By Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred
Two days before George Floyd’s murder, National Young Adult Conference (NYAC) participants gathered to watch Drew Hart present on the systemic racism that was about to once again become front-page news. But for far too many of us in the church, particularly those of us who are white, it is all too easy to ignore when it doesn’t dominate the headlines.
Hart is a theologian and professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, and is on the leadership board at Harrisburg (Pa.) First Church of the Brethren. He has been working for years to change the way the Christian church views racism, which was the subject of his webinar at this year’s virtual, online NYAC.
Hart began with an anecdote that describes how the white church, well-intentioned as it may be, can fail to understand or even truly see racism. He was at a restaurant with the pastor of a mostly white church, who had invited him to “dialogue across the racial divide.” At some point, the pastor placed a cup of sweet tea in the middle of the table and declared it a metaphor for the racial divide and how to overcome it. “I can’t see what is on your side of the cup,” he said, and “you can’t see what is on my side of the cup.” The only way to fix the problem, he said, was for each person to share what they saw so that each could understand the other’s point of view.
It’s a nice sentiment but a flawed, yet pervasive, way to view racism. As Hart pointed out, he already knew what was on his pastor friend’s side of the cup, the “white” side of the cup. In a culture where whiteness is dominant and treated as standard, Black people are inundated with white perspectives: they study history written by white people featuring white people, they read literature and poetry by white authors, they are governed by laws written by white politicians, they read news written by white journalists, they are taught by white teachers and professors who get their ideas from white intellectuals. And on and on. By contrast, as Hart put it, his pastor friend “could go through his entire life without needing to know Black literature, Black intellectual thought, Black wisdom, Black art and music, or Black history.”
The pastor had a “thin” understanding of racism: a horizontal divide between individuals that can be cured by sitting down and sharing stories. That can be important work, but it’s not nearly enough because it does nothing to help people understand how racism really operates systemically in our society, as a vertical hierarchy that puts whiteness on top and Blackness at the bottom.
The rest of the NYAC seminar was dedicated to learning and unpacking a “thicker” definition of racism that tells a truer story of how racism works through power and privilege, and what the church must do to be anti-racist.
We didn’t realize while watching the webinar that just a few days later the United States would be plunged into a nationwide conversation about racism that has sparked powerful demonstrations demanding fundamental changes to policing and our criminal legal system. But those of us lucky enough to hear Hart speak were equipped to watch more deeply, and to witness and call for an end to the racial hierarchy of white supremacy that is now on stark display. We have a responsibility to use what we know and to name what we see. During this time that our country is looking so directly at its own racism, we have to make sure the church, too, refuses to look away.
The same anecdote that Hart used to begin his webinar serves as a grounding illustration in his prophetic book, “Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism,” which is available through Brethren Press. I invite you to read his book and open yourself up to be challenged and equipped to see racism more fully, so we can follow Jesus more faithfully.
-- Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred is a member of the Young Adult Steering Committee for the Church of the Brethren and is a law student at Yale Law School. This summer he has been a Supreme Court coverage intern at National Public Radio (NPR).