Paternalistic Racism of Nice White People

If you recognize yourself in this article, and it makes you cringe or feel embarrassed or even makes you mad, Hi, Me Too. I encourage you to keep reading. We have a unique opportunity in America right now, and so it's time to tell the truth - even when it hurts.

***

One of the proudest images shared here in Minneapolis after the tragic murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, is a picture of mountains of food donations delivered to the South Side neighborhood where Floyd was killed.

Food donations in Minneapolis after George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers

So much food. Mountains of blue boxes of macaroni and cheese. Lucky Charms cereal. Golden Grahams. Canned corn and beans and bags and boxes of rice. Bottled water.

There was so much food that some donation sites had to ask people to stop bringing it. They suggested diapers instead. Or cash donations.

We got an email from the Minneapolis Public Schools asking people not to bring donated food to their sites for school lunch pick-up. 

Still, the donations kept on coming.

My husband, Ben, was raised in Missouri. He didn't really get the food thing - the rush to donate food in the aftermath of police brutality and racist violence. 

I explained to him the easy answer, that neighborhood stores had burned and grocery stores were closed and people needed food and people living in poverty didn't have huge stockpiles, etc., etc., etc.

That was the easy answer.

Here's the hard one.

We know how to donate food in the aftermath of racist violence here in Minneapolis because so many of us have been raised in a dominant white culture that tells us that black people are forever and desperately in need of our help. 

I know. I grew up with it, too.

Growing up in an overwhelmingly white suburb and attending overwhelmingly white schools and churches, I learned early on about slavery and the Civil War and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I learned about poverty-stricken neighborhoods in North Minneapolis, and in nearby Brooklyn Park, where black people lived.

In the absence of a vibrant black culture where I lived, the lessons I learned led easily to what I've experienced - and acted out: "The Paternalistic Racism of Nice White People."

We are so comfortable being the charity providers, lamenting racism far away, in the South, or on TV, or in the opposing political party. We are not so comfortable stepping back and listening to the black people right in front of us tell us that our well-meaning efforts too often perpetuate racism, too.

I grew up thinking that there were lots of things you could do to not be racist and to work for equal rights. You could volunteer at homeless shelters and donate food and sort it at Feed My Starving Children. You could go on mission trips to other places and work in neighborhoods much more diverse than your own, because those neighborhoods and those places and those people needed your help. 

Eventually, Jesus challenged these notions.

It took a long time. It's still taking a long time, inside of me, too, to move from Paternalistic Racism to partnering and listening and working for justice.

It began by attending college in Missouri and participating in a culture that was decidedly less white than the Minneapolis suburb where I grew up. My college had its own well-documented issues with race. But that's partly because it actually had a significant population of people of color. It's easy to pretend you have no issues with race when the non-white population is made to be invisible, and "othered."

My education continued as a white sportswriter often covering stories of athletes of color, by attending Baptist and non-denominational churches in Florida, and "broadening my horizons."

I came back to Minneapolis in 2009. I was working with a group to research churches in predominately black North Minneapolis, predominately black because racist housing rules enacted in the mid-20th-Century effectively pushed black families out of many South Minneapolis neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs. It's shameful, but it's true. I grew up thinking that North Minneapolis was dangerous and full of gangs and drugs and murders. This is what happens when you enact rules to keep businesses and capital and investment out of neighborhoods, when you limit public transit in particular neighborhoods, when you base school funds on property taxes. Still, North Minneapolis was much more than I ever understood it to be.

So I came back in 2009, with a group of mostly white researchers researching churches and neighborhoods. We pored over statistics and charts and interviewed pastors at predominately white Lutheran churches, because at the time I was studying to be a Lutheran pastor. Fun fact: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has long been America's whitest denomination. 

We interviewed people from the neighborhood, most of whom were black. Many - not all - of the people who attended the white neighborhood churches had moved out of the city and drove in for church. These nice white Lutherans were struggling to reach out to their neighborhood. They desperately wanted to connect, but like I'd been taught, they also wanted to "help."

So they put that Scandinavian work ethic to work and they set up food pantries and community meals and job training sites. They organized English classes for English language learners, for neighbors who had recently immigrated to the U.S. They did amazing things. They worked hard. People of color from the neighborhood attended the classes and ate the meals. 

Sunday morning remained a segregated hour.

We interviewed some of these neighbors, most of whom were black.

The words of one of the women we met, all these years ago, still ring in my memory, fresh as we confront anew the truth that my state has been among the worst places to live in America for black people, as opposed to white people, for whom it is among the best places to live in America.

"When we need food and services, we come to the Lutheran church," she said. "But when we want to hear the Gospel, we go to the Baptist church."

It's my shame that I don't remember her name. I had a chance there, to learn more. Instead all I have left are her words. And ignore the denominations if they bother you. Here's what I took from it, and what sticks with me over all these years.

White Christians knew how to provide services. But our offerings rang hollow with Jesus, without offering ourselves.

The heartbreaking thing is that sometimes our efforts and donations were papering over long-held and destructive racism, racism that assumed that black people needed our help.

That racism denied the important truth, that we needed each other. That white people needed black people as much or more than they needed us. We went to them too often as helpers and saviors instead of fellow bearers of the image of God, seeking genuine connection and relationship.

We blamed it on discomfort. Or on an ability to want to show the Gospel without having to talk about Jesus or the Holy Spirit. 

Look at what we did! The glittering new shelter. The mountains of food. The pounds of Feed My Starving Children packages sent away to Africa.

At night cars were pulled over in North Minneapolis. Heads were slammed to the pavement. Children attended decrepit schools. 

We lamented the "achievement gap." We hid statistics about how black people were doing in Minnesota. We crowed about our average income and educational achievements. We voted in black people to prominent positions in government, because tokenism is a part of Paternalistic Racism of Nice White People, too. Not that the people of color who hold prominent positions don't deserve them - they do. But too often white Minnesotans pointed to those leaders and elected officials as proof we weren't racist, instead of building genuine relationships across a broader community. In the absence of relationships, all we had were our ideals, and many of them hid a paternalistic racism that savaged our state.

***

I began this article saying we had a unique opportunity right now in America. People who've never talked about race are using their platforms to start conversations. Massive peaceful protest marches are taking place across America. White and black clergy marched this week in Minneapolis for justice.

So in the midst of this unique opportunity, I think it's important to talk about those things that make you the most uncomfortable. This is my contribution: a challenge to all of us who consider ourselves not at all racist, who'd never use the "n" word, who see our role as Christians to work for racial justice.

The mountains of food signify a desire to be involved, a desire to help. That is a good thing. An important thing. But maybe we have a chance, right now, to do even better. Instead of seeing our black siblings as desperate people in need of our saving, maybe we step back. Listen first. Look in your community, as close as you can, for who the black leaders are. Follow their work. Figure out what they're already doing to work for the causes you believe in, too. 

Build genuine, honest relationships, relationships that will last before, during, and after the next instance of racist violence against black people. Find yourself quoting black leaders, listening to sermons from black preachers, and when you're looking for leaders in the battle for justice and hope in America, look to the black community. 

In saying this, a caution. Part of the trouble with the Paternalistic Racism of Nice White People that has been a part of my own experience, is that white people assumed we were to serve as saviors. A quick mistake all of us often make when attempting to change this is to reverse it. And quickly we look to the first black person we're in relationship with to be our savior, to imagine that now instead, it's their turn to save us. 

Part of being a Christian, for those of us who are, is knowing that there's only one Savior, and that's Jesus. We shouldn't make gods of others just as we can't make gods of ourselves. So in working to build relationships, to create a more equitable community, we have to remember our shared humanity first. White people don't need to save black people, and black people also don't need to save white people. Jesus promises to save us all. 

But while we're here on this imperfect, imploding, beautiful, colorful, massive planet: Jesus asks us not to save each other but to figure out how to live together in harmony and at the very minimum, refrain from killing each other. Jesus asks us to look at each other and see life worth saving. 

***

Nine days after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer's knee in bright daylight on a South Minneapolis street, I'm crushed but not defeated. I'm hopeful because I see nascent relationships beginning to form. I see people starting to listen. I'm trying to shut up and listen. I write, too, because this is what I can do. I'm a crappy organizer, I don't follow directions well, I'm impatient, I'm inconsistent. God gave me words, and so I try to use them. God gave you your gifts. All we each can do is try to use them.

Two-thousand years ago or so, the Apostle Paul wrote letters to a wealthy church in Corinth, which was undergoing great upheaval and trying to sort out social differences in the midst of a Gospel of Jesus which insisted upon no human distinctions, but unity in Christ Jesus.

Paul says we have this treasure in clay jars, and I look down at my white arms, covered in freckles and moles, my itchy scalp, my dimpled thighs. My ancestors were oppressors and Civil Rights marchers, poor whites and German immigrants, people who struggled to get by and battle their demons and try to follow Jesus and keep their families fed.

My vessel is imperfect. I was born in a culture that taught me to sin, and into a family that also taught me to love. In this imperfect jar I can lament my imperfections or I can whitewash them and cover them up with good deeds and nice words and passive aggressive utterances of racism. 

Or I can stand, blemished and unblemished, at the foot of the Cross. I can try to tell the truth. I can try to work harder for justice. I can hand off the microphone. I can build authentic, honest relationships with white people and black people alike. I can confess my sin, I can be forgiven, and I can forgive others. 

America is changing. Justice is rolling down like waters. I want to bathe in the truth, and let it finally set me free.

"But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you."

- 2 Corinthians 4:7-12

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