Why Race?

why race

Updated July 2020. A few years ago, Dan Allender began to more deeply reflect on the ways in which he has overlooked racial trauma in his own life and work, leading off a series on our blog and podcast regarding trauma and race.

I was eating with a friend whom I have not seen for about 6 months. When the waitress came for our order I asked if any of the vegetarian meals could be prepared with coconut milk, instead of dairy. After she departed, he scorned, “Are you a vegan now?” His words were playful and incredulous. I found it hard to say, “Yes.” Instead, I offered my defense. I told him I am a N3RV. Of course, he took the bait and said, “What is that?” “It is a non-reliable, non-resolute, non-religious vegan.” He laughed and said, “It won’t last.”

What was my struggle in saying, ‘Yes, I am vegan”? Our identity is precious to us, and we don’t take on new awareness or change easily, especially when it aligns us with a community or group that is not the ‘norm’. If our sense of who we are becomes attached to a belief, practice or group that is not only not in the ‘norm’ but sufficiently ‘other’ then we run the risk of being questioned and perhaps even quietly exiled from our identity-community.

I am no longer a meat eater. I’d rather supplement protein by using a vegan powder than to drizzle barbeque sauce down my chin. The look my friend gave me crossed between—you are weird and you are a traitor. And we are talking something as incidental as food and not race. Once we step into the uber-controversial issue of race, prejudice, white privilege, police injustice, Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Donald J. Trump, redlining, micro-aggression, and ‘it may not be perfect, but it is surely better than it used to be”, we are on the tenuous edge of a beast that seems to ravage anyone who gets too near.

I was asked by a brilliant, playful and courageous African-American attorney if I knew of any people group that was formed—that had their inception in trauma. My mind first landed on the Jews. If you consider their history in Egypt and their 400 years of slavery, it is a highly traumatic story, but it could be said their birth occurred before their incarceration. I looked her squarely in the face and formed the words for the first time—“African-Americans.” It had never dawned on me that an entire people-group in our nation came into being through trauma.

How is that possible? I live and breathe trauma and abuse. It has been my work and privilege since 1986. I have worked with scores of people of color. There are some heartbreaking processes related to sexual abuse that are common to all victims irrespective of age, gender, race, ethnicity, generation, or family. And I have majored on those common factors that seem to be true for all rather than considering the unique particularity that arises due to other factors. The implications of racial trauma as it impinges on the damage of sexual abuse has not been in the purview of my writing, reading, or reflection. I have to ask again: “Why?”

The answer begins, but doesn’t end, with the reality of white privilege.

The answer begins, but doesn’t end, with the reality of white privilege. I simply have never walked into a retail store and been overtly followed by a clerk to make sure that I don’t shoplift as has The Seattle School’s now president, Dr. Derek McNeil, an African-American male in his fifties, who is dapper, handsome, and sophisticated in a manner that I could no more mimic than I could sing on tune. I have been yanked out of a car, thrown against a police car, handcuffed and humiliated for no cause before being released with no apology or explanation. But it should be clear, whatever reason I was detained, it was not because of my race. The majority of my African-American male friends have been stopped and harassed for no reason other than their skin.

I never had ‘the talk’ with my son or daughters of what to do when they are pulled over by police like my African-American friends who live with regrettably daily fear of what may happen when their teenage children go out for a date or a movie. White privilege is no less than never having to bear the consequences of being read with bias based on the color of our skin. The more I have become aware of my white privilege the more incensed I am that racial trauma has not been a more significant part of my labor.

A friend stated, “If you start addressing racial trauma, you will be pigeon-holed as being more political than biblical.” I winced. His observation is true. We divide the biblical from the political, unless the political champions the agenda of pro-life, 2nd Amendment, and anti-gay marriage. Feminists in the seventies popularized the phrase: “The personal is the political.” The phrase connotes that what happens to our bodies is not just personal; it is a political act that has to be exposed not just as individual but as influenced by belief systems, social construction, political processes, and cultural changes.

As an example, laws condemned women for prostitution with huge fines and significant jail time in every state for centuries, while their purveyors (Johns) suffered barely a slap on the hand. How is such perversion possible? How did the church allow such injustice to exist? Why is it seldom the church that stands against the face of heartbreaking failure and instead turns the other cheek to let someone else take the blow? I don’t know, but I do know that rather than questioning the church, I need to address one member of the church: me.

I am not a racist. I sincerely doubt a single person reading our blog or interacting with our work is an outright self-proclaimed racist. 24 years ago, Becky and I attended a U2 concert in Denver. The metal scaffolding on both sides of the stage and in between held hundreds of televisions, small and huge. The stage went electrically dark. Nothing could be seen. The TVs began to flicker. The words appeared: “Everyone Is A Bigot.” Before the audience could take in the words, let alone the context, the stage lights flooded the audience and the band began to play the anthem to Martin Luther King Jr. Becky and I, and all whom we could see around us, were inexplicably in tears. The concert lasted several hours. By the time we walked to our cars, I forgot what the prophets had proclaimed to us.

I have self-righteously presumed not being a racist is enough.

I am not a racist, but I have not been consciously and articulately anti-racist. I have self-righteously presumed not being a racist is enough. To be anti-racist I must directly confront my own lax, lazy identity-politics and how I have benefited from not addressing my privilege. I must also enter the tortured waters of what it means to know racial trauma as the atmosphere, the milieu that my friends have breathed first before they even knew their name, skin color, or heritage.

The Allender Center is blessed with many leaders of color. I have failed them. They have been persistently kind, relentlessly patient, and fierce. I don’t have a clue how many more years of sufficient health I have to live out my calling, but I am not intending to retire. I desire a long, long life of faithful service to the kingdom of God. I am called to address trauma in all forms, in every context it occurs, irrespective of the people group, region, or time.

What is being asked of you, dear reader? Nothing more or less than what we have asked of you countless times—your life. You have heard me say a thousand times: “You cannot take anyone further than you have gone.”

I can’t ask you to go further than my heart is prepared to go. I can’t convince you this is a worthy journey to begin. But what I can ask is that as you engage this topic that you do so with both hands open.

One hand needs to hold the reality of what Bono taught me that I conveniently forgot: Everyone is a bigot. Don’t be afraid to address bias and privilege. Doing so will not only won’t kill you—it will free you. With your other hand, open it to the experience and thoughts of those who have known systemic racism, racial taunts, and racial presumptions that demean and degrade—that traumatize. Perhaps, dear reader, you have been on the receiving end of racist remarks and reactions. Perhaps you have known, in your whole body, the traumatizing effects of the oppression of racism, the devastating effects of ignorance. Your voice needs to be heard at the table. Might we at The Allender Center step into this space together — to listen, to grieve what has been lost, and to respond.

We heal together. We rise together. We will one day eat, sing, and worship with every tribe, language, and nation—meat eaters and vegans, female and male, black, white, brown, red and yellow. What we do today sets the table for tomorrow.