I’ve been uncomfortable sharing my experiences with racism because I don’t like to relive the pain of the moment and I don’t like to give the perpetrator any power, time or space in my life. The main reason I don’t share, though, is because I know I will be second-guessed or interrogated or the people who are supposed to love me will turn around and defend the perpetrator.
Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” and I agree with her. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in forgiveness, I absolutely do. However, as a black american I am painfully aware that those who need forgiveness for their racism will seldom ask for it. The charism of this particular kind of hate is a toxic combination of arrogance and fear, neither of which lend themselves to contrition or reconciliation.
The last thing I want to hear when I am actually vulnerable enough to share my experience is a rationalization or an interrogation or a decree from an outside party that it actually wasn’t racist after all. Especially when I know it was. Without a shadow of a doubt I know it when it happens. How do I know? I can smell it.
Many of us have spiritual gifts. The gift of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety or fear of the Lord. You’ll notice “smell” was not on that list. Sometimes you can’t quite pinpoint why something was offensive or hurtful, right? It just stings, but you can’t quite articulate why. Well, it’s kind of like that, only way more convicting. It’s not so much a gift as it is spiritual awareness.
The gift of wisdom aids us in our discernment and I am able to discern the true nature of the person. When I am faced with veiled racism, God allows my spirit to see through the veil. I have never said this out loud before because I worry that I’ll experience the same dismissive behavior I referenced earlier, but I’m saying it now. Yes, whatever the reason, God has given me this awareness.
Us vs Them
How does it happen? Someone says or does something questionable and I perceive a kind of spiritual stench. I know that there is something deep rooted within that person and I know I may not be safe around them. The smell does not always keep me away, but it is a warning to my spirit that in this space I am not an “us.” I am a “them.” I know that I am proceeding into a dark place alone.
The first time I can remember being aware of this was in college. You should know that I knew almost everyone at my small liberal arts school. I truly love people. Love meeting them, love making real connections and love hearing their stories. I’m extroverted to the core, so I made sure I wasn’t overly committed with school work so I could write for the school paper, host a radio show, participate in theatre and music and my sorority and about 5 clubs and a work-study program. I was a card scanner in the cafeteria, so I saw pretty much the entire campus daily and I warmly greeted them all.
This one guy who was dating my sorority sister just didn’t like me. I couldn’t figure out why, but to be fair I can be intensely friendly and some folks don’t care for that. My friend and I were close, so I was around her and her boyfriend often. He said things that were dismissive and demeaning and she corrected him, but he ignored her corrections. When I was a Resident Assistant he broke a rule in front of me on purpose. “Be cool,” I told him trying to be lenient. “What are gonna do about it?” he said taunting me.
Senior year I was elected homecoming queen and this guy attended formal with my friend (even though he’d graduated). When I walked in wearing the crown my friend’s boyfriend looked at me incredulously, “Why are you wearing that?” My friend leaned over to him and said, “Because she’s our queen.” He shouted, “YOU’RE OUR QUEEN?” in disbelief. I said, “Yes. I am.” and I could smell it then as I walked away. I never asked her about it later and I never confronted him. His cohorts always apologized for him when he had an outburst. People often shared how he was a great friend to them in their time of need and they couldn’t understand why he didn’t afford me the same friendship. Why was he so rude and disrespectful? Why did he feel the need to knock me down? They wondered those things, but I knew. I knew from his first infraction. I knew it in my heart and I knew it in my nose. I didn’t need anyone to rationalize his behavior for me or to apologize for him. He hated me because I am black.
When God Speaks
It has been many years since those days and I have smelled many more racists along the way. I have always had a gratitude for this other sense of smell, but I never thought much about it until recently. I remember thinking in jest, “Lord why a smell? Why not some other sense?” And what He revealed to me took my breath away.
Child of God, do you not realize that the stench of rotting flesh follows those who seek to destroy? Those who revel in the murders and oppression of my children have an abscess leaking. It is not their pride, arrogance or ignorance they hold within the sore, but rather the rotting flesh of your ancestors whom they would like to lynch again and hang from the trees once more. They wish to make an example of you and deny your dignity. The same hate that took people for property is rotting inside them. It is their fear of retribution that fuels this cycle of death. They cannot imagine a world where the children of slaves would not return evil for evil. How I ache for my children who do not recognize their own siblings.
There is a generational sin that keeps Americans in a state of turmoil. I have thanked God for keeping me safe with this kind of “Racist Radar,” but there is nothing good for me in needing to face this evil. I am just trying to live my life as a woman of faith and I will always have more to worry about than my white counterparts. I don’t speak about it because I must be unassuming, hard-working, law-abiding, and overly polite just to be safe and still my life is at risk because I’m a black person in this world.
I am not a victim, although I have been victimized. I would like equality. I would like compassionate understanding, but I will settle for an end to the killing.
What can you do? You can end the cycle of death by being a friend who listens with an open heart. If you don’t have any friends of other races, why not? Value the human dignity in every person. Yes, this even goes for me. I have to value the lives of those who seek to destroy me. It’s not easy, but their lives matter. I wish more of my Christian brothers and sisters would stand in solidarity with me and proclaim that Black Lives Matter as well. It is not a political statement. It is not a violent statement. Your brothers and sisters are crying out for our basic human dignity. Will you respond now?
Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (Pope St. John Paul II, 38). Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment. “We cannot believe in God the Father without seeing a brother or sister in every person, and we cannot follow Jesus without giving our lives for those for whom he died on the cross.” (Pope Francis)
Joy Jaeger is a life-long Catholic who has been in active ministry for over 20 years. She is a worship leader and educator within the Archdiocese of Denver. She prays for peace and comfort for all who experience hate or abuse, especially within their safe places. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.