On July 6, 2016, Colleen Mitchell wrote a telling blog post, “10 Reasons I Don’t Want to Be Your White Ally.” Her words came a day after the death of Alton Sterling, a black man killed by a white officer of the Baton Rouge Police Department. Mitchell admits meeting the news of Sterling’s shooting with a “sickening feeling” that soon became a burden, which later morphed into fear as she read a Facebook comment by a black friend: “When animals are abused, you’re outraged….When your personal ‘hobbies’ are compromised because of local legislation you’re in a tizzy! Even when people across the globe are killed by militarized police force or terrorists, you share share share articles and memes because your ‘compassion’ just runs over—in Jesus’ name. But today (and most days when these things happen) you’re silent. We see you. We notice. We will not forget.”
I appreciate Colleen Mitchell’s response to these strong words. She doesn’t rush to her own defense, or attempt to exonerate herself from the accusation of “selective silence.” She tells the truth: “Oh friend, I don’t want to be your [white] ally.”
In some ways, Mrs. Mitchell’s candor is refreshing. She clearly articulates a message that African Americans are often left to decode—without using words, many of our white friends have said the same. Addressing the Gospel Coalition Council in May 2016, Mika Edmondson, pastor of New City Fellowship OPC, said this:
We have a natural tendency to actively resist dealing with racial sin. How else can you explain a theology that comfortably coexisted with chattel slavery, the lynching tree, Jim Crow, segregation, and myriad ways black folks suffer today? How else could Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield have had such great theology but think that it had nothing to say to the black suffering they saw all around them? (Edwards wrote copious notes on the duty of Christian charity to the poor on the one hand, while callously purchasing trembling little African girls off the auction block on the other.)…Evangelicals have a social ethic, but it’s a strangely selective social ethic.
But perhaps, in a gradual way, the selective silence is beginning to budge in some corners. There appears to be a finger pointing the attention of white evangelicalism to the issue of race in America. National conversations on policing and the value of black lives have awakened some congregations, leaders, and denominations to admit the stench of racism in American society.
My prayer, as a black Christian, is that all sinful selectivity and partiality would surrender to the gospel of truth. In its own small way, Mrs. Mitchell’s blog post moves toward this direction. She begins with a candid confession and reasons for not wanting to be a white ally and concludes in repentance. She repudiates her reasons as sinful selfishness and writes:
I am coming to realize there is no way to be a friend without being an ally at this point in our history. Love doesn’t win in private if I am silent publicly. Reconciliation doesn’t happen behind closed doors and not affect how I respond publicly. When a black [man’s] death shows up on my social media newsfeed, I have a responsibility to respond.
This is a commendable start, and I’m “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” by supporting my sister in her good resolve (Eph. 4:3), so I have seven points of encouragement to this newly declared “White Ally.”
1. See your decision as a matter of your personal sanctification.
A desire to empathize and ally with black friends in a racially discriminating America is good. But many worthy resolutions have succumbed to the strength of opposition and the weakness of willpower. The Christian who desires to grow in racial understanding must first see that decision as Spirit empowered.
Christ calls his people to unity—he has broken down in his own flesh the dividing lines, making one body where there were many. Christ has purchased our unity, so we pursue ethnic conciliation to display the work of Christ already accomplished on our behalf (Eph. 2:14–19). The Father predestined the unity of his diverse children, Christ has secured it, and the Spirit enables us to live it out. White Christians seeking to ally with black brothers and sisters must base their conviction squarely on the gospel so that their decision proves fundamental and not reactionary.
2. Enter the racial conversation as a student, not as a teacher.
Your reasons for selective silence began with the fear of not knowing enough and the fear of not “getting it.” You write this: “I am afraid I don’t really ‘get’ what is happening and its societal implications. I am afraid I’ll make a comment that leaves my [ignorance] showing.” My encouragement to you is this: enter racial dialogues as a learner and not as a knower. As it is, you are an outsider to the conversation, so you do well to confess your ignorance—it frees you from pretension and allows you to learn from minorities and others in the field.
A wise ally will seek to learn above speaking, so that their speech becomes the natural byproduct of an informed and honest concern and not a mere obligation to contribute. So stick to the humble road—acknowledge what you don’t and can’t know and strive to learn, make allowances for your blind spots, receive correction, and put on compassion, meekness, and above all, love (Col. 3:12–14).
3. You very well might do it wrong.
Your third and fourth reasons for silence were these: “I’m afraid I’ll do it wrong,” and “I’m afraid I’ll be more offensive than I am helpful.” I can understand the caution. Reasonable people don’t enter interracial conversations with an intention to offend. But the subject is packed with tender spots and frustrations—landmines built over treacherous times.
You might be surprised to hear that, as a black woman, I too struggle with the fear of doing more harm than good with my words on race. Yet we are fallen creatures who see in a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). Who speaks without some flaws on this issue? A well-intentioned approach might prove blind and offensive in the end. So admit that you’re still learning. Put on humility and resist the temptation to appear as a “savior” with the right answers. Center the voices of minorities and listen.
4. Suffer for doing good.
You mention the fear of costs—particularly, the cost of Internet criticism. But posting an online perspective on race these days means the possibility of detractors. Still, not all critiques are equal. Jemar Tisby, founder of the Reformed African American Network, writes that “it is frequently the case that when white Christians first start to talk about race they get a lot wrong.” Knowing this, anticipate your false assumptions and welcome the gracious constructive criticisms of minority friends.
Hard conversations are necessary for honest allies, so don’t avoid these opportunities to learn. Other types of critiques might be what Peter calls “suffering for righteousness’ sake.” You might find sections of the Internet (or even your own circle) who disapprove of your support for racial justice in America. In these cases:
Make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Pet. 3:14–17)
5. Undo your own prejudices.
You write of “slowly undoing the [racial] thoughts and associations [you] grew up with.” You say that “it is hard soul work and sometimes [you] want to get tired and give up.” Yet if that work is part of your personal sanctification, then there is no end to that journey on this side of eternity. Writing on slavery, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior said this:
Nothing reflects the slowness of sanctification more poignantly than the issue of slavery….It strains the 21st-century imagination to understand how someone who claimed faith in Christ could continue in such horrific behavior. Part of the puzzle is that along with individual fallenness, corporate sin and cultural mindsets play great parts in our individual recognition and rejection of sin—and, conversely, our failure of the same….Like individual sanctification, cultural change, too, usually requires a painfully long time and the sometimes-heavy hand of a sovereign God.
Cultural mind-sets are skillful schoolmasters—even the most theologically minded among us can be swayed by them. Our culture teaches narratives against the character and personhood of black and brown people. You must strive to identify these messages, examine them in your own heart, and defeat them. Individual fallenness, corporate sin, and cultural mind-sets are powerful enemies in your work to “undo” your own prejudices. Praise God, then, for the unfailing hand that commands and enables your sanctification (Phil. 2:12–13).
6. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Your reasons for not wanting to be a white ally included this: “The history of race in America and where your pain comes from involves in some way or another where I came from. I do not know how to face that well. I do not [know] how to move forward with you given that.” The history of race in America is disconcerting. It began in 1619 when a Dutch ship brought twenty kidnapped Africans to Jamestown, Virginia. By the end of the eighteenth century, some 7 million Africans had been freighted to the New World.
When England abolished the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807, America began its own internal trading. Families were separated as black men, women, and children were herded across the states. Chattel slavery was a self-reproducing labor force, controlled by legalized violence. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, but it couldn’t repeal the residual cycles of racism against minorities.
My encouragement to you in this area is twofold. The first is to face the ugliness of America’s racial sins. I’m reminded of Daniel who confesses the wickedness of his forefathers and pleads to God to act—not according to their righteousness but according to his great mercy (Dan. 9:1–19). Reconciliation (with God and fellow humans) includes the confession of sin. White allies, whether the descendants of slave owners or later European immigrants, have inherited a land built at the expense of blacks. You do well to concede that point. It means something to African Americans to hear it granted.
Having done so (with a commitment for justice), my second encouragement is to remember and believe that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin [and guilt]” (Rom. 8:2).
7. Christ will have the prize for which he died.
I leave you with these words: I’m told that “the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.” I agree with that. Black people are not obligated to ease white discomfort over the treachery of racism in America. Yet there was a brutalized man who paused amid his suffering to pray for his abusive bystanders. Through him, you and I are no longer strangers but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:19). For the honor of that God-Man, I write for your encouragement. May Christ have the prize for which he died—an inheritance of diverse nations, a pure bride without the spot of prejudice or the blemish of racial superiority (Rev. 7:9–12).
Adapted from Nana Dolce, "The Dividing Wall: Encouragement for My White Ally,” Modern Reformation, Jan/Feb 2017. Used by permission.