I Will Not Stay Silent: A Southern White Woman’s Response to the Charleston Massacre

 

I have always willingly identified as a southerner. My mother is from Savannah, Georgia, my father is from Greenville, Mississippi and I grew up in various towns in Alabama. I am most at home when the humidity is above 80%, there’s a pitcher of sweet tea in the fridge, and folks stop by just to “visit.” Many people are surprised to hear that I’m from Alabama—I’m not sure why but maybe it’s because I don’t fit the stereotype that most people have. I don’t even know what the stereotype of a white woman in her 30’s from Alabama might be, but I think it probably includes a strong southern accent, a considerable lack of education, and cooking with lard, fatback, and streak-a-lean. Oh, and someone who stays in Alabama. Moving out of state to attend university gave me my first taste of the shock I would often encounter when meeting someone unfamiliar with folks from the Deep South. They are often genuinely surprised that we can be levelheaded, articulate, and sincere.

Yates Mill

But I am from the south and, until recently, thought I would live there forever. A year ago, my husband, two young boys, and I moved to Long Island, New York. We knew it would be an adjustment and there would be hard moments. We knew it would take a commitment on our part to hold ourselves here, to wait for things to get easier, to trust that the decision to leave home— to leave everything we’d ever known—was wise. And we were right. It has been incredibly difficult at times to be so far away from loved ones who know us and love us. It’s been hard to find our rhythm in an environment where the pace is much faster than anything we’ve ever experienced. It’s taken a conscious effort on our part to remember why we came in light of how homesick we’ve been. This past year has confirmed that I will probably always feel more at home in a place that is hot and muggy and where the people move slower because of it.

And yet… I am becoming painfully aware in the wake of last week’s massacre in Charleston, SC that much of what made up the air I breathed as a little white girl growing up in lower Alabama was revisionist history. The “South” that I love and have been desperately homesick for, doesn’t really exist. I have always known this on some level, but I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know the extent to which my ideas of home have been informed by things that just aren’t true. [1][2]

I’ve long been disabused of any idea that the Civil War was really about states’ rights or that the Confederate flag has any business being anywhere but a museum [3], but I can’t escape the fact that my very experience has been that of a privileged white woman. [4] And I can’t escape the fact that most of my friends are privileged white women. Amazing women. Gospel-loving women. And we have the privilege of going to church on Wednesday night without the fear that someone will gun us down because we are white. There is no flag flying high above a government building that symbolizes the hatred people had for my ancestors. The very fact that we can post on Facebook about puppies, vacations, and funny jokes in the days after the Charleston Massacre means that we have no idea what our African-American brothers and sisters are experiencing. [5]

I was born in 1979, just fifteen years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Fifteen years. How can I think that the south I was born into and interacted with as a little girl was so very different than the south that tore itself apart in the 1950’s and 1960’s?

I think the problem white people in my generation have with understanding race issues is that we see it as taking place a lifetime ago, long before we were born. My mother tells me about a time in the 1950’s when they didn’t have a television, when she was required to wear either a skirt or a dress to work in the 1960’s, and about the first microwave they bought in the 1970’s. There is a vast gulf between her childhood and mine. Her history seems far away, so separated from our society today. The videos I’ve watched of the protests, marches, and speeches from the Civil Rights Movement seem to be from a different time, much like Armstrong’s walk on the moon seems to have more in common with the invention of the automobile than with my daily experience. And though my father went to the University of Mississippi in the 1960’s around the same time as James Meredith, I often forget that particular part of his history. I forget that the man who raised me was raised in Greenville, MS in the 1950’s.

I forget because my parents are wonderfully loving people who tried very hard to raise their children to see everyone as equal. They talked often about making friends with people of all races and set examples for us in their own lives. They didn’t, however, talk much about the reason it was so important to intentionally treat everyone as equal. They left it up to the schools to teach us about the Civil Rights Movement in that very sterile way textbooks teach everything—I certainly never read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in school. [6] My parents and many other white parents didn’t talk to their children about the things they must have witnessed in their schools, on the buses, at water fountains. I know that living through the Civil Rights Movement in the south impacted my parents and I know the collective history of the south is one that must be painful to them and others like them. Therefore, like many other whites from that time, they didn’t talk to their children about their true, painful, bloody history. And so, our history— our heritage— didn’t become real to us. Instead, we were left to parse together a romanticized version that leaves us feeling incredibly defensive whenever someone comes along and challenges our love of home. [7]

I know some of my white friends will be frustrated with me after reading this, and that’s okay. We have a shared history of silence when it comes to discussing difficult things. Race, poverty, and injustice—these are things that polite southern ladies don’t often enter into discussions about. [8] As my mama always said, “Honey, don’t stir the stink ‘cause it’ll just make it stronger.” Perhaps we don’t discuss these issues because we don’t know how to begin. Or because we are afraid of doing it wrong and making things worse. Or because we haven’t seen it modeled for us by our mothers and grandmothers. But I don’t want to stay silent any longer. I want to be part of the discussion. Mostly, I want to listen to my African-American brothers and sisters and learn about their experiences. I want my African-American students, along with all my students of color, to know that although I have not had their same experiences, I stand with them. [9]

I won’t remain silent any longer. Even if I mess up in my attempts to understand, I trust that my African-American brothers and sisters will be gracious with me and help me. The only way I know to start the process of reconciliation is on a personal level— through conversation. And so I am beginning. Will you join me?

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[1] Article on “Lost Cause” narrative, John Price, https://medium.com/@thejohnprice/yes-you-re-a-racist-and-a-traitor-6c4bb12c5b63

[2] What this Cruel War was Over, Ta-Nehisi Coates, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/

[3] The Cross and the Confederate Flag, Russell Moore, http://www.russellmoore.com/2015/06/19/the-cross-and-the-confederate-flag/

[4] White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh, http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html

[5] Eugene Scott quote on Facebook: What must it be like to live a life where the ‪#‎CharlestonShooting seems so irrelevant to your daily life that you can remain silent?

[6] Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., Justin Taylor (notes and outline) http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2015/06/18/martin-luther-king-jr-letter-from-birmingham-jail-the-complete-text-and-an-outline/

[7] White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism, Robert DiAngelo, http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism-twlm/

[8] I am very aware that the reason we don’t enter into these conversations is because we don’t have to. It’s another example of white privilege.

[9] Charleston and Teaching Children, Chris Lehmann, http://practicaltheory.org/blog/2015/06/18/charleston-and-teaching-children/

I Love NC

Oh man.

I’m not entirely sure how this happened, but here we are, in Stony Brook, NY. These last two weeks have been some of the hardest weeks of my life– we said good-bye to friends and family (and our house), loaded all our possessions into a 26′ moving truck, and traveled north to the land of parkways and toll roads.

There is a lot to share and much to reflect upon, so I figured I might as well resurrect the ‘ole blog as a means of keeping in touch with my people. There are many things I am feeling right now, but thread that runs through it all is Phil 3.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.

That bit of scripture has always been particularly meaningful to me. Years ago when I was in college, I read Philippians 3 and it utterly changed me. I changed career paths from engineering to teaching. I let go of a lot of my preconceived notions about how my life was going to go and what I wanted to accomplish. I started the process of finding my identity in Christ instead of in the world. In short, I’ve tried to count all the things wanted as loss and instead cling to Christ, wanting to be found in him. Over the years, Michael and I slowly carved out a pretty fantastic life for ourselves. Living in the same place for so long allows you to get comfy. We bought an old farmhouse and spent 10 years transforming it into exactly what we envisioned. We settled into deep friendships with people that truly reflect the Gospel, and we’ve been changed by what we’ve seen. We have been incredibly blessed and know that all the good things in our lives have been given to us by the Giver.

Ever since my college days of discovering Philippians 3 and trying to figure out what it means to “count all things as loss,” I’ve constantly reminded myself that Christ is what matters. Jobs, houses, cars, 401k’s, vacations, etc. are not what I strive to obtain. Instead, it is people– souls– that we want to invest in. Dying to yourself so others can flourish is what we are called to do.

So here I am, almost 15 years after first reading Philippians 3. And I’m learning anew what it means to count all things as loss. This time it isn’t an engineering degree that will make people think I’m smart, or a job that pays a lot of money so I will finally feel like I’m okay. No, this time I’m counting some really beautiful things as loss– things that God himself has given me. And it’s harder than I ever imagined it would be.

But lest we despair, it helps to read the rest of Philippians 3. We don’t just count all things as loss, but also remember that we have gained Christ and are found in him! The extent to which I am able to remember the surpassing worth of Christ and to focus on what I have gained in him, is the extent to which I can give thanks for the last few weeks. Please pray for me (and for my family) that we would look to Christ, remember his surpassing worth, and live out of that reality.

No Fear (well, maybe a little fear)

Michael and I were talking about Plato this morning. I’ve never read Plato (except for random quotes that people put up on Facebook– somehow I don’t think I can count that) but Michael has and since I’m married to him and we’re One and all, I like to think that means part of me has read Plato. You know… the part of me that is Michael.

Anyway, we were talking about fear and how it can destroy us if we let it. He mentioned some things that Plato wrote about Courage and how Courage isn’t the absence of all fear. It’s learning to fear the right things and reject fear of the wrong things. That makes sense to me. And, more importantly, it lines up with the Gospel.

Here are some (wrong) things that I’ve feared over the years: being taken advantage of, being generous with money, looking foolish to others, not being accepted, the unknown (!), losing my husband/children, and countless other things. At times, the fear has been almost debilitating as I’ve let my thoughts run wild about what might happen or what people might think about me. In recent years, as I’ve learned more about the Gospel, I’ve found myself doing and thinking things that would have previously been scary for me. Big things. Vulnerable things. Dying-to-myself-kind-of-things. And truth be told, I was usually standing on the knife’s edge separating Courage from fear. What kept me from constantly falling over into fear was preaching the Gospel to myself. Instead of just threatening my soul with vague thoughts of trusting and obeying, I found that it is much more effective to remind my soul of what the Gospel really is.

The Gospel is about love- the love of the Father in making a way for us to be reconciled to him. It’s about the love of the Son as he came and lived among us and then died to claim us as his own. The Gospel is about unmerited grace, forgiveness of sins, and putting all the wrong things right again. It is about second chances. It is about infinite chances.

This is not a gospel of fear. This is not a gospel of self-protection. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not call us to constantly replay in our minds all the bad things that could possibly happen to us if we reach out to someone who desperately needs us. Quite the opposite, actually. The Gospel calls us to die to ourselves– to do things that look foolish to the world. The Gospel calls us to pour out grace on people who do not deserve it. (How can it be grace if someone deserves it? It’s only grace if the person is completely undeserving of your kindness.) The Gospel calls us to reach out to others– people that are hurting themselves, people that are hurting others, people that are hurting us. We aren’t told that we will be spared pain if we do this, as if we have some sort of Jesus force field protecting us. In fact, we’re told that we will encounter suffering as we love others. So why would we ever do this? Why would anyone choose to obey the Gospel if it’s just going to bring more pain and grief?

I know I will never be able to really express what the Gospel has done to me– I don’t think I will ever recover from how it has wrecked my soul. The Gospel will crush you in a way that nothing else will. Seeing your brokenness and coming face to face with who you really are is absolutely devastating. But, the Gospel will put you back together and heal you in a way that nothing else can. It removes your heart of stone and puts in its place a heart of flesh. The grace that we experience as believers in Christ is like nothing else– just a taste of it compels us to show grace to others. As Michael and I often say (usually after one of us has sinned against the other), “What is this between us?” What we mean is, what can I possibly hold against you? I’ve been completely forgiven and found worthy by the only One who really matters– I have the “praise of the praiseworthy” and it changes everything. The extent to which the Gospel has seeped into your soul will effect how much grace you can give to others.

So what are the right things to fear? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that sin is a big one. You should be very, very afraid of sin and what it can do to you. Sure, we all have a choice to obey or disobey, and in the beginning we do choose sin. But, friends, sin is like a lion sitting patiently at your door. It is just waiting for you to step outside to play a short game of tag with it, and then it will eat you alive. If you want to know my story, buy me a cup of coffee one day and I’ll tell you how sin absolutely owned me for 12 years. If you think you are immune from sins like adultery, violence, drug abuse, etc. then, not only do you not know your own heart, but you are at high risk for judging others. As Keller says, the root of a judgmental, bitter, or unforgiving heart is the notion that you would never do something so distasteful, ugly, or heinous. How can you move out into the world, overflowing with grace for others, if you haven’t recognized that you, too, are in constant need of the grace of Christ? It’s just not possible to judge and condemn others if you have been utterly undone by the grace of the Gospel.

Let us be a community of grace– people that are not interested in protecting themselves, but in loving others. Let us encourage each other in the Gospel to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” We have been bought with the precious blood of Jesus– what is there to fear?

(Hebrews 10:19-24)

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.

To My Friend

{This is a letter to a particular friend in a specific situation, but I could have written similar words to a half-dozen other women this last year. So many of us are hurting– let’s be kind to one another, as we often have no idea what others are struggling with. Let’s strive for our words to be encouraging and healing. And let’s really pray for those we say we are praying for.}

 

Dear sweet friend,

I am sorry that things have been so hard for you these past few months. I am sorry that you feel isolated and alone, and I am especially saddened that you feel so deeply the effects of a broken world. I wish so much that I could fix this for you. I want to bring you meals, send you encouraging cards, and sit and listen as you struggle to work out how you are feeling. And while I very likely will do those things, I know I cannot fix this.

I wish I was a better writer and could express how much your friendship means to me. I can’t remember all the conversations we’ve had over the years, but I know that they have shaped me and helped me think deeply about the things that matter. I have learned more from you about what it means to be a godly wife, loving mother, and true friend than I will ever learn by reading a book or listening to a famous speaker.

I wish I could hold up a mirror that would show you how I see you and how very much I admire you. That mirror would show a woman who works diligently to take care of her family, is kind and loving toward those around her, and is crazy smart. It would soothe your fears about not being good enough, and would silence the criticism of others that you hear so loudly. It would show you what is true– it would reflect back to you the Gospel that says you are enough. You are enough because you are found in Christ. He has done everything necessary for you and there is nothing left for you to do except delight in Him.

My dear, sweet, beautiful friend– I know I cannot fix anything for you, but I also know there is One who can fix it all. And as you desperately cling to Him and all that you know to be true, remember that you are loved and adored by many. I am praying for you constantly and trusting my Father that his plan is perfect for you.

Love,

Natalie