Along the Spectrum of Understanding

Our church, Ginter Park Presbyterian, owns a half-acre of undeveloped land one block away from the main church property. Church members recall one especially well attended funeral which used the plot for overflow parking, but mostly it has done little more than hold a sign pointing to our church, or more recently, a “Black Lives Matter: God Says So!” sign.

A few years ago the church received an unsolicited offer to buy the land from a family who wanted to build a house there. We entered a period of prayer, discernment, and deliberation, ultimately deciding that we were called to keep and use the land for our church’s missions. With that vision we leased the land to Happily Natural Day, founded and directed by Duron Chavis, who has received many accolades for his work with “urban agriculture and food security in a culturally relevant way.” The once neglected plot is now an educational youth farm.

It is also now a site of tension and conflict. Note that we do not say the plot of land is the source of tension and conflict; rather the plot of land has become a lightning rod, drawing out age-old assumptions and divisions that exist in our neighborhood, our city, our country, and our world. We pray that by naming these assumptions and divisions - our unconscious bias and racism - we can work together toward repair and reconciliation.

I spent three paragraphs laying out the background, but as many white people in America do, I did not talk explicitly about race until that last sentence. (It can feel like bad manners to bring race up!) Yet I know that for me, as for many of my white peers, race was already part of the story. For instance, were you guessing that our Presbyterian church with an abundance of property is predominantly white? When you read “urban” and “culturally relevant,” did you surmise that Mr. Chavis is Black? And did you further surmise that the farm he is creating is for Black kids? These would be common assumptions to make. Such assumptions are not the only factor in the tension and conflict we are witnessing, but they are part of it. Unconscious bias and racism are essential to this story.


Here is a synopsis of events. Shortly after Mr. Chavis began his work at the Farm, two neighbors reached out to him electronically, voicing concerns about the length of the grass. One neighbor also questioned the location of the storage shed and threatened to contact the city regarding zoning ordinances. Mr. Chavis responded to both neighbors. Among other things, he invited them to address their concerns about the grass as a volunteer at the Youth Farm. His invitation was not received well. Mr. Chavis posted the anonymized exchanges on Instagram, as he often does as an educator and activist, noting racist undertones in the exchanges. While some neighbors publicly voiced support for him on Instagram, questions were raised offline about Mr. Chavis’ communication style. Our pastor was asked if she could do something about this: did the church, as landlord, not have conditions for the care of the property and for consideration of its neighbors?


Reader, I invite you for a moment to put aside your feelings about Mr. Chavis’ response. I invite you to imagine that you are the one working on a non-profit garden in a new space. Imagine that you received a complaint, not in person, but electronically, from someone who lives a stone’s throw away. How would you feel if the message implied that you might not know how to maintain a property? Does it feel different if you imagine you are a white farmer working in a Black neighborhood, instead of a Black farmer working in a white neighborhood?

Now let’s examine the second message from the same reversed vantage point. You are a white activist and educator running a farm in a Black neighborhood, where you receive a message from someone who purports to “support a broad range of local non-profits that responsibly fulfill their stated missions” [italics mine]. There’s a threat to escalate with the city (couched as a favor), then the dangling of a promise of money “if we see consistent evidence of responsible action” [italics mine]. Might you be affronted by the condescension evident in such messages? At least in the moment of writing, these neighbors could not see how differently they were treating Mr. Chavis than they would someone they implicitly respected. (Say, for example, this were a non-profit run by the beloved Jimmy Carter; would there be assumptions about Carter’s inability to responsibly manage the land?) Mr. Chavis is othered. The neighbor replied to Mr. Chavis’ response with, “Thanks for the sarcastic follow-up to what I was hoping to be an email intended to alert you to reasonable concerns in a neighborhood where owners take great pride in maintaining their properties” [italics mine]; would we write this to someone we believed understood how to maintain a property? Dear Jimmy Carter, you may not understand how “we” maintain properties in this neighborhood, but let me enlighten you before I call the city on you? Surely not.


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I’d like to speak now from my experience as a white woman. For a long time, I felt it was important to identify when someone was a person of color when describing them to another white person. I would turn down the volume when I said “Black” or “Hispanic” because I didn’t want to be overheard and presumed to be racist, of course. But somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain it felt wrong to let someone imagine a white person when the person I was talking about wasn’t white.

There is a lot to unpack there. Why do white people typically assume that a person is white unless told otherwise, making white the default in a country where 40% of people are not white? If asked, we would say that we aren’t racist, maybe even that we “don’t see race or color.” But then why does it feel important to clue other white people into the race of the person in question? Why would envisioning a Black person rather than a white person change the arc of a story that isn’t ostensibly about race?


The truth is that there is no such thing as being color blind, just as no one is gender blind or size blind. It is impossible to be “not racist” when we all have been raised in an unspoken racial caste system. From a very young age, we have internalized that there is a ladder, and we have a place on it. Maybe we don’t admit it to ourselves, but we expect people below us on the ladder to be appreciative and grateful when we treat them well since many others don’t even bother to do that. We subconsciously feel that we deserve credit for our tolerance all while saying that we have no bias, but our preferential or discriminatory practices based on race are perversions of God’s plan for us. There is no need to tolerate if there is no difference, and someone who isn’t inferior has no reason to thank us for not being cruel.


Take it from Tess Martin, a Black author and activist who writes,


“White folks, we all see color. It’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise. What’s more, I want you to see me as black. I just don’t want you to lose your damn mind and treat me like a second class citizen solely based on that blackness. And, for the record, that’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted too, despite your carefully curated understanding of his I Have a Dream speech. The Promised Land had nothing to do with being unable to see racial differences. That’s just ridiculous and lazy. It’s about treating each other the way we hope to be treated: with fairness and respect. It’s about equality, accessibility, and inclusivity in all facets of American life.

"The problem isn’t that I’m black and you’re white. The problem is that we live in a society designed to benefit you because of your whiteness and oppress me because of my blackness. You didn’t have anything to do with how that system was constructed, but any racist attitudes and behavior uphold that system instead of tearing it down. Don’t you want to stop upholding that unfair, oppressive system? If so, think of being called out as a blessing. It opens a door to a better way of showing up in this world. It leads to personal growth. And once you walk through that door, you can turn to help others through it as well. Or you can ride away from that opportunity on a tidal wave of your own self righteous defensiveness, which helps no one, least of all you.”


We white folks all exist on a spectrum of awareness of our bias. No one sits firmly in “aware of one’s bias and actively working to be anti-racist” at all times, just as few people are avowed racial terrorists. Our awareness and impact are fluid from day to day, moment to moment, situation to situation, but with practice, we can move along the spectrum toward greater understanding and harm reduction. We believe that this is the work God calls us to do, and that God’s Holy Spirit is with us to help.


It’s important to remember that we white folks are greatly handicapped when it comes to assessing our own level of bias; remember my odd need to identify the racial identity of anyone who isn’t white while telling stories? I thought that I “didn’t see race” and had no bias, but then why did it feel like a pertinent part of the story so long as I was “safely” talking to another white person? The truth is that I have plenty of bias, and it is liberating, not shameful, to admit this. I developed my world view just as anyone who sits atop a socially constructed pyramid would. Now that I see it for what it is, I can begin to catch myself when I default to entitled, harmful, or condescending ways.


I am a white woman and I will never experience racism. I do know a tiny bit of what it’s like to be condescended to by nice people with good intentions. I’ve been told by a couple of men that I’m the “smartest woman they know.” Do they mean that they know men who blow my smarts away? Or did they inadvertently let slip that they categorize cis-gendered men and women differently in their brains, that somehow in some unspoken way the fact that I’m a woman matters when it comes to my intelligence?


I could take the path of least resistance and simply say, “Oh thank you.” Or I could say, “Hmmm, do you realize you said woman instead of person?” Or I could write a blog post about it. I am entitled to respond however I please when someone gives me a backhanded compliment implying that I am lucky to be seen as smart by men. And if I don’t take the path of least resistance, then despite how it will feel to the person who didn’t realize they were insulting me, the primary issue isn’t that I “overreacted.” The issue would be that someone insulted me and then was flummoxed when I acted like the equal they claim to believe I am and invited them to ponder why their intentions and actions are mismatched.


And then, what sort of social cost will I pay? Will I be branded a problem woman who doesn’t know how to take a compliment? How will I be punished for disrupting the peace that exists when we let people condescend to us because they mean well? To the point: Is Mr. Chavis being collectively punished by some in the neighborhood, who are seeking the intervention of our church and the local neighborhood association? Did he break an unspoken code when he didn’t swallow the insults and give respect and good faith that he wasn’t receiving?


Yes, yes, YES. We have promised, in our congregation's Kairos statement, to “examine our lives together and as individuals, identifying and calling out the insidious nature of white supremacy” and to “name, resist, and work to dismantle the structures of racism and white privilege.” We do not speak from a place of moral superiority, though we understand that it may feel that way to people who divide the world into categories of good and bad, racist and non-racist. We believe that we all are on a spectrum of understanding, and we want to move toward a place of better understanding and truer obedience to the God who creates, empowers, and loves us all. To that end, we know that the evil, contrived, harmful ladder of racial caste must be named and dismantled and chucked in the trash.


Black lives matter: God says so!

Shannon Lindbloom