Essay

Refuse to be in Denial

By June 25, 2020 9 Comments

(This post originally appeared at http://www.iamareconciler.org/dear-church-refuse-to-be-in-denial/ — thanks to Melissa for her permissino to repost this important piece here at the Twelve.)

Dear Church,

I write to you to admit that I am a recovering racist, working to overcome the lies ingrained in me by white supremacy and a racialized society. I share this to be transparent with you, to own up to the ways I’ve bought into and was born into the illusion of race, and to challenge you to do the same.

I am a white American woman, born and raised in a country that was built on white supremacy and expanded by institutionalized racism. The cultural messages I received were products of a racialized society, communicating to me the supposed meaning and value of whiteness. I have always been a beneficiary of white privilege as a person that fits our culture’s current definition of “white.”

I admit that given my context and identity, these realities are inescapable; I cannot ignore them out of existence or pretend they never touched me. My proximity to people of color (or overall niceness towards them, or relationship with one or more of them, etc.) does not exempt me from being a recipient of this inheritance and consumer of these messages informed by racism and white supremacy. So I confess that these issues are not exclusively other people’s problem – they are my problem, too. They are my family’s problem, my neighborhood’s problem, my church’s problem, my workplace’s problem, my city’s problem, my political party’s problem, etc. am a part of each of these groups.

Until we can admit that we are people in need of recovery from racism and white supremacy – and stop checking out of the conversation because “at least we aren’t those bigoted, overtly racist people” – we will never stop reusing and recreating racism in all its forms; we will never heal the wounds and cancer of white supremacy. I must look at myself and ask Jesus to “search me… and know my heart” to uproot false beliefs and assumptions, give sight to my blindness, and forgive my lie-informed thoughts, words, and actions[1].

I intentionally use the words “admit” and “recovery” in relation to these issues because I see a useful parallel between the traditional recovery process in the personal life and overcoming white supremacy in cultural and societal life. I see it because of my own journey of both spiritual and emotional recovery and racial identity awakening.

Many readers are likely familiar with 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or the Christ-centered Celebrate Recovery program. In September 2017, I joined a Celebrate Recovery step study, which focuses on allowing Christ to help you overcome life’s “hurts, habits, and hang-ups[2].” The first step in the program – and that which must precede all others in recovery – is stepping out of our denial, acknowledging that we are not God, and accepting that we are powerless to control our tendency to do the wrong thing without God.

Though I joined the program for spiritual and emotional reasons, I came to see how recovery principles were also directly applicable to “waking up” to and undoing white supremacy and racism. While I worked through my own personal recovery and further educated myself on racial injustice in America, I realized that my list of “hurts, habits, and hang-ups” also included my life-long absorption of racism and white supremacist beliefs (such as feelings of entitlement and expectations for safety and comfort, to name a few).

A book that really resonated with me during this time was, “White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to be White,” by Daniel Hill, pastor of a multicultural church in Chicago. Having gone through his own racial awakening journey as a white male and faith leader, Hill describes seven stages to the white Christian’s awakening to racism and whiteness in America: encounter, denial, disorientation, shame, self-righteousness, awakening, and active participation[3]. Similar to recovery program models, Hill describes the first steps as having an encounter/awakening moment to racial inequality, and from there confronting and overcoming denial about it.

I found the overlap to be so profound that I wanted to see if racism recovery programs are actually out there. I looked it up, and sure enough, there are “Racists Anonymous” meetings. Rev. Ron Buford, the founder of the “Racists Anonymous” recovery program, rather humorously points out, “everybody knows a racist, but nobody’s racist themselves.[4]” I’m sure folks in recovery can relate to this “beginner” sentiment: everyone else here definitely has a problem, but I’m not so bad, I’ve mostly got this under control. Denial is our biggest hurdle to recovery, both personally and systemically.

Leaving denial behind by admitting that racism is my problem is to admit my brokenness, passivity, and blindness. I can’t walk away from the fact that White America has abused its power, wrongfully assigned different values to different skin tones, and tried to justify our horrific crimes and inequities using the myth of race. Without my awareness of this reality and my repentant heart, I will perpetuate the ongoing pandemic of racism and white supremacy. It’s not enough for me to say, “I’m not racist,” or, “but I’m a good person,” and think that my work to dismantle racism is done; I cannot escape my American whiteness, nor our reality of institutionalized racism.

As a white Christ-follower, I must step out of my denial and face the meaning of my whiteness and its impact on others. This is a tremendous move and it is definitely not comfortable, but Jesus never called us to the comfortable life in which we remain unchanged. My recovery process has never been comfortable, but it continues to set me free from false beliefs, spiritual blindness, and harmful behaviors. We must be open to uncomfortable surrender to Jesus in order to shake ourselves free from the lies we have absorbed about race and whiteness.

We cannot do this without Jesus, just as I believe that true and lasting recovery cannot occur without Jesus. The horrendous baggage of white supremacy is too overwhelming of a weight for any of us to carry on our own. Many more of us know this than we are willing to admit, which is why so many of us bristle with anger or defensiveness in response to others’ claims of racism. As those of us in recovery know, it is much easier to blame others or be in denial than it is to surrender and take up our cross. This is why we must boldly turn to Jesus to give sight to our blindness, refusing to be in denial about who we believe are, the harm we’ve caused, the race myth we’ve ascribed to, and the privilege we’ve been given but never earned.

As recipients of Jesus’s completely undeserved, redemptive power, I challenge you and I to humbly fall to our knees before God out of the sorrow that we, too, are a part of the problem of racism and white supremacy; that we, too, are passively and actively perpetuating racist systems; that we, too, are recovering racists in desperate need of repentance and a Savior. The undoing of racism starts with me, with you, and the only God who can help us change. I hope you will join me in stepping out of denial and into this humbling challenge.

In Christ,

Melissa

[1] From Psalm 139:23-24, New International Version

[2] Celebrate Recovery, https://theaterchurch.com/care-prayer/care/celebrate-recovery

[3] Hill, Daniel. “White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to be White.” 2017.

[4] http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2017/02/racists_anonymous_founder_says.html

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Melissa Stek

Melissa Stek is a Justice Mobilization Specialist for the Christian Reformed Church, and works to network and encourage Christians to seek immigration reform. She holds a Bachelor of Social Work from Calvin College and a Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan.

9 Comments

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Thank you Melissa.
    Quite the 12 Step program. I too, am a recovering racist.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Melissa, That is a most remarkable statement. I too am a recovering racist. I realized my guilt over 50 years ago and I still am in the process of trying to change how I think and what I do with this knowledge. I think I have made a lot of progress but the Lord will judge me . We all need Jesus’s help to get beyond our failings including racism.

  • Joan Bouwma says:

    Well said Melissa.
    A book that really helped me see how privileged I am as a white person is Waking up White by Debby Irving.

  • Harris says:

    The focus on confession is already an act of avoidance. The concrete conditions continue to remain: housing, access to jobs, the jobs themselves, business opportunity, education, not to mention the continued boundary enforcing injustices of police forces. When the median black household income in Grand Rapids is $26,000 and change, I would suggest there is plenty of work to be done here and now to help communities flourish.

  • RLG says:

    Pretty interesting article, Melissa. If you are white, it would seem pretty difficult to say you are not racially prejudiced or biased (to some extent), at least after reading your article. But everyone is biased in one way or another. Apart from race there are all kinds of biases: education biases, biases of profession, religious prejudices, wealth biases, the prejudice of good, better, and best gifts or talents people possess, looks or appearance or weight prejudices. I would guess that most people in our society are prejudice either against or for certain kinds or types of people. Is the goal to make us all vanilla or the same flavor? Is there a place to appreciate our differences without trying to make us all the same?

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      I suggest that you carefully reread the article. It seems that you missed the point by a very wide margin. Your questions raise a strawman argument and, ironically, illustrate the very problem that Melissa is addressing. If we all appreciated each other’s differences, that would be a great step forward, as long as we “appreciate” and don’t use those differences to denigrate or assume superiority. If we white Americans appreciated each each other’s differences, we would see the systemic racism that benefits us at the expense of those who do not look like us.

      • RLG says:

        Thanks, Tom, for your insight and correction. Whether straw man or not, the point is (according to Melissa), if you are white, you are a racist by virtue of being born white. You could say, if you are human you are a sinner by virtue of being born a fallen sinner with a sinful nature. There’s no escaping who you are, according to Melissa. You’re white, you’re a racist. As Jeremiah comments, a leopard cannot change it spots, nor can a tiger change its stripes. As people cannot change their skin color or their essential sinful nature, sin will always come to expression in some form of prejudice (self centeredness). That’s human nature. And being a Christian doesn’t change that. If you think it does, then that shows your prejudice.

  • Tom says:

    OK, so we’ve read this kind of thinking for a long time now and been bombarded by it recently, and while I don’t disagree with most of the underlying principles here I so feel pretty strongly in one objection: Melissa Stek is not a racist or a white supremacist. Yes, she enjoys the advantages of being white in America and those advantages are undeniable, but that should not be called racism and in my mind it’s damaging to do so.

    I read a lengthy interview on npr.org a few days ago with a professor whose name I forget. The gist of her argument: that to be white is to be racist. That’s basically what this piece seems to argue as well and, If that’s the case, then we should just eliminate one of those two words from the English language.

    If Melissa Stek is a racist white supremacist, then what are we supposed to call Nathen Bedford Forrest and George Wallace and Richard Spencer? Or, when other writers on this blog call DJT (or the entire republican party) racist, am I to conclude that it only means he’s white and probably ‘recovering’ and is, in fact, the opposite of what racism is traditionally understood to be?

    My point, I guess, is that using the term ‘racist’ to describe both Melissa Stek and Richard Spencer renders the word meaningless and we need words like this to describe people like Richard Spencer.

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