One of my favorite movies is the 2006 film Amazing Grace, which is about William Wilberforce and John Newton. Wilberforce was the British MP who, in 1807, was finally successful, after an almost twenty year long struggle, at getting legislation passed which abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. And Newton was his old preacher, who, as a younger man, was a slave ship captain who had transported tens of thousands of kidnapped human beings from Africa to the Carribean as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. After a deep spiritual conversion, Newton surrendered himself to the life of a clergyman and spent the rest of his days allying himself with abolitionists and ministering to young, impressionable minds like Wilberforce’s, teaching them the value of every human life. In 1779, he penned the words to “Amazing Grace”, a hymn that would become an anthem to those seeking freedom from oppression for hundreds of years to come.
In this movie, two conversations take place between this preacher and his now grown former student. The first one happens when Wilberforce is young, healthy, energetic, and is eager to engage in this battle to abolish the slave trade, and he goes to his old preacher for help. Newton at first refuses, saying, “I am not strong enough to hear my own confession… I can’t even say the name of any of my ships without being back on board them in my head. All I know is that twenty thousand slaves live with me in this little church. There is still blood on my hands.” He goes on to plead with the young MP, “I can’t help you, but do it, Wilber! Take them on! Blow the dirty, filthy ships out of the water!”
The second conversation takes place almost twenty years later when Wilberforce is exhausted and suffering from an illness brought on by years of overwork, stress and discouragement. And to make matters worse, he still has not been successful at his quest. But he can’t let it go. He believes this is his life’s work. So, tired and sick, he goes back to his preacher for moral support. But this time, Newton is ready. Wilberforce finds the old man, feeble and blind, dictating his memories to a young scribe. When Wilberforce asks him about it, he says, “This is my confession. You must use it. Names, ship records, ports, people. Everything I remember is in here… You must publish it. Blow a hole in their boats with it. Damn them with it! I wish I could remember all their names. My twenty thousand ghosts. They all had names. Beautiful African names…”
The way this movie portrays John Newton’s story has always touched me. Even though he had abandoned his life as a slave ship captain and devoted his remaining years to doing good, he still could not bring himself to directly acknowledge what he had done. He was not strong enough to hear his own confession. He couldn’t face his own complicity in the oppression of other human beings. But deep down, he knew he would never find peace until he did.
The death of George Floyd re-ignited the flames of racial tension in our country in a way that I have never before witnessed. My initial reaction was to feel deeply sad and to pray for those who were suffering. But beyond that, I just quietly observed from the safety of my home and did my best not to judge either side and trust that the situation would work itself out. But the longer the racial unrest continued, and the more I heard what was being said, the more I came to understand that my hands-off approach might actually be part of the problem. That my “I will pray for them in private” approach just wasn’t good enough. But I had no idea what I could do.
I have friends who became very outspoken on social media on every side of the issue- condemning George Floyd, condemning the police, condemning the rioters, condemning the justice system, condemning Black Lives Matter. The madness affected me deeply and I decided to shut off social media. I didn’t know how long my break would be, I just knew I needed one. And during that time I became very self-reflective. Something deep inside of me was bothering me and it lingered. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. I pondered it daily to try to figure out what it was that was making me feel so uncomfortable.
And finally, after much contemplation, I realized what it was I needed to do. I needed to repent. I needed to stop claiming that I had nothing to do with race relations in our country. I needed to seriously evaluate if I had ever been part of the problem. I needed to stop claiming that I have never been a racist and take a hard look at myself to figure out if that was true. I needed to stop claiming innocence.
In Matthew 26, we read about how Jesus told his disciples that one of them was going to betray him. And rather than deny, or defend, or point out evidence to prove their innocence, each of the disciples humbly asked Jesus, “Lord, is it I?”
My break from social media turned out to be for about a month, and it was very good for me. But one of the last things I saw before I shut it down was an interview where a very upset black woman said, “White people need to stop sharing their opinions. They need to stop talking and start listening.”
And so as I became reflective about my own complicity, I also started to listen. I asked myself, “What is it that I, in my middle-class white world, am not hearing? What about the black experience do I not understand?” I prayed that God would give me ears to hear and eyes to see. I also prayed that I could shed from my heart all desire to defend myself. I wanted to be accountable to God, if to no one else, for the ways in which I had failed to love as He would have me love those who are different from me.
The first thing I felt like I should do was to educate myself. So, I did my best to throw away all of my preconceived notions about race relations and I started absorbing everything I could get my hands on, from the famous to the obscure, from the serious to the satirical. I was determined to start seeing things from other people’s perspectives. I watched interviews with black political activists like James Baldwin in the 1960’s and Michelle Alexander in the present. I read books from Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi to Me And White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad. I listened to a wide range of political podcasts and I watched every civil rights related documentary I could get my hands on: Klansville, U.S.A., The True Story of Mississippi Burning, LA 92, I Am Not Your Negro, The Uncomfortable Truth, Spies of Mississippi, Birth of a Movement, Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, Freedom Summer, February One: The Story of the Greensboro Four, 4 Little Girls, Ken Burns: The Central Park Five, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, Two Black Men a Week, 13th, Jim Crow of the North, etc.
And I walked away from that experience with a cavity in my soul filled with pain. Such deep, devastating pain. I realized in a broader way than I ever had before that the America I had grown up in was not the America that so many other people had experienced.
In my faith tradition, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, repentance is very important. And it comes with 6 components: Faith that God can help you change, sorrow for what you have done, confession of your sins, abandonment of your sins, restitution where possible, and a renewed commitment to righteous living.
As I contemplated the prompting I received that I needed to repent, I started to think about the portrayal of John Newton I mentioned above. He had done everything possible to change his life, but ultimately his repentance was not complete without his full confession. I, too, have not, up to this point in my life, been strong enough to hear my own confession. I have never wanted to think of myself as complicit in the oppression of other human beings. But my conscience will no longer allow me to claim innocence.
And so here it is.
This is my confession.
I didn’t know.
I truly did not know.
But before I move on, I want to clarify. On the surface the statement “I didn’t know” sounds like a claim to innocence. But it is not. It is part of my sin. I have been so comfortable in the America that I lived in that I never took the time to know.
I didn’t know that twelve of our first eighteen U.S. Presidents owned slaves, eight while serving as president. Eighteen of the first thirty-one Supreme Court Justices also owned slaves.
I didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln ascended to the presidency with no desire to abolish slavery and believing the white race was superior. He went on to emancipate the slaves and is rightfully considered a civil rights hero today, but it took great inner turmoil and a long, bloody war to change his way of thinking.
I didn’t know that after the Civil War, vast numbers of recently freed slaves, before they had a chance to build their own lives, were arrested for crimes as minor as loitering and vagrancy and were put to work on chain gangs to rebuild the economy of the South, thus being forced back into a state of forced, unpaid labor, and that a loophole in the 13th Amendment itself made this practice legal.
I didn’t know that the state of Mississippi didn’t ratify the 13th Amendment until 2013.
I didn’t know that from 1880-1968, roughly one person per week was lynched in the United States. That is the recorded number. It is, of course, unknown how many lynchings went unreported.
I didn’t know that white families packed pic-nic lunches and brought their children to watch lynchings. And that after the lynchings were over, photographs were taken of the dead bodies and made into postcards to be sent out to the perpetrator’s friends and relatives who had missed the event.
I didn’t know that within a year of his election, Woodrow Wilson made the federal government a racially segregated workplace. He was the first president elected from the South since the Civil War.
I didn’t know that from 1917-1921 in Chicago, the home of a black family was bombed on average every 20 days for 5 years straight to punish black families for moving into “white neighborhoods”.
I didn’t know that in 1921, city officials of Tulsa, Oklahoma conspired with a mob of its white citizens to attack the city’s Greenwood District- the wealthiest black community in the nation. Thirty-five square blocks were destroyed, leaving 10,000 black people homeless, and upwards of 300 dead, with property damage in the millions.
I didn’t know that at its peak, 5 million white men belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.
I didn’t know that Birth of a Nation, a film celebrating white supremacy, was given a private screening in Woodrow Wilson’s White House.
I didn’t know that the demographic geography of the United States was shaped by the activities of the Ku Klux Klan when thousands upon thousands of African Americans fled to northern and western cities, not because they were seeking economic opportunities as is popularly believed, but because they were refugees from terror. And that because of this terror, many black families, to this day, live within the bonds of generational trauma with very few resources to get the emotional and psychological help needed to overcome it.
I didn’t know that in 1935, the Home Owners Loan Corporation drew color-coded outlines around neighborhoods on maps of 239 cities across America, marking these neighborhoods according to how financially safe each neighborhood was to invest in. Green = Affluent, Blue = Still Desirable, Yellow = Declining, Red = Risky. These maps were then used by government and private financial institutions to determine which neighborhoods would be extended mortgages. Black neighborhoods were almost exclusively marked in red, regardless of the financial viability of its residents, thus creating a system of black ghettos across the country where no intergenerational wealth could be built through property investment. In 2013, the networth of white people in America was still 13 times greater than black people.
I didn’t know that when the Red Cross first started their blood bank, they refused to accept donated blood from black people.
I didn’t know that Secretary of War Henry Stimson purposely put rigid literacy requirements in place during WWII “to keep down the number of colored troops.” His plan backfired when the War Department realized that many northern black men were better educated than many southern white men.
I didn’t know that after WWII, black veterans were systematically prevented from receiving their rightful benefits from the GI Bill. Of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill in New York and New Jersey, only 100 went to non-whites.
I didn’t know that Emmitt Till was only 14 years old when he was dragged from his uncle’s house in the middle of the night and beaten to death. His body was found three days later at the bottom of a river, bound with barbed wire to a 70 lb cotton gin. His tongue had been choked out, his left eye was missing, all but two of his teeth had been knocked out, his ear was gone, his genitals had been cut off, and there was a hole in his head so large that daylight could be seen through the other side. He was so unrecognizable that he could only be identified by a family ring he wore on his finger. His crime had been whistling at a white woman.
I didn’t know that at least 18 other civil rights activists were assassinated prior to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I didn’t know that because of contracts with private correctional companies, prisons currently have a financial incentive to keep prisons full and that many poor people remain in prison, sometimes for years, awaiting trial for minor crimes simply because they do not have the money to make bail. 80-90% of all people sent to prison for drug related offenses are black, despite the fact that black people use and sell illegal drugs at the same rates as white people – that for white people, the drug epidemic is largely treated as a health crisis, but for black people, it is treated as a crime crisis.
I didn’t know that there are more black people under the criminal justice system today than were enslaved in the 1860’s, which means those people can now be used for free labor, and that major corporations such as Walmart, McDonalds, and Victoria Secret have prospered on the backs of this free labor.
I also didn’t know about the role Christianity has played in the oppression of black people. Theories were put into writing as early as the 5th and 6th centuries that Cain’s curse for killing his brother was black skin, despite the fact that nowhere in the Bible does it actually say what Cain’s curse was. These theories, along with obscure biblical passages, were used by early American Christian denominations to justify slavery. And then once slavery became illegal, those same theories and scriptural passages were used to justify the continual oppression of those former enslaved persons and their descendants.
White churches, by and large, left no room in their pews for the participation of black people, leading Martin Luther King, Jr. to observe that, “It is one of the tragedies of our nation that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours in Christian America.”
My own religion has not been immune to racism. From 1852-1978, black people were not allowed full privileges of membership. They could be baptized, but could not hold the priesthood or participate in our temples. In my own home, and from what I understand thousands of other LDS homes, Curse of Cain and other theories were taught to me as justification for those discriminatory policies. And although such racism has been unequivocally denounced by my church and efforts have been made in recent years to make amends, form alliances with, and donate money to groups such as the NAACP (which I wholeheartedly applaud), there is still much work that needs to be done amongst the lay members of my faith in regard to racism.
It is difficult for me to grapple with what my conscious tells me now about what’s right in regard to race, and what I was taught as a child in the name of religion. The God I love and believe in is the author of diversity. He loves all people for who they are. He created each of us to be different on purpose, in part so that we would have the opportunity to learn to love people who are different than we are – so that we could learn to see things through other people’s perspective. But what many white Christians like myself have been taught is that God views us as superior because we are white. And it is just not true.
Isn’t embracing people who are different than we are the center of what Christianty should mean? Didn’t Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, take upon himself the different perspectives of other people – the agony that each of us would experience in our lives so that He could understand us fully and help us through the difficulties of our lives? When we kneel down in grief to pour our souls out to our Savior, isn’t it the Atonement, that greatest of all acts of empathy, which allows Him the ability to succor us and heal us? Aren’t we the most Christian – the most like Christ – when we learn to see things from other people’s perspectives like He did? When we embrace and seek to understand and empathize with those who are different from us? Whether they be black, white, gay, straight, disabled, able-bodied, or any other identifier that differentiates us? Isn’t the number one thing Jesus has asked us to do is love? Can we really do that when we go through life filled with a sense of our own superiority? Whether that superiority is based upon race or religion or a sense of our own righteousness? Isn’t pride the father of all sin?
Embracing difference – in other words, loving everyone despite our differences – is the central idea of Christianity. That doesn’t mean we applaud sin- cheating is still wrong, lying is still wrong, adultery is still wrong, hurting other people is still wrong. But differences in skin color and culture have never been wrong. And those of us who come from a culture where our race – people of our skin color – have historically oppressed those who are different, we are the ones who need to look inward and ask ourselves if we have inherited prejudice – if we are now, or have ever been, part of the problem.
Which leads me to Part Two of my confession.
I have said and done and thought racist things.
Typing those words brings me so much pain because I don’t want it to be true. I want to be innocent. I want to be free of prejudice. I want to view people through the lens of equality at all times and in all places. But I would be lying if I said I have always done that. I have made many mistakes in my life and because of the privileges afforded me by virtue of being born with skin that looked white, I have, at times, failed to see my black friends and neighbors as equal. I have, at times, failed to care enough to see things through their perspective.
I think of my friend Nikisha in high school. We sat by each other in French class every single day. She was my favorite person to talk to in that class and we got along really well. We joked together, laughed together, shared candy with each other, did group work together, helped each other with our work. And I genuinely liked her. But I made absolutely no effort to be her friend outside of class. I never went to her house. She never came to mine. She had her group of black friends, and I had my group of white friends, and we rarely acknowledged each other in any other setting outside of class.
I think of the guy in college I met while working on a play. He was really attractive and we got along really well. We were both LDS, he had served a full-time mission, and he expressed an interest in going out with me sometime. But I never took him up on it. I told myself it was because I wasn’t that interested, but looking back, I have to admit to myself that I was interested. But deep down I knew he would never be accepted in my family because he was black, so I said no.
I think about the conversation I had with friends prior to my husband and I moving to Los Angeles. I was worried about moving to such a big city and finding the right place for our family to live. I remember saying out loud in a crowded restaurant that I didn’t mind moving to a neighborhood with diversity, I just didn’t want to be the only white family. Nowhere in my consciousness at that time did it occur to me what a privileged statement that was. I never considered what black families face every day in America as they contemplate moving to all white neighborhoods seeking better schools for their children.
And I think about the time that a friend came to me with an open heart, asking faith based questions, and as part of that conversation, I repeated the Curse of Cain theory to her, telling her afterwards, “at least that’s what some people believe.” I remember the feeling of darkness that came into my heart afterward, as though God was severely reprimanding me. I remember the look of concern on her face, and I remember knowing afterward that that theory should never, under any circumstance, be repeated. That not only was that theory wrong, it was evil, and had been used to propagate some of the greatest acts of terror against a group of God’s children that the world had ever seen. And I have carried that shame with me for years, that even though I myself didn’t believe that theory to be true, I was thoughtless enough to repeat it to an impressionable mind.
After reading this, there are some of you who may think my admissions are rather tame. It will be easy for you to want to come to my defence, claiming that what I have said and done can hardly be counted as racist. But subtleties and omissions are not without consequence. We like to tell ourselves that we are innocent of racial bias because we have never done anything overtly racist, but it’s oftentimes the undertones of superiority, rather than overt racism, that oppress our black friends and neighbors the most.
And it’s especially harmful when we respond to accusations of racism by saying, “Well, I didn’t mean it that way,” when the truth is that it doesn’t actually matter what we meant. We don’t get to decide if what we say is offensive. White people are not the ones who have been historically oppressed in our country. We need to stop talking and start listening to those whose voices and feelings and opinions have been discounted for so long. If they say what we are saying is derogatory or offensive, then it is. And it is the least we can do to change our use of language to show more respect than we have in the past.
I have come to realize that I have benefited my entire life by the privilege I inherited from being white. I have had opportunities granted to me because of the color of my skin that my black friends and neighbors have not. But I couldn’t see it. I was blind to it. And I am deeply, deeply sorry to anyone I have ever oppressed with my words, overlooked with my ignorance, or disregarded because I wasn’t aware enough to listen. I haven’t mourned with those that mourned or comforted those who stood in need of comfort, because I never took the time to see their pain in more than an arbitrary way. I have been blind. So very, very blind. But I can no longer claim ignorance. Nor innocence.
I pray that God will never let me forget that I have a responsibility to change my own attitudes- to check myself on a daily basis and make sure feelings of superiority or innocence never again sneak into my subconscious- to struggle every day against my natural inclination to claim supremacy over another race of people- a supremacy I have been conditioned to claim by the culture in which I was raised.
This process – this repentance process – has given me new eyes to see, and yet I realize that I do not see, and that I never fully will. Because I am not black. I do not know, nor will I ever know, what it is like to be black in America. I have never experienced discrimination because of the color of my skin. The only thing I have experienced that comes even close is discrimination because I am a woman. But even then, there is a difference. And I recognize that difference and that no matter how hard I try, I will never know what it is like.
But what I can do is listen. And feel. And mourn. And comfort. And sit in my discomfort. Then what I can do is speak up. And speak out. And reach out in compassion. And empathy. Most importantly, I can lay aside all inclinations toward judgement, and I can assume the best of people’s intentions when they respond – even if that response is angry or violent – from a place of hundreds of years of hurt, trauma, and terror passed down in their cultures, communities and families.
It isn’t my place to judge. It is my place to love.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.