When I started getting ideas for how to honor Black History Month on this blog, I sent them to my friend and critique partner Sandra Barnes for her feedback. She responded with her usually gracious insight, but then she said:
“Also, IF you really want to go deep, get the conversation started, demonstrate how easy (or uncomfortable) it can be, and how intentional it needs to be…interview me. Publicly ask me what’s it like to be Black in America in 2015.”
Huh, I thought. And then, Wow…good idea.
She laughed later about her offer to be interviewed, thinking she might have sounded pretentious. But I thought it was a great idea. After all, if I am encouraging people to engage in conversations about race, I need to be willing to do that myself.
So without further ado, let me introduce my friend, fellow writer (watch for her debut YA novel coming soon!), and sister in the Lord, Sandra Barnes. I hope you will be blessed as she shares her heart…I have been.
Thank you for an opportunity to give voice to my experience of being black in America. I’ll note up-front that many of my experiences may not apply to others within my ethnic and socio-cultural group. In other words, I am plainly stating that I do not represent all African-Americans or black people in the US. However, I am hopeful that this interview will provide some insight into the contemporary black experience of many.
1. How would you describe what it’s like to be black in America today?
In one word … beautiful. I love being black. I love living in America. And, I love being black in America. While I’m having a pretty awesome time living my life, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t encountered the disappointment of discrimination or racism. I think my ability to see the good, in spite of the not-so-good, is more indicative of my faith, my purpose for being here on earth, and the support system God has allowed me to have along this journey.
I’ve never viewed being black as a burden, even though it has come with a unique set of challenges in America. I’m aware of many of the stereotypes. Erroneous assumptions based on my skin color have been played out more often than I care to count. However, for me, working in corporate America as a black female, and being mistaken as the secretary rather than the manager, is a minor infraction compared to a casually dressed black male being repeatedly mistaken as a violent criminal. It’s these types of transgressions that require African-American parents to not only teach their children how to be black and successful in America, but also how to stay alive when simply running errands. Believe me, the lessons are very necessary and must be delicately taught without inducing hypervigilance.
Overall, I have felt privileged that God would trust me with such a responsibility that necessitates enduring temporary injustice, forgiving inexplicable wrongs, and accepting those who have rejected me simply because of my ethnicity.
2. What do you most often wish white people understood?
Most often, I wish white people would understand that African-Americans are a heterogeneous group with diverse attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs just like they are. Sure we have some similarities other than the melanin in our skin, and it’s primarily true that the African-American culture has a tendency toward collectivism. That is, there is an interdependent relationship among African-Americans where the needs of the community are often emphasized more strongly than those of the individual. From the outside, the cohesion and interconnectedness of black people might look like group-think. But this is not the case. Black people come in all shapes, sizes, makes, models, and opinions. Our diversity ranges in terms of religious culture, education, socio-economic status, language and national origin.
There are many other things that I wish white people understood. For example:
- Terrorism on US soil didn’t begin with the 9/11 bombings a few years ago. The horrors of terrorism were exhibited centuries ago, through the senseless burning and lynching of thousands, the 9/15 bombing in Birmingham, and Jim Crow laws.
- We hear you, and we’re listening when you say, “Get over the past.” Many wish they could, but the past problem has created a present need. Vicarious trauma is real, and post traumatic stress can be experienced by subsequent generations as individuals witness/relive painful, dehumanizing events through narratives or media. This is true whether it’s the trauma of war or slavery.
- Talking is part of the healing process. Your silence is often mistaken as apathy. We know you didn’t start this battle, and most of us aren’t blaming you for the course it has taken. But we’d like your help in resolving it. Even if you feel awkward and can’t find the right words, talk to us.
3. What frustrates you most about racial relations in America today, especially in the church?
I’m frustrated by the fear on both sides that leads to mistrust. Honestly, the fear in both groups might be viewed as irrational, but the fear is very real and it triggers dangerous overreaction. In terms of race relations, the church lags behind in reconciliation. America has seen big changes in many areas over a short span of time. It’s a special time for our generation. Our lives intersect with African-Americans who attended segregated schools and couldn’t vote, as well as with those who have held high political positions, including the US Presidency. The Christian church remains steeped in tradition—one that historically justified segregation. This is all too sad because the enemy knows that a house divided cannot stand. I’m frustrated by the seeming lack of intentionality to worship together, the excuses about styles of music and ways of worshipping that keep us apart, and the unwillingness to set aside personal preferences in submission to God’s will for the body of Christ.
4. You’ve said before that the struggle for racial reconciliation is primarily a spiritual battle. Why do you think that’s true?
Not all issues are political and can be settled with the passing of new laws and amendments. Segregation was a political issue that was resolved through mandated integration. Racial reconciliation is another matter. It is a spiritual issue of the heart that cannot be legislated. Reconciliation is not simply about bringing separate elements together; it is a position of restoration that entails repentance, forgiveness, and overcoming distrust and hostility. Sometimes acts of forgiveness seem impossible in our human state, but can definitely be achieved through God’s grace—which we can offer to each other. We need to align ourselves with Jesus’ prayer that the body of Christ be brought to complete unity (John 17:23). This has to be a message from the church. Not a verbal one, but a message where actions speak louder than words. This is the perfect time for God’s people to rightly transform society.
5. What do you think are some of the most important steps people (on both sides of the color line) can take towards better interracial understanding and reconciliation?
Exactly what you and I are doing—asking questions, sharing stories and concerns, seeking understanding. Be intentional. Laying down preferences without abandoning moral values is important. This will require pushing past self-imposed boundaries and enduring temporary social discomfort. Because of the majority/minority ratio, it might be easier (though not necessarily less scary) for people of color to place themselves in proximity to those who look different racially. If for whatever reasons, this is too anxiety-provoking, then bite off what you can chew in the moment. Keep in mind that the only way change can happen is to upset the status quo. Who knows what might happen? One step will hopefully lead to walking together for a lifetime.
Thank you so much, Sandra! Now let us hear from you, reader friends. What are some barriers you see—in our society or individually—to talking about race? (I know for me, sometimes it’s fear of causing hurt or being seen as insensitive if I’m totally honest.) What are your thoughts? Please comment and share!