It's 2020 and the American Church is still struggling to pursue racial reconciliation. I just read another article suggesting that a step white Christians can take toward understanding and fighting racism is to befriend people of color. If you are a white Christian who cares about racial justice and has been told to befriend a person of color, let me suggest that a better place to start is to educate yourself about race by reading some things by people of color.
I spent much of the last few years helping white students and staff come to terms with their racial identity and grapple with its connection to their faith and witness in the age of Black Lives Matter as Area Specialist for Scripture Engagement and Racial Justice in Cleveland, Ohio. Since my days as a college student in the late nineties, I have tried to learn about how race works in this country and in the Church. Before college I had some experiences in diverse settings, and as an IV student leader I felt it was important to make friends with people from different racial backgrounds from me. But simply making friends with people of color didn't transform my understanding of how racism impacts all of us — learning about the history of racism in this country is what brought about that change.
Befriending people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds has probably been the most common bit of advice I've heard in my 25 years of learning about race. This is not terrible advice — white Christians are the most racially isolated group of all racial and religious groups in this country, and learning about the realities of race and racism from people who experience those realities daily would certainly be helpful. But this advice can be problematic. As a friend pointed out to me recently, it is never a good idea to befriend someone for the ulterior motive of becoming more knowledgeable about race. That is not true friendship — that is using someone for your own enlightenment.
Instead, I suggest something that might be both easier for white people and less painful for people of color (who are often asked to relive their own racial pain again and again in order to educate skeptical white people).
Commit to reading things by people of color — people from all different religious, political, ethnic, and racial backgrounds.
Replace your current online news sources for a month with nativenewsonline.net, theroot.com, and/or newstaco.com. Note: These news sources are going to be different from what you are used to — that's the point! They might be uncomfortable to read, and you may find them biased. You may read what they have to say and be skeptical about it. Don't let that stop you from continuing to engage. If you find yourself criticizing some of these media outlets because you find them to be biased, ask yourself what it is about them that sounds biased to you, and then ask yourself if you use that same criteria to evaluate bias in your regular news sources. If you have this feeling that you must check on the veracity of what you are reading with more mainstream (and likely more white) sources, ask yourself why that is. Is it possible that deep down inside you believe that you can only trust something when it comes from a white source? If that's the case, ask yourself why that is.
Commit to learning about the history of race in this country.
Listen to a podcast like Scene on Radio's “Seeing White” or read Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning or Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Read a history text like From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. If you like to read fiction, commit to spending the next month (or even better, six months, or a year) reading fiction from authors of color. Read Zora Neal Hurston or Octavia Butler or Toni Morrison. Read There, There by Tommy Orange, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, or Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. (Full disclosure: this is advice I need to take — I have read very little fiction by authors). The next time you want to learn more about prayer or the Holy Spirit or the book of John, find a book or article or devotional written by a person of color, like Bread for the Resistance by Donna Barber. And definitely read some books about racial justice and reconciliation by people of color. Authors like Lisa Sharon Harper, Austin Channing Brown, Brenda Salter MacNiel, Randy Woodley, Jemar Tisby, Kathy Khang, or Alexia Salvatierra are great resources. You can also follow many of these folks on social media. Read The Souls of Black Folk by WEB DuBois. Read Martin Luther King Jr.’s ”A Letter from a Birmingham Jail” right now!
"Diversifying your personal networks" (as it was put in the article I read recently) is certainly something we should consider, but that may be difficult or even impossible for white Christians who are, as I mentioned, very isolated — perhaps by choices they've made (whether intentional or not) but sometimes due to geographic or organizational demographics (how do you befriend a person of color if you live in a city or state that is 97% white? If your workplace or ministry has 50 white people and two people of color and the advice is to befriend a person of color within your organization, those people of color are going to be inundated with new white “friends” asking about their experience regarding race!).
Reaching out to people who are different from you for the sake of friendship is not, in itself, a problem. Reaching out to people who are different from you so they can educate you about the reality of racism is. There are so many books and articles and resources giving insight into this issue available to us today; white people can do a lot on our own to learn about the realities of race without expecting our friends and co-workers to do the work of educating us. It is possible to learn enough through media, books, and other resources to begin doing antiracism work even without making one new friend. If you do some work to understand the racial issues and tensions at play in our country today before you try to diversify your networks, then you are less likely to cause pain and frustration for the people you do end up befriending.