people as violent because of the violent acts of a number of misguided young black men, or all Muslim people due to the horrendous acts of a few extremists whom the Muslims do not claim as their own, would it not be fair then to conclude that Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer are representative of all white people, especially to people who don’t personally know any white people? Or that Fred Phelps is representative of all Christians?
Despite the violent gang culture promoted by Hollywood and record labels, southern black people are the most amazingly nonviolent group of people I know. Their hero was a religious man who preached that non-violence was the only way to make progress in the world. These are people whose Southern history has evolved from being owned as white men’s property to being “free” but not allowed to vote or to sit with white people on the bus or in the movie theater or to drink from the same water fountains, to humbly living and working among us, perceiving our unacknowledged (often even to ourselves) feelings of superiority. Dear white friends, if black people (as a group) were a violent people, we (as a group) would have been in trouble a long time ago.
Black people are not a violent people. Nor is Islam a violent religion. Extremism in any religion is a very dangerous thing. Look at the Christian Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Waco, Westboro Baptist Church . . . It’s a shame that such extremists ruin the name of entire religions that teach peace and love.
Similar to extremists, youth of any race are an unsettled group as they try to find their way into adulthood. Yes, young black men as a group have issues with drugs and violence, but white youth are no less out of control. It seems accurate to say that many youth, regardless of race, are running loose in a state of temporary insanity.
So how can we best respond to our fears? The most difficult part is probably the acknowledgement that our fears, for many personal and cultural reasons, are exaggerated, and to privately evaluate whether we have adopted them from our parents, our husband, our community . . . Then we can walk away from racist jokes and conversations. We can vary our media sources, listening less to those that feed our fears, less to those that lean to one political side; and more to those attempting to be unbiased. We can seek out opinions of those who think differently from us, reading or listening to them, not so we can argue them down and not so they can change our minds, but so we can understand their point of view.
And most importantly we can cultivate real relationships with people from our feared groups. Invite your black co-worker and his family over for dinner. Or your gay neighbors. Or your Jewish, or Catholic, or Hmong acquaintance. Counteract a lifetime of hearing what white people say about black people, and a lifetime of hearing what Christians say about Muslims, and actually get to know them for yourself. They are all real people, real individuals with their own varied fears, hurts, joys, and misconceptions, each as different as those of white people; and their fears of white people are far more supported than ours of them – through violent and racist history, and through the current Southern white weapons craze. Fear begets fear, and violence begets violence. The black people have chosen nonviolence. It’s time we did the same.
As Christians we believe that God is far greater and far more complex than our finite human minds can begin to conceive. We also believe that God sent Jesus to model for us how we should live as human beings. Jesus did not live in the South, nor even in America, but in the Middle East where there were cultural taboos against interacting with Samaritans, touching lepers, talking to women . . . But Jesus broke the taboos. Jesus condemned the churchy people who were more interested in rules and laws than in human beings. He preached unity for all his followers, and reaching out in active love to all people. And humility. Humility–the hard first step to allowing God to change our own stubborn and proud minds.