“Tell him you’re white!”
As soon as the words came tumbling off my lips, and the sound of them hit my ears, I gasped and covered my mouth with my hand. Then took it off and yelled, horrified, “I’m racist! Oh my gosh, I’m racist!”
Am I about to tell you a story from years ago, back before I stopped being racist and became an ally and advocate for people of color and racial justice?
I’m about to tell you a story from earlier this morning.
But, first, backstory.
So, we’re probably moving. Our landlady sold the house we live in and is taking all of her furniture and her gardener (there are hundreds of beautiful plants and trees in our yard) with her. The new owners may or may not raise the price (which we cannot afford) and are pressuring us to tell them right this minute whether we want to stay or go, even though our lease isn’t up until August 12.
Our oldest daughter is most keen to move, as she never wanted to move into this house in the first place. She really wants to live in the city (we live outside of town, closer to the airport and Angkor Wat).
I told her that was fine but that I was going to place the huge responsibility of finding a place to live in the city squarely on her pretty little shoulders.
I asked God specifically to shine a light from heaven down on a house we could afford and that all five of us would love. (It has proven nearly impossible to please all of us at any one given time.)
She was up to the task, and with the help of a realtor friend, we looked at four places yesterday. None of them had the light.
House #1 had a ginormous decal (or painting?) of a giraffe by the front door, which I jokingly said was a sign, but in reality it was freaky and hideous, and I actually don’t feel the same passion I once did for “animal neck long” (the literal translation of the Khmer word for giraffe).
House #1 was also very dirty and smelled like dead cat.
House #2 was half of a duplex and was unfinished. It actually had promise, but we could only afford the unfurnished price, and we have no furniture.
Also, it was right next to a Sports Club, so peace and quiet was probably not going to be an option.
House #3 was kind of fun but made up of many little rooms (including a bathroom too short for Gabe to stand up in) on two levels with no air flow. “This is too claustrophobic,” Ava said, and I agreed.
Also, the kitchen was smaller than most Americans’ closets (the sliding door kind, not the walk-in kind).
House #4 was the most promising but too far out of the city in the opposite direction. And all wood, which at least a couple of us found dark and depressing. And the backs of the dining room chairs were taller than me. So weird. And there was rat poop everywhere. Ew.
So. That was yesterday. Today, Alex and our friend, BoRann, both sent us the same link to a house that looked like it could work. Livi messaged the realtor. He asked her who would be renting it.
“My family,” she wrote back.
He called her. She answered in Khmer. She is so brilliant at speaking Khmer that 100% of people she speaks to on the phone believe her to be Khmer.
And now I have caught you up to speed on the story I started telling at the beginning.
Enter Livi’s racist mother.
As she takes the phone outside for better reception, I yell after her, “Tell him you’re white!”
Then, oh my gosh, I am instantly appalled at myself, and there’s the whole clap-my-hand-over-my-mouth moment I already wrote about.
Tell him you’re white, because he’s going to think you’re Khmer and he’ll be less likely to rent the house to us because he’s going to prefer foreigners to Khmer because that’s just how it is it’s not my fault and I can’t help that.
But she (being way more pure and way less racist) continues to speak Khmer, and I can’t stop myself. My initial horror at myself wasn’t enough to bring me to repentance.
“Livi, tell him you’re American.”
OH MY GOSH STOP THE MADNESS, WOMAN.
She obeys her mother and tells him in flawless, accent-perfect Khmer that she and her family are American.
“He’s not going to believe you,” I hiss. “Speak English.”
She does not, because she is a better person than me, and I go back inside, head hanging in shame, and immediately go confess to my other two daughters that their mother, for all of her talk, is a moral failure.
“I’m racist,” I tell them. They stare at me. “I. AM. RACIST.”
I have just freaking unfurled THE WHITE FLAG OF PRIVILEGE over my graying blond head and waved it like a maniac.
DANG IT DANG IT DANG IT DANG IT DANG IT.
And, friends, THIS is why I get so frustrated with people who whine and cry to me that, “I’m not raaaaaacist! I can’t help it I’m white! That’s not a crime! I don’t have a racist bone in my body!”
(If I had a dumb dollar for every time I’ve heard that last stupid line.)
No, you can’t help it you’re white. No, your bone marrow isn’t literally infected with racism. You might even feel love in your heart for all the world, and people of color in particular, and would never, ever dream of saying blatantly racist things.
But, friends, racism encompasses way more than that. Racism is more than having colorblind bone marrow. Racism is a whole stinking system of oppression built on the idea that white skin is superior. Racism is about unfairly, unequally benefiting in way after way after way because your skin is a paler shade than other people’s.
Racism includes the luxury of being clueless. Racism includes thinking you got to where you are today on your own merits, and your whiteness had absolutely nothing to do with it. Racism includes denying the cold, hard facts of what this country was really built on (and whose backs it was built on) and things that are still going on today (like The New Jim Crow–Google it).
Today, I tried to play my White Card.
That makes me a racist.
A nice, kind, almost-always-unintentional racist, but still a racist.
This sucks to hear (and sucks to write), but racist is actually the white person’s default. As Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum explains, we’re all coasting along on the moving sidewalk of racism. The only way to NOT be racist is to turn around and start walking double-time in the opposite direction.
It is going to be hard, and it will make you tired, and angry people will yell at you and call you names and think you’re an idiot.
But, if we care at all about bringing shalom and God’s kingdom and making things right, we will keep plowing ahead into oncoming traffic.
Otherwise, we’re still just going with the racist flow.
I hate this story I just told you, but, much like manure in the flower beds, God has always used my crap to make nice things grow.
So, learn from my shame, grab my hand, and let’s run together the wrong way on that blasted moving sidewalk.