Rhett Hayes, UT Dallas
“They gave me a slave pen for my freedom of speech
Yeah, I’m trying to leave the island
But swimming through bleach…
How a privileged man gon’ say it’s time to move forward
And say the game’s fair when he monopolizes the board?”
I remember hearing these lyrics- from a song called Jim Crow by a rapper named Sho Baraka- as I sat in a study hall in my senior year of high school. My school was private, classical education, university-model, and Christian. It was also overwhelmingly white. In my graduating class of eight, seven of the eight of us were Caucasian, and one was Chinese, but adopted by Caucasian parents.
I had lived in one house my whole life and had gone to the same school since I was eight years old. Most of the people in my neighborhood were white. Most of the people at my church were white. Even right now, I struggle to think of any conversations I had about race when I was growing up.
I lived in a world where race didn’t seem to affect me or anyone around me.
Thinking back on my childhood, I can think of times when my family would go to serve at soup kitchens or government housing, and I remember noticing that there were a lot more African Americans there than in my personal sphere, but for some reason I didn’t think anything of it. My family definitely felt love for these people, wanted to hear their stories and help them out, but there was never any sense of race playing into their plight in my schema. If I had taken some time to think critically about the disparity of race between my wealthy neighborhood and these low-income areas, I might have realized that it would require at least a little bit of willful ignorance and racism to genuinely believe that both parties had been afforded the same opportunities in life. The problem was that I didn’t have to try to be ignorant to race issues growing up. It just seemed to happen.
At school, everything I was taught- both directly by teachers and indirectly by everyone else- seemed to say to me that race and racism simply weren’t real issues for the vast majority of people in a post-civil-rights America. I would read and hear about Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, MLK, Jim Crow laws, and other important figures and moments throughout the history of race relations in my country, but they were always talked about as history. Sure, this history had left “residue,” I thought, but that residue is mostly just a few elderly people who hold onto bigoted worldviews. Those people are the past; and me and my friends don’t live in that world anymore.
Because we didn’t think race was a big deal, a lot of my friend groups often felt comfortable joking around about racial stereotypes. I even remember one friend saying: “the only people who can’t take a joke about their race…are racists.” Yes, that is ridiculous, but I didn’t think so then. The teenage, male, thick-skinned mentality I had of both giving and receiving biting, edgy jokes applied to race almost as easily as it applied to anything else. When I entered high school, I wasn’t the most compassionate or loving person, and I tended to be pretty caught up in getting attention and pursuing my own interests.
Then, two things happened. First, God started teaching me, albeit incrementally, to love people. Second, I started listening to music from several Christian rappers, many of whom were themselves in the process of becoming emboldened as voices on race issues in the United States.
If you know me very well, you know that I love, love rap. In my sophomore year of high school, I bought my first rap album, Rebel by Lecrae, and I immediately connected with the reliance of the entire medium of art on the power of words. That began this sort of love affair with Christian rap that ended up being very bad for my wallet, but very good for my mind. The songs I was listening to told stories and presented ideas in such a way that I felt like I knew the person on the other side of my headphones. I began to look up to several Christian rappers as role models, even though their lives differed vastly from mine.
I think there’s a lot of insight in the fact that the thing that started me on my journey of thinking about race was music from people I had never met. These Christian rap songs connected me to a world outside my own. And that ended up being just what I needed.
Remember those four lines I started with that came from the song called Jim Crow? That song was part of an album that came out in January 2013, right before I turned 17. This album was actually very controversial in evangelical Christian communities because it departed from talking about systematic theology, general sin struggles, and spreading the gospel and instead talked – in very honest and direct language – about poverty, race, and politics. The first few lines sum this up well:
“I wanna sell records but yet I feel eager
To write political tunes that give a certain finger.
To talk to God, they told me to climb a mountain,
I’m thirsty for His revelation, where’s the colored fountain?”
So there, listening to rap music in a study hall full of rich white kids like myself, God taught me two important lessons. First, I was learning that theology and race could- and should- mix. Second, I was learning that if something matters to my brother or sister in Christ, it is my duty to listen and make that thing matter to me.
I was also learning that I didn’t know the first thing about race.
Over the next couple of years, it got harder and harder for me to ignore the fact that race was still an issue in America. In the fall of 2013, I started going to UTD, so I was on a diverse college campus where anything and everything political could be talked about. In the summer of 2014, the whole country erupted into heated conversation over the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson Missouri. Then, more and more names of black males who were killed by policemen began to flood time lines, airtime, and front pages everywhere I went. At that point, I was being pulled in two different directions. My rapper role-models would articulate their views on race and urge people to talk about it and to seek to understand the difficulties many people struggle through with systematic racism. My role models at church would refer to all of the conversations about race and police brutality as a distraction that was divisive to church. No matter who was right, I respected a lot of these people, and this led me to feel very divided over a lot of issues.
Not much more than a year ago, I spent some time trying especially hard to get a better grasp of Jesus’ character. I read a couple of books. I prayed. I examined the lives of those around me who loved Christ. I fell more in love with Christ than before- and as I did, I grew in love for people, and it became much easier to have an attitude of “seeking first to understand.” This led me to read a book called The New Jim Crow, which details the ways in which the ridiculously inordinate mass incarceration of black males has affected African American communities around the country. I had begun to accept that many people’s’ lives were much harder than mine because of their race, but I quickly realized I had no understanding of the sheer number of ways in which this can occur. This is, of course, one facet of the systematic abuse of one people group out of many, but it led me to fully accept that the “systematic racism isn’t a thing” belief I had grown up with was wrong. It also led me to realize that, in no small part thanks to my white, upper-middle class background, my life had been extremely easy.
Here’s a pastoral thought concerning race that I think we can draw a few lessons from.
First, lead with grace, and appreciate other people’s’ stories. Let’s be a community of believers that seeks to listen to one another and to help one another grow in both knowledge and in love. Some of you might feel like a lot of the people who are speaking out on race are going about it in a completely wrong way- perhaps they’re too inflammatory or accusatory. Have grace for this, and seek to understand why they feel the way they do. Some of you might look down on the ignorance of someone who knows as much about race issues as you did 6 months ago. Realize that it takes time for someone to reshape their worldview, especially if that means admitting you’ve been wrong about a lot of things.
Second, I think a lot of us- myself included- need to rethink what a “good” conversation about race looks like. Just as we need to seek to show the Gospel to those who haven’t seen it lived out, we must also seek to show a Gospel view of race to those who don’t yet have one- or haven’t yet seen one lived out. This means talking to people who might say ignorant, dismissive, or even hurtful things to us. I sometimes think it’s easy to get into the habit of creating our own mini-denominations in the form of friend groups who think and talk the same way about political and sociological issues. Let’s try to get comfortable having conversations with people we disagree with. Ephesians 4 says:
“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
If we’re really unified in the Spirit, if we really love one another, then we’ll be okay.