What Does Racial Healing Look Like?

A Georgia State Senator recently filed Senate Resolution 28, a statement of “remorse” over our state’s part in slavery. Detractors argue that it is too little too late, that it should—but doesn’t—use the word “apologize.” Supporters are grateful Georgia is finally doing what other Southern States have done and are officially acknowledging the grave errors of our past. Which has got me to wondering about racial healing. What does it really look like? A legislative action?

I wonder how we heal. Or, in my own experience, how I have healed. How have my relationships and my attitudes and my soul healed? How have I evolved from a white, privileged, suburban (I don’t live there now, but I grew up there) woman with a confusing legacy of racial open-mindedness in a world that looked just like Jackson, Mississippi, in The Help into a… well, I’m not sure what I am except that I am not that anymore.

Several years ago Bill and I went to the MLK Center in our city for the first time. We marveled that we’d never paid any attention to this treasure. The first thing we did, as the compliant museum-goers we are, was watch a short film about Dr. King’s life that left me in tears even though I knew most of the story and had read, in their context, most of the quotes that flashed on the screen. As I made my way out of our row, a black woman about my age stopped in the aisle and looked at me. I glanced back and smiled at her. She took a step toward me and I took a step toward her. We embraced.

Actually, she grabbed me in a bear hug, released me, and said, “That just seemed like the appropriate thing to do.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. We talked and discovered we were, indeed, the same age. She wanted me to know she had never had any rancor toward my race, that she had never participated in or experienced any of the extreme hatred we’d just seen in the film. I told her the same. We talked about bussing and integration in our hometowns in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We even talked about white and black cheerleaders. (Is there any question which were the most talented back then?) We formed a little friendship right there.

Is that what racial healing looks like? A high school reunion?

Around fifteen years ago Bill pastored a somewhat racially mixed church in a thoroughly racially mixed community. We hosted a “racial reconciliation” group in our home. We read a book (like Malcolm X and Black Like Me) and watched a movie (like To Kill a Mockingbird and Schindler’s List) as homework each month and then discussed them. It was nice. Informative, too.

Is that what racial healing looks like? A seminar?

I’m sure these things—laws passed, hugs exchanged, conversations moderated—have helped us to heal. But if I look at my own life, there is one element that has all but erased the scars of the past.

Leadership. The white, evangelical church has finally begun to lead its people toward racial healing, even though, like our lawmaker’s resolutions, their decrees and apologies have been scandalously inadequate and behind schedule. Even so, we’ve held discussions and we’ve embraced. We’ve written books and produced films. Better yet, we’ve opened up our doors. But because these efforts have been made at the initiative of white leaders, they allow us to keep—as usual—the upper hand.

Is that what racial healing looks like? Benign majority rule?

When I talk about leadership, I’m not talking about a white man or woman leading the way in racial harmony. I’m talking about a black man or woman leading white men and women. I can’t help but ask myself and others like me: We can apologize, but can we follow?

My husband is a former pastor who now follows the leadership of our black pastors. Given our age and our backgrounds, we find this healing. I honestly don’t think our pastors, Dhati, John, James, or Muche, have a clue what this does for us. We don’t follow them because they are black. We didn’t join our church to make a racial statement. We follow them because of who they are and how they lead and where they lead us. But for the first time in our lives, we are not the dominant people in the room. We are not the culture-setters. We are not the value architects. We are not the teachers or the counselors or the leaders. We are not even peers or facilitators. We are the followers.

Maybe that’s the best kind of healing, the kind you don’t get by leading a charge. The kind you don’t even seek. The kind that shows up while you are following something or someone more valuable than the healing itself. And so you just look up one day and discover the wounds are gone.