Up until two or three years ago, I thought racism had pretty much died out.
It was an easy assumption for me. I, a lower-middle-class white girl, grew up in a small Mississippi town only a generation or two removed from segregation. I attended junior high in the “old black school,” and teachers rode us hard to eradicate any use of racial epithets (black or white). The KKK was a thing of the past, and generally deplored among the people I knew. I vaguely knew there had been bad times “back then,” but in my growing up, I heard of only a few incidents that seemed to stem from racial tensions.
I was friendly with several of the black kids, but not close enough that we went to each other’s houses. White girls still didn’t date black boys (I do remember a mild furor when a white friend accepted a black friend’s invitation to a school dance). The churches were divided down pretty straight racial lines; I just always thought it was because blacks worshiped much different than whites did (which actually is true) so we just all preferred our own style.
The more I think about it, the more I realize how separated our world was. The more I see the disdain that my social class held for “them.” But among my parents and other adults, no one taught me malice or hate.
So I took the example of my teachers and parents and went farther. I taught myself to ignore skin color. My kids grew up without hearing anything about how “black people are like that.” Further, I assumed that all the whites of my generation were doing the same thing. We wanted to move beyond the horrors of the past, right?
My first clue that racism was a still big issue should have been when I was writing my novel. When I was sketching out its early drafts, I looked at my cast of characters and realized that they were all white. That’s standard in Christian fiction, and it annoys me. I really wanted to include non-white characters, but immediately ran into a problem.
The Fellowship is a highly insular Southern church founded and run by a white family. This type of church hardly ever includes black families. If I introduced a non-white character, I had to have a good backstory to justify it. But I wanted to avoid the issue of racism because that’s not what my book focuses on.
So I cheated.
I wrote into the story that by the late 80s, black families were admitted into the church and even allowed to marry into the white families. My heroine, Bekah, grew up under these conditions so is basically colorblind. It made me sigh that the only way I could deal with all characters on an equal footing, with only a hint of racism, was to create a utopia that doesn’t actually exist.
I knew it was a stretch. But I didn’t think it was too much of a stretch; we were already well on our way to that point, right? Especially among Christians whose very theology taught us that God looked on the heart, not the outward appearance?
The internet has broadened my circle to take in the black community and what they have to say. The ugly truth filtered in, one heartbreaking bit at a time. It’s easy to “get past” racism when you don’t really live under it.
I’ve changed a lot of my thinking and I’m paying attention to the discussion raging around us. I’m not taking sides except to acknowledge that for generations, whites have enjoyed power and privileges far above their non-white fellow citizens. In a nation founded on principles of equality and freedom, we were wrong. I’m sad for my friends whose skin color eclipses their personhood, and regret how oblivious I was (and am).
But do I regret my decision to make the Fellowship a slightly implausible haven of racial equality? Not at all. Because just like my story gives hope of recovery from spiritual abuse, I like its picture of a world where a person’s skin color is merely another physical trait, not an indication of character.
Here’s to the future.