By Brandon O’Brien
Within a month of bringing home our oldest child, I stood waiting for the elevator in a hotel lobby in a small midwestern town. I was there for a speaking engagement and was missing my wife and baby. It was my first time away from him.
Soon the elevator chimed and the doors opened and I started through them with my head down. Halfway aboard I raised my eyes and stopped short. I didn’t decide to stop. My body stopped, as if a rope tied to my gut had pulled me back just in the nick of time. The cause of my hesitation was on the elevator: three black men.
Less than a month before, my wife and I became the parents of a black son. Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman less than a week before our son was born, and we watched the news of his killing with new eyes as we held our boy who would someday be a young man. It grieved us to imagine that our little peanut might be deemed threatening, a thug, a menace solely because he was black. If I’m honest, I believed I was cured of ny racism I might have inherited when we indicated in our adoption paperwork that we were “willing to accept” a child of any ethnicity. But there were still the idiots out there who had yet to come around and I began to worry about what the existence of those idiots meant for my son.
But then I stopped short of boarding an elevator because there were three black men in it. And I realized then that racism wasn’t only out there in the world but right here in me. Deep. In my gut. Because I didn’t think about whether to board the elevator. My body sensed danger before I rationalized the situation. I realized then, and understand better now, that this is how deep racism is. Fear of black men is encoded in my gut and in my bones. Rational thought wasn’t necessary. My body did what it had been trained for thirty years to do. I suspect George Zimmerman had very similar training.
I boarded the elevator out of principle. I smiled politely (okay, awkwardly) then turned around to face the door. The men on the elevator didn’t pay much attention to me. One of them seemed distraught.
When the door closed and the elevator began its rise, one man spoke to another:
“I’m so sorry to hear about your mom. If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”
The third man said, “We’re here for you.”
I hesitated to walk onto the elevator because my insides said, This situation is dangerous. The only rationale for my feeling of danger was that they were black men and not white men.
In fact the situation was not dangerous. It was a profoundly human moment of grief and compassion and solidarity. The only potential danger on that elevator was me—hyper-vigilant, paranoid.
The thing of it is, I had never before—nor have I ever since—been in a threatening situation with a black man. My personal experiences with African-Americans were lamentably limited at that point, but all of them were positive. How had I internalized this racism?
Over the last eight years, I’ve found some answers to that question. It’s reinforced by the way our cities (large and small) are legally and intentionally segregated. It’s reinforced, in people of faith, by our patterns of worship and churchgoing and our deep history of racist theologizing. It’s cemented by our failure to recognize that white people have a distinct cultural identity and have deep-seated fear about talking about race and racism.
Intentional and deepening relationships with people of color exposed me to the impact of my racism and the racism of others: experiences of being pulled over by police while driving in predominantly white, wealthy neighborhoods; the many accommodations black men make to appear as non-threatening as possible; code-switching; the stigma of speaking English as a second language; questions like, “But where are you from originally?
More slowly than I’d care to admit, I realized that these are not isolated incidents but were consistent, patterned, predictable.
It’s remarkable, really, how successfully racism has been discipled in us through our social systems, churches, and families for generations.
That’s why I joined a peaceful, prayerful protest in Brooklyn, organized by more than a hundred churches in the city, to advocate for changes in our social systems. It is absolutely essential that we address systemic injustices, because racism is deep in the walls of our shared American home, and we’ve got work to do to eradicate it.
But we can’t stop there. There’s real danger in externalizing racism and assuming its all out there in the system. The white people who deny racism and the “woke” white people who look down their noses at racist white folks, for example, are both wrong for the same reason: they fail to see the racism in themselves. In general, white people fail to see how we have benefited from systemic racism, as Phil Vischer (creator of VeggieTales) describes powerfully here. As a result, we have to be as committed to the hard work of excavating our hearts as we are to the work of social reform.
The Good News is that, while our own racism may surprise us, it comes as no surprise to God. He offers us his grace before we recognize the depth of our sin so that, with his help, we can look our sin in the face.
Brandon J. O’Brien is Director of Content Development and Distribution for Redeemer City to City, an organization that supports church planting in global cities. He is the author of several books and has been a frequent guest on the Holy Post. His latest book, Not From Around Here, was discussed on Episode 378: "Is the REAL America Urban or Rural?" He lives with his wife, Amy, and two children in Uptown Manhattan.
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