Systemic Racism Is Exhausting, But Not for Me

black lives matter

by John Ellis

With the very first sentence of her powerful book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In A World Made For Whiteness Austin Channing Brown confesses, “White people can be exhausting.”

No doubt, the responses from many white people to that short sentence only serve to underscore Brown’s admission. I must admit, I’m not exactly comfortable reading those words. I’m white, and while I mourn the fact that I’m part of the group that “can be exhausting,” my first instinct upon reading those words was a defensive posture. Which, ironically, is a “first instinct” that must be exhausting for people of color to confront day in and day out in “woke” white people.

Look, fellow white person, if you bristle at Austin Channing Brown’s candid statement, ask yourself if you can honestly say that you experience society the same way a Black person does. You may bluster that you don’t see color, but have you ever considered that that’s a luxury that comes with being white? That Black people don’t have the option to “not see color?” Have you ever wondered what’s it’s like to be a Black man walking down a sidewalk at night? To have people cross the street when they see you walking in their direction? To see white women clutch their purses a little tighter?  Have you ever wondered what it feels like to consistently hear coded language like “you’re well spoken” or to be asked your thoughts on “black-on-black crime?” I mean, I’ve never once been asked my thoughts about the fact that nearly 90% of crimes perpetuated on whites are at the hands of other whites. “What about that white-on-white crime, John?” Have you? I’ve also never had someone with a tinge of surprise or a patronizing tone say, “you’re very well spoken, John.”

See, as a white man, I can’t relate to much of what Black people experience in this country. And, if you’re white, neither can you. This means that no matter how much you bristle in the face of discussions about white privilege or systemic racism, or how much those conversations upset your existential apple cart, one of the ways that you (and I) can obey Jesus’ command to love your neighbor is by shutting up and listening to those conversations.

Here’s an article published by Christianity Today titled “Ahmaud Arbery and the Trauma of Being a Black Runner” that you should listen to. In it, Dante Stewart laments, “the truth is that no matter how many Bible verses I quote, how many great books I read and post, how morally excellent I am, what degree I hold, or any other trait that is ‘successful,’ none of that can shield me from the tragedy of being black.”

Do you know what Stewart is talking about? Do you love Black people enough to care? Or, like many white evangelicals in this country, do you hide behind platitudes and self-serving positions? Do you automatically dismiss the notion of the tragedy of being black? “After all,” you may be thinking to yourself, “we live in a meritocracy and most people in this country judge others on the basis of their character and not the color of their skin.”

That, too, must be exhausting.

Shai Linne, one of the white reformed world’s favorite hip-hop artists, is a Black voice that many white people only listen to when he’s saying what they want to hear. It must be exhausting to have your words and perspective cherrypicked by white people in a way that affirms them. Recently, though, he wrote an op-ed for The Gospel Coalition bearing the title “George Floyd and Me.” In it, he, too, admits to “emotional exhaustion” when it comes to racism and the discussions about racism. However, because he desires unity and healing, he was gracious enough to give of himself, again.

Sharing the response he sent to a white woman who asked him how he was feeling about the murder of George Floyd, he admitted some fears that inhabit his life as a Black man. One anecdote that struck a chord with me was his revealing that he was afraid of, “getting pulled over for no reason other than driving while black, told to get out of the car, cuffed, and sat down on the side of the road, utterly emasculated and humiliated with my young boys looking out the window, terrified, which is exactly what happened to a good friend of mine when he took his family on a road trip.”

Reading that was a punch to the gut.

I am a father who loves going on road trips with his family. I’ve even been pulled over by the police while on a road trip, my children sitting in the backseat. Shai Linne’s fear struck a chord with me, though, not because I can relate but because I can’t.

I believe Shai Linne when he says that he’s “emotionally exhausted.” I even think I empathize with him (I pray that the Holy Spirit will empower me to do so if I don’t). But I don’t really understand his experiences. I can’t. My experiences are often the exact opposite of his. For example, I have never once been gripped with fear upon seeing flashing blue lights in my rearview mirror. I don’t need to be gripped with fear; I’m white.

Here’s an experience of a white man for you.

Six years ago, during one of my family’s long road trips, I got pulled over. Twice. The first time, I was well above the speed limit while barreling through the western hills of Maryland. My toddler son was quite amused by the flashing lights and the interruption of our long car ride by the police officer. My wife was annoyed with me. For my part, I was focused on thoughts about how a speeding ticket would affect our insurance premium.

The second time I got pulled over on that trip I was only going about 5 mph over the posted speed limit. In fact, I didn’t even bother to take my foot off the gas after spotting the police car sitting in the median of I-90, much less tap the brakes. To my annoyance, the blue lights began swirling anyway before I had even finished passing him. Grumbling, I immediately edged the car onto the highway’s shoulder and came to a stop. My kids’ laughter of delight at our car getting pulled over again didn’t help my mood. Neither did my wife’s look that communicated that while she was amused at the situation, she was also displeased with my foolish decision to, once again, speed.

“I was only going about 5 miles over,” I protested to my wife as I pulled out my license and the car’s registration.

After the initial “do you know why I pulled you over?” followed by my grumbling reply painted with disrespect of “not really,” the officer asked me to follow him back to his car. “Hopefully this won’t take long,” I complained to my wife while rolling my eyes as I got out of our car.

Sitting in the front seat of the police cruiser, I watched as the officer began writing on a form. Straining to see what he was writing without being noticed, I gave perfunctory answers to his questions.

“You guys from Virginia?”

“Yeah.”

“On vacation?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you stop by Mount Rushmore?”

Oh, my word! Can’t this cop shut up and finish writing whatever he’s writing so I can go back to my car and get back on the road?

“Yeah.”

“What did your kids think of it?”

Aarrgghh!!!!

“They seemed to like it.”

After a few more fruitless attempts to engage me in small talk about our family vacation, the officer pivoted to telling me about himself. His family. His love of fishing. And some other things I wasn’t really listening to.

Finally returning to my car with the warning in my hand, I said to my wife, “I think that cop pulled me over because he’s lonely and bored and just wanted someone to talk to.”

Never once during that interaction did it cross my mind to be even remotely worried. Because I’m white. Shai Linne is black. Whether you want to admit it or not, he has to worry about interactions with the police for the sole reason that he’s black. I can’t really imagine the amount of stress he would’ve suffered if he had been the one the South Dakota highway patrolman had asked to come back to his car with him. I mean, I know that the stress would’ve been there, but I can’t really imagine it because my perspective is that of a white man.

And all of that, my experience versus Shai Linne’s, speaks to a tweet written by Kings College professor Dr. Anthony Bradley that confronts us with the truth that, “White privilege is about all the stuff whites get to avoid in USA life. That is, stuff whites have the privilege of not thinking about.”

With that tweet, Dr. Bradley was adding his voice to another tweet that said, “White privilege isn’t ‘your life is easy because you’re white’ white privilege is ‘your life isn’t made harder because of your white skin.’ No one is saying your life is easy and you don’t have troubles, but unlike people of color, those troubles aren’t BECAUSE of your whiteness.”

Because fallen humans are innately selfish, white privilege is a term and concept that draws the ire of white people who are unwilling to listen and think critically about the issue. Anecdotally, I know this to be true because I first shared Dr. Bradley’s tweet in a blog post on my old blog and was excoriated by fellow white people who couldn’t be bothered to actually interact with the post’s arguments (or Dr. Bradley’s point) while furiously typing invectives condemning me as a neo-Marxist, a God-hating social justice warrior, and/or an idiot. Ironically, in the original blog post I predicted angry pejoratives would be tossed in my direction. I also admitted that no matter the level of vitriol directed my way, it would pale in comparison to that which Black people who speak out endure. Because, again, I’m white. My “wokeness,” whatever that means, resides mainly in the realm of the abstract for me. For Dr. Bradley and other Black people? Not so much.

The recent actions of a brave Black high school student have confronted me with the wide gap between my abstract interaction with racism and her day-to-day navigation of a society that constantly reminds her that she is considered lesser-than by large swaths of this country’s citizenry. Truth be told, much of the rest of the white citizenry who reject my accusation while claiming to view her as equal to white teenagers do so while defending the very system that tells this brave young women that she, in fact, is lesser than.

Don’t believe me? Well, then, ask yourself, what is your initial response to discovering that this young women’s action I am applauding is the refusal to wear the name of her school – Robert E. Lee High School – on her track and field jersey? Trude Lamb, the young lady, wrote an eloquent letter explaining her decision. Read it. Click here to do so. While reading it, fellow white person, ask yourself how you would feel having to go every day to a school that is named after an individual who invested much energy and effort into protecting and preserving a system that  labeled you as inferior and believed that you were best served by being violently enslaved and treated as a farm animal? I mean, I know that in that instance, I would wonder if the people around me didn’t believe, at least a little, the same things that this vile, wicked man was willing to die for. The anger that erupts from many when others advocate for the removal of certain monuments and the changing of certain names of schools and roads would only serve to reinforce my growing belief that many of those around me would prefer to see me enslaved and treated as a farm animal. But, thankfully, for me, that thought exercise resides solely in the abstract. Because I’m white.

Now, because I grew up in the Deep South, this isn’t my first rodeo. I know exactly the ways in which many white people will “refute” me. “Robert E. Lee didn’t own any slaves and he fought for state’s rights and the honor of Virginia and not to protect slavery, John!” Words like “heritage” and “war of Northern aggression” will pepper the “refutations.”

Balderdash!

I like that word, balderdash, but I’d prefer to use another word that also starts with a b and includes an sh. Because that’s exactly what any defense of the Confederacy and the participants who defended the Confederate States, in all of its synonymous vileness and stench, is – bullshit.

Don’t believe me? Read this (click here). After reading it, tell me I’m wrong by interacting with my arguments. Don’t come back with the platitudes of racists. Racists platitudes like “it’s heritage, not hate.” Also, fair warning, I left a lot out of my previous blog post I linked to above. For example, I’ll confront you with Mildred D. Rutherford (I’m not going to spoil the surprise, but you can look her up, if you want). I’ll ask you about the Daughters of the Confederacy’s relationship with the “Lost Cause” myth. I’ll barrage you with a host of primary sources that I didn’t reference in the original post. And it will all add up to the inescapable conclusion that Black students, like Trude Lamb, shouldn’t have to walk into school buildings bearing the name of the defenders of chattel slavery.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the brave Ms. Lamb. You can find her letter included in the link above.

After you read her letter, google Redlining. And then read this (click here). And then read this and this and this and this.  I could add even more links, tons and tons of links, but I’ll stop. You’ll be tempted, of course, to dismiss the thesis of the STAT article and the articles demonstrating racial bias in policing throughout America. Before you do that, though, before you summarily dismiss the evidence, google Redlining again. Google how the tax dollars of Blacks during Jim Crow were used. Familiarize yourself with how racism has snaked its way throughout our society, earning the name systemic racism.[1]

Well, to be fair, “snaked its way” isn’t true. Snaked implies deceit and subterfuge. Racism was deliberately baked into the founding of this country. There was no “snaking” about it. Choosing an example is hard. Not because examples are hard to find, because examples abound. It’s difficult because there are so many examples to choose from. What example do I believe will best grab the attention of fellow white people? That’s my objective, after all. So, listen to this:

Located near Augusta, GA, on the South Carolina side of the river, the Silver Bluff Church was the first Black Baptist church in America. The University of Michigan Library publishes a reprint of the telling of the church’s history. At only 47 pages, it’s a short book. But a telling book. It testifies to the work of the Holy Spirit. And it testifies to how Satan worked through the racist systems put in place by white men in a rebellious attempt to undo the Holy Spirit’s work.

Started sometime in 1773, the Silver Bluff Church (near Jackson, SC) met on George Galphin’s plantation where the church’s first pastor, David George, was enslaved. George and a handful of his fellow slaves were converted under the preaching of Wait Palmer, who was opposed to slavery and risked the ire of slave owners to preach God’s word to slaves. Well, it wasn’t long before the local slave owners decided that they’d had enough. They forbade Palmer and other white Christians from continuing their discipling and informal seminary training of Pastor David George. In his book that was first published in 1910, author W. Brooks quotes from a letter written by Rev. George, saying, “[they] were not allowed to come amongst us, lest they should furnish us with too much knowledge.”[2]

You see, a war, the American Revolution, had broken out and the slave owners feared that their human property would gain “knowledge, which, in the prevailing conditions, would result in their personal freedom, and, consequently, in great financial loss for their masters.”[3]

Throughout this nation’s history, whites have suppressed and abused Blacks through a variety of means, including attempting to control information and knowledge. This tactic continues to this day. One way this is seen in 2020 is the ways in which many conservative white ministers of the gospel shout down those who are speaking out against systemic racism. Using labels of “divisive” and “neo-Marxist,” these white pastors pose as protectors of the gospel. They’re not.

Through repentance of our sins and faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are redeemed back to our Creator whom we now call Father. That’s the gospel. But, our citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom includes ethics. Preaching and advocating for those ethics is not “watering down the gospel.” I daresay that every year on Sanctity of Life Sunday, the same pastors denouncing those calling for an acknowledgment and repentance of systemic racism are the loudest voices proclaiming Christ’s ethics regarding abortion.

Look, when whites, pastors or otherwise, defend Confederate monuments, deny systemic racism, and condemn those speaking out as “watering down the gospel,” they hearken back to the slaveowner’s attempts to stifle and control the knowledge of slaves. When whites refuse to listen to our Black brothers and sisters in Christ when they attempt to share their grievances and generational (and personal) hurt but, instead, engage in any form of “whataboutism,” we are continuing in the long line of the racist suppression of Black voices. When whites (President or otherwise) demand the use of force to silent Black voices, we are as guilty of violent racism as the slaveowners who brandished the whip to keep their slaves in line.

Austin Channing Brown says that she is exhausted. Shai Linne admits to being exhausted. I am not exhausted, because I am white.

Towards the end of her book, Brown relates how her cousin, Dalin, was sentenced to prison for a non-violent drug conviction. While in prison, Dalin was struck and killed by lightening. As she concludes the anecdote, Brown writes, “Even as I write these words, I am bracing myself for the reaction of those who will not care, those who will tell me that Dalin’s death is his own fault. They will spit out the words drug dealer, just as they spit out the word criminal. Maybe they’ll call him a thug, a [n-word], or tell me the world is better without him in it. But the one word that will go unspoken is the word black. Underneath all the other hurtful words, this is the one whiteness really wants to spew. Whiteness has never needed much of an excuse for our deaths [emphasis kept].”[4]

Here’s one last anecdote. My anecdote.

Like Brown’s cousin Dalin, I, too, was a drug dealer. Not for very long. But does the length of my career as a drug dealer really matter? In the end, I was a drug dealer. One evening, during my stint as a criminal and a thug, I sat on my apartment’s back patio filled with friends and acquaintances. We were gathered to say goodbye to a friend who was scheduled to report to prison the following day. He had recently been convicted on a non-violent drug charge.

Sitting there, as we attempted to cheer him up, the racist irony wasn’t lost on any of us that out of all the people sitting on that patio who deserved to go to prison on a drug charge, it was the white guy, me, not the black guy who had been unfortunate enough to have been stopped while driving-while-black and his car subsequently searched. Me? I knew that as a white man, the potential for prison time was remote for me.

Because, again, I’m white. I’m not exhausted.


[1] This is only a drop in the bucket containing the evidence that systemic racism is very real in this country and has very real and devastating consequences for Black people.

[2] Walter H. Brooks, The Silver Bluff Church reprinted by permission of the University of Michigan Library (Columbia, SC: Google Books, 2019), 7.

[3] Brooks, The Silver Bluff Church, 8.

[4] Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In A World Made For Whiteness (New York: Convergent, 2018), 145-146.

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