I felt the sting of the words like an ant bite on a warm summer’s day. It was subtle but the longer it sat the worse the sting felt. “Besides, I think white people are the oppressed race now.” I stared directly into his eyes. They weren’t void of love, but instead brimming with his version of it. The same version of love the church sells to pocket tax-free money. A sign directly above the pastor’s head read “Love lives here.” My stomach immediately turned.
I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw my daughter sitting quietly, staring out the window. She didn’t have much to say today, which was unusual for my talkative four-year-old.
“How was your day, E?”
“It was ok, mama” she answered.
We rode silently for a few more minutes. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to push her to talk if she wasn’t ready.
“If black and white don’t go together, does that mean I’m not normal”?
My grip tightened on the wheel, and I made sure her eyes didn’t meet mine in the rearview mirror. Because truthfully, I had no idea which emotion she’d see in them. Anger? Sadness? Frustration? Or all three? I took a deep breath and asked the question I dreaded.
“What do you mean, baby? Did someone say something to you?”
She looked down at her hands and started squirming. She didn’t want to say it just as much as I didn’t want to hear it.
“A boy in my class told me today that black and white don’t go together. But I’m black and white, mama. Is something wrong with me?”
I decided to pull the car on the side of the road. I turned around and looked at her.
“E, there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. The boy who told you that heard it from someone else, someone else who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I’m going to teach you a new word today, and that word is racist. That’s the word we use for people who believe that having certain skin color means you aren’t as good as them.”
I unbuckled my seatbelt and wrapped my arms around her. I told her how beautiful she was exactly how she was created. But when I looked in her eyes, I saw the same emotions that I didn’t want her to see in mine. Except there was something different: the seeds of self-hatred.
I continued driving but could hardly see the road through my wet eyes. The seeds had been sown, and I knew there was no way to stop the rain that would cause those seeds to grow. But I could be the shield that prevented the rain from reaching those seeds. And that was exactly what I would do.
My husband’s hand brushed my shoulder, and I realized I had been silent since the words left my pastor’s mouth.
We didn’t talk on the ride home, and I thought about how silence can say everything we need to know. My phone vibrated in my hand, but the notification isn’t what I saw. My gaze focused on the face pictured on the screen: my daughter. Her skin is smooth and pigmented with a beautiful toffee brown. Her eyes are kind and shaped just like her biological father’s. But oh man, that hair. My eyes study her curl pattern, and I think of the care it entails that’s so vital to its health. She used to get so angry when I had to comb it, and it took a lot of learning to understand the intricacies of her hair texture. Now she doesn’t mind as much.
“Well, what do you think?”
Keeping her eyes tightly closed, she positioned herself in front of her bedroom mirror. I watched as her shoulders rose and fell as the deep breath left her lungs. She slowly moved her hands, and her eyes timorously opened. She gasped and the smile that filled her face took my breath. Her hair had been parted, each section making the shape of a box. The 4C curly hair that covers her head had been replaced with small dainty braids. The braids were beaded with her favorite color blue.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! Mama, I love it!,” she said as she gave me a hug.
But my stomach felt hollow, and I thought to myself will this hairstyle remind people of her blackness? Has her half white complexion been a blinder to the melanin that makes them so uncomfortable? Her deep brown eyes caught the light, and right away I saw something in her I hadn’t seen before: affirmation. Standing in front of me was the same kid I had known for 6 years, but now she was aligned with her culture. And then I realized that I was the one being reminded of her blackness. I was beginning to understand her in a way I never had before. She and her culture are one, and they can’t be separated. To remove or ignore her culture is to lose the view of the complete person she is. I decided that instead of worrying if her blackness will be unbearable to others, I was going to make certain that it was never forgotten.
My pastor’s words played on repeat in my head.
“Look, I know this isn’t what you want to hear, and we want you to always do the right thing. But you’re offending a lot of our members, and that’s not something we can sign off on. You are a part of our church’s leadership team, which means that you signed a contract agreeing to never post any political or social views on social media. Anyway, I sold drugs, so I spent a lot of time at trap houses with black people. I have some great black friends, and I know a lot of them that are racist towards whites.”
What he really meant is they don’t permit posting things on social media that don’t align with their white, conservative, anti-abortion, “stand for the cross kneel for the flag,” “Make America Great Again” beliefs. Those posts were apparently fine and warranted no meeting as many of the other leadership members proudly participated in the sharing of those posts.
“E, how are you liking going to after school care with your brothers?” her dad asked.
“I really like it. We have a lot of fun, and I love to be with my brothers. But kids are saying mean things to me. They keep asking my brothers why I’m black and they’re white.”
Her dad and I made eye contact, and I gave him a gentle nod to lead the conversation.
“I know that’s so hurtful. Just tell them to mind their own business, sweetie,” her dad responded.
“I try to, but they just keep on asking. And it really hurts my feelings because I am a different color than my brothers,” her voice started to crack. “I’m the only mixed person in my family, and I wish I wasn’t. I want to be white like my brothers and you and mama.”
She couldn’t hold the tears back any longer.
He looked at her and said, “E, I can’t take back the hurtful things those kids said. I can’t make the sadness you feel go away. But I’m going to continue to teach you self-love, encourage you to be proud of your skin color, and give you a safe place to process your emotions.”
She cried as her dad held her.
My pastor’s words played on repeat in my head, and I couldn’t stop trying to make sense of it all. The meeting, the words, the religion, God, Jesus, love, all of it just stopped making sense. I finally went to sleep just to stop the words from echoing. The next morning, I get on Facebook and the first post I read was my pastor’s.
“I’ve seen some terrible things because of racism let’s be honest…. there are still segregated churches right in our own town! Caucasian and African American. To bring change you must first acknowledge truth and then make steps to bring into action.”
Then and there, I decided that I’d no longer be intimidated by the bible, lied to and manipulated by pastors, or silenced because my words might reflect poorly on God. For most white church leaders, their objective isn’t to destroy the white supremacy tactics that fill our society, but to secure its standing. After all, this is the same institution that preached the gospel to slaves solely to keep them in a subservient position, because if God assigned black people to slavery, it only makes sense that they should consider it nothing but “pure joy,” as James chapter 1 reads. Because there’s nothing one can consider more joyous than theft, human trafficking, rape, murder, and genocide.
I called my pastor later that day. “If kneeling for the national anthem is a greater offense to you than the reason one kneels, you have no business pastoring a church. The things you said in your office yesterday were filled with ignorance, pride, and intolerance. When my daughter was four and faced the first set of bigoted comments she could actually remember, I had no choice but to teach her a new word. I’m going to teach you, too. Racism is believing that you are superior to marginalized groups of people. The conversation we had further proves that you are a racist. And while you are wasting time drawing up contracts for your leadership to sign and policing social media posts, I can only suppose that Jesus is busy making a whip of cords that he’ll use to drive you and the pastors like you out of the church, destroying the lights, fog machines, coffee shop, and overturning the merch tables. He’ll spill the offering plate that many left all they had in.”
The other line was silent. I continued.
“And just one question for you. Would that be considered rioting?”
Sarah can be reached by email. Sarah is a mother and law student in Middle Georgia.