Over the last few days, I have been in agony as to whether I should write about George Floyd’s killing or not, for several reasons. One, so much is being said so eloquently and powerfully already. Do you need one more voice on this? Secondly, I have not been on social media for years, and to be honest, I have enjoyed my Facebook silence. Thirdly, this is painful.
As I shared my heart with a few friends though, they have been encouraging me to share this. I also realise that for some of my non-black friends, the race issue playing itself out, is far from your experience or personal reality. Let me be clear; this is not about me. I would be very comfortable keeping quiet. But perhaps, me being a friend will give the issue a known face. This is also not from all black people. I do not speak on everyone’s behalf – this is from me! Finally, I have been convicted that my reluctance to open up was selfish. So here I go …
I don’t know what it is about the George Floyd killing that floored me. All I know is that for the first time in years, I cried myself to sleep after watching that video. But why did it impact me so profoundly? I have seen this before. Racism is not just a cognitive, head issue for me. I was born and raised under a racist apartheid system. The specific hospital where I was born determined by one thing: my race.
So why this incident?
Was it because of the absolute cold-blooded taking of a man’s life by an officer who didn’t flinch while doing so?
Was it because there were three other police officers, men who are supposed to stand for law and justice, who enabled him to do so?
Was it because one of these enabling officers himself was from a racial minority background? Was it because of the desperate, and ignored, pleas of onlookers for the police to stop?
Was it because of the heartbreaking cries of a grown 46-year-old man, pinned to the ground, crying “Mama, mama” as he feels life slipping away from him? Imagine the utter humiliation and desperate longing for the safety and protection of your mothers embrace as you feel your life slipping away, even as a grown man.
Or because the pressure had been building as a result of a lifetime of experiences, historical and recent, and at some point the dam wall was bound to break?
Was it remembering the many times that I personally jogged through the streets of Georgia when I visited our ministry and friends, and then watching the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting in that same state? Asking myself; “Could it have been me? Or could it be me in the future?”
Or remembering the fear I felt when I saw a police car popping up behind me while driving in the US, not too long ago?
Or was it the memory of getting a call not too long ago and being told that my then nine-year-old son had been sent home from school because he was in a fight with an older boy? He had refused to talk to his mother about it. When I got home, I found him lying on his bed with a blanket pulled over his head afraid of what was coming his way. I climbed in next to him, pulled the blanket over both our heads and held him tightly for a few minutes. I assured him everything was going to be ok, that I knew his character and that I just needed to know what triggered the fight. Only then did he tell me
that the fight was because an older boy had physically and racially abused his younger brother. So he stood up for his brother.
While I don’t want him to resort to violence, what do you say to your black son who got into a fight defending his younger brother because of racial abuse turning into physical abuse?
Was it because moments later, I had to lie down next to his younger brother who at first had also refused to talk about the incident? Only after I told him that I would not leave his room until he told me what exactly had happened, did he open up. I lay there feeling his little body shake as he was sobbing, recounting all the vile racist abuse that was hurled at him! No father wants to hear the questions this incident raised in his son’s head about his own identity and humanity.
Let me not tell you about my little beautiful, dark-skinned, curly-haired African daughter …
Was it because, as I sat on my bed later that evening telling God: “I grew up with this, I thought in this enlightened world, my kids would be spared this?”
Suddenly my conversations with my kids about racism were no longer just cognitive, but experiential and painful. The innocence of my two little black boys was shattered by their personal experience of racism! I can deal with racism as an adult. But my kids!!!
And I am being told: “Can’t we just move on?” “Can’t we forget about racism?” I am being told, “Children don’t see colour”. Really?
To be clear, 99 % of my children’s experiences with non-black people have been nothing but amazing. Ironically, just a few weeks earlier, I dropped my son off at school in the rain. My heart was filled with gratitude as I watched a little white girl about to enter the school building turn and see my son get out of the car without an umbrella. She immediately ran to our car and held the umbrella over both of them as they walked side by side to the school building. This little incident of kindness from this girl, very different from him, captures the majority of their experiences.
But if you think the racist incident did not affect them, then you should have seen their reaction when I raised the issue last night in order to ask their permission to tell this story. I promised them I wouldn’t share unless they were comfortable with me doing so. One immediately agreed. The other one didn’t. After a long conversation, he told me he wanted to sleep on it. Only this morning did he tell me it was ok for me to share this story publicly. When I asked him why he agreed, he responded; “Maybe others will learn from this”. By the way, if you ever see my kids, never raise this issue with them. We are discipling them, in the words of the title of one of Martin Luther King’s sermons, to have “tender hearts and tough minds”. They are fine!
Some tend to think that racism is only a white American problem. Last year, while attending an Unconscious Bias trainer certification in London, a small group of us ended up talking about race. An Italian lady was shocked when she heard of incidents of racism in other countries and then proceeded to proclaim; “We don’t have this issue in Italy”. I was speechless!
I remember walking through an airport in Asia with three white brothers just about to start an assignment about twenty years ago. Excitedly we all passed through immigration and were walking and talking side by side to go pick up our luggage at the conveyer belt. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to stare into the eyes of a visibly upset immigration officer who shouted at me; “What are you doing here?” I didn’t say a word. I took out my passport, opened it to where my visa was and showed it to him. He looked at it, gave me one glance, turned and walked away. I jogged to catch up with my friends who were utterly oblivious to what had just happened. Even though I didn’t know
the term, I then understood what privilege looked like. I understood what systemic injustice looked like. I was profiled for one reason, and one reason only, the colour of my skin. I discovered that at times, even though we are equal at the cross, I would have to navigate this world differently because of the colour of my skin.
I realised then how we live in bubbles, oblivious to how others are experiencing the spaces we share. It is in our backyards. Perhaps on our front porches. If you want to learn, seek out and listen to black voices in Latin America, Asia, across Europe and also sadly, even today, on my own continent – Africa. Many will be bold and open to share with you, but only if you are willing to be uncomfortable!
Perhaps it was all those things and much more that caused my heart to grieve so deeply for the last week.
My family and I have been blessed with an incredibly diverse group of colleagues and friends. I would count my life poorer, much poorer, without you. There is something about the beauty of God in every race that I would not know or experience if I did not engage with you. I have done life with many of you, ministered with you, laughed with you, cried with you, stayed in your houses and you in mine. Some of you were there with me in the most beautiful moments of my life. You were there for me in the darkest moments of my life too. I treasure our friendship.
That said, I need you to know these things. Just because we get to share spaces and do stuff together does not mean we always experience those spaces in the same way. I can tell you story after story of times we may have been in the same space where I was deeply aware of my blackness, and not in a positive way. I am not telling you this because I want your pity. I am ok. I know whose I am. I am grateful and proud that He created me black. And I know He has called me to serve Him amongst the nations for such a time as this.
As I think of you in this moment of world history, I need to ask you: “Are you ok with what is happening?”
Many are asking: “What can we do?”
It is complex. There is no single, simple answer. But can I suggest just these two things to start with?
- Educate yourself.
There are many brilliant resources out there that have been posted on different platforms. Listen! Listen to the experiences of black people in your own backyard. Check your own biases. Please do not listen and then go “BUT”! You are right, there are many BUT’s. Such as; “But what about other social justice issues? But what about the looting? But what about ….” You are right; there are many but’s. Can I ask you though to just feel the pain? Can you simply lament and grow in this space of racism now? We should not let this moment pass us by without it changing you and me for the better. I am learning so much at the moment! I am learning about God, my neighbour, myself and about the world.
- Talk to your people!
I know this is a provocative statement. You know what some of your family and friends are saying about black people around the barbeques, braai’s or whatever delicious food you eat while socialising in your part of the world. You need to talk to them. You need to speak to the
pastors, including those who are leading ‘multiracial churches’, who ignore the issue of race. You need to talk to organisational leaders. You need to talk to business leaders. You need to talk to authorities. We need systemic change. Use your power! Use your influence. It is scary confronting those in power, especially when relationships are involved. You may get it wrong in the words you use at times, just as I probably have in this letter. But I am personally ok with that. As long as you are willing to learn, act and relearn. Make your voice count.
This is important. When I do it, I am once again the angry black person in the room who is playing the race or culture card. The racist killing of George Floyd, and the many others in broad daylight, is hopefully evidence that when we talk about racism, we are not playing ‘cards’.
Thank you! Thank you to those of you who have been doing this work for years. Thank you to those are picking up the baton now.
#I CAN’T BREATHE – I sincerely hope this will not just be another passing hashtag.