Written by:Trevin Wax
Whenever there is disagreement or debate about race relations in the United States, or whenever we witness steps forward or backward in repentance and racial reconciliation, I notice that many of my white brothers and sisters who have a heart for unity quickly say something like this: I need to learn from others whose experience I cannot relate to.
This is the right posture. We should all be quick to listen and slow to speak, as the apostle James commands us, but especially in those matters where we realize we lack knowledge and understanding. The posture of being quick to listen is commendable.
But sometimes, I’m afraid that many of us who belong to the majority culture jump from "I want to learn" to saying, "Please come and teach me" to our black and brown brothers and sisters. And, as we lay out expectations and considerations, it becomes obvious that many white Christians believe (1) that the education we need can be resolved in a short amount of time, and (2) that African-American brothers and sisters are responsible for delivering that education.
We need to reconsider those assumptions. We can affirm a teachable spirit while pushing back on unrealistic expectations.
Education Takes Time
First, the idea that an education on race and race relations can take place in an hour-long lecture, or a half-day of conversation, or even a semester of course work is terribly misguided. It minimizes the complexity and seriousness of the issues that confront us.
Imagine telling a professor of historical theology, I need to learn the history of Christian theological development over time. Can you come to my church and teach me what I need to know?
If you’re a theologically minded reader of my blog, you know that a daylong session on historical theology would barely scratch the surface. Even if you were to treat the historical development of just one doctrine, you’d not have time to go deep into the story.
We recognize the complexities of theological and doctrinal development, which is why an M.Div requires nearly 90+ course hours and why a Ph.D. can take years of research and writing to gather expertise on a sliver of a subject.
Why, then, do we assume that education in race and race relations is any different? We have inherited a society that was complicit in the enslaving of Africans from the time of its founding. If an overview of American history in general can’t be learned in an hour’s time, why would we expect to glean great understanding of history and race relations in such a short amount of time?
Education Needs Initiative
Secondly, a posture of learning does not obligate our black and brown brothers to teach us. Yes, we should be grateful for brothers and sisters who are willing to walk with us, teach us, and challenge us. But when it comes to an education in race relations, the onus is on us, not our non-Anglo friends.
So, as Saint Augustine heard in the garden, we too should "take up and read."
In the new book, Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, Kevin Jones, professor at Southern Seminary recommends that we "read non-Anglo authors on a regular basis…" People "in a broad array of occupations and cultural settings must diversify their reading lists." He also says we should "consider a widespread curriculum change that includes more vetted writers/authors, professors, pastors, and leaders from ethnic groups that have been traditionally marginalized" (93).
"I have to know white culture by default," says Albert Tate. "I can’t get a GED without having to understand white culture. But a white person can get a Ph.D. and never know black culture" (95).
True. And this must change.
We Can’t Wait
White brothers and sisters, we cannot wait on evangelical institutions to have diverse faculties or a diversified reading list as a part of a syllabus before we can make progress in this area. I hope that day is coming, but let’s face it: in most institutions, we’re not even close to where we need to be. In the meantime, let’s get busy reading.
I do not speak as an expert here, but as a fellow learner. The more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know. But I’ve started to be more intentional.
At the suggestion of Bryan Loritts, I am reading through Taylor Branch’s trilogy on the King years. Many of us know the basic story of the Civil Rights movement, but know nothing of the depth of that era–from the strategy disagreements between different black organizations, to the woefully tepid support offered by John and Robert Kennedy, to the silence of the churches. (I will never take the trek down I-65 through Birmingham to Montgomery again without thinking of the Freedom Riders.)
The appendix of Removing the Stain of Racism has a long reading list on race and race relations. (The authors do not advocate all the ideas in these books, but they believe them to be foundational for gaining a good understanding on many of these issues.) I’m not going to list all of the books here, but I hope to work my way through many of these titles over the next ten years.
If you want to get started with me, then let’s tackle a shorter list of books below, recommended to me by Curtis Woods. Let’s find good historical documentaries to watch. If you have a heart for racial reconciliation and a posture of learning, then apply yourself to this massively complex subject where the world needs our gospel witness.
Don’t wait for someone to teach you. Take up and read.