When it comes to race, we need to stop looking away

Aleta Payne
Aleta Payne Light Creative, LLC

Human nature leads us to avert our gaze when confronted with situations that disturb us. We may refuse to make eye contact with someone who is homeless, but their suffering is real, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Part of our nation’s ongoing struggle with race is that too many look away and too few look deeply. For those of us who consider ourselves Christian, this shows up in the continued refusal to see the face of God in others and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It fundamentally contradicts who we are called to be while reinforcing that churches are not without sin on issues of race.

Failure to acknowledge our nation’s true history and its lasting consequences contributes to where we are now. The desire to extract what is grand, glorious and noble from the last 400-plus years can result in ignoring what isn’t, leading us to live in a cherry-picked version of our national narrative that consigns its brutality to the past. Among this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s searing profile of Dylann Roof and Ryan Kelly’s photography from Charlottesville are shockingly current. There is no getting over or moving beyond when these confounding realities are our present.

Members of my family recently received an invitation to a social event being held at a plantation. You will either understand my reaction to the evite — my sharply indrawn gasp as if I’d been punched in the most tender part of my belly – or you won’t. Either way, I hope you will consider this: wrapping history in magnolia blossoms does not change its truth. A gathering held in a place that represents, for many, enslavement, exploitation, torture, rape, and murder does not feel hospitable.

Overcoming the divisions created around race – particularly the inherent need to dehumanize – is not a purely intellectual exercise; hearts have to change as well. Faith communities, properly trained and sincerely repentant, are places to work on the latter.

But I am amazed by how little people understand about race, its origins as a concept, and how race is ingrained in systems. Learning more about what wasn’t in generations of history, economics, government, public policy, literature, and science classes, and is often still overlooked, is one place to start.

Read: I hesitate to make suggestions because there is so much available, but the April “National Geographic” on race is recent, and Ghansah’s “GQ” article is both chilling and necessary. For people of faith, in particular, “Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds” is worthwhile.

Listen: I have just started the Peabody-nominated podcast Seeing White, out of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.

See: The National Museum of African American History and Culture is well worth the trip to Washington D. C. (Durham’s Philip Freelon was lead architect). The recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama has received significant attention for its focus on slavery and lynching.

Do: The Greensboro-based Racial Equity Institute offers trainings across North Carolina.

Making a mistake does not mean someone is racist but refusing to acknowledge and learn from that mistake is a default choice to repeat it, and that morphs very quickly from misunderstanding to enabling to participating. Reconciliation can never happen under such circumstances, and if we ever needed to be reconciled, it is now.

Community columnist Aleta Payne of Cary is executive director of Johnson Service Corps, a community of young adults committed to social justice and spiritual growth.