The Moments Racism and Injustice Became Real For Me
As the sun beat down on our little African mountaintop, the sound of children laughing filled the brisk June air. I felt the smile cross my face as the sweet sound seeped in through the little windows of the hut I sat in. Filled by peace, I watched as the paint roller in my hand transformed the cold cement floor into a beautiful, colorful palate. I wanted to soak that moment up to it’s fullest. I didn’t know then that it would be a moment I would remember for the rest of my life; because in a moment, everything changed. The laughter never stopped, but it became mirrored by screams; screams that couldn't be mistaken as those of play or joy. These were screams of terror. I jumped to my feet and ran from one window to the next. My heart was pounding out of my chest, feeling as if the little hut might suffocate me. I needed out. I needed to find the source of those screams. What must’ve been less than twenty seconds felt like twenty minutes. I felt the time ticking and began to shout into the air. “Who is screaming?! What’s going on?!” The only response was another scream.
When my eyes found her I was horrified. There she was, the small source of the big screams. There she stood, in the middle of a circle of twenty or so children, all watching as a young boy tried to work his hands into places they should not be. She tried to pull his hands out from her underwear, tried to pull her dress down, and tried to hide her face in shame.
In a second, I felt a fire ignite in my spirit, and the words build up in my throat. With all my might, I yelled through the window for the little boy to hear me. “Get away from her! Get your hands off of her!” All eyes were on me. In a flash, the little boy took off down the dirt road, attracting a few friends to follow the clouds of dust into the distance. The circle dissipated, and the field filled with wandering children.
Before I even knew what to do or how to react, I found myself sitting in the middle of the field of tall, prickly dry season grass. My arms, tightly wrapped around the young girl, brought with them prayers for peace and comfort. I whispered to her, “It’s okay, it’s over now. You’re safe now,” all the while wondering if those words were actually true.
I wish I could say they had been true. I wish I could say that I left Kuhlile with peace; but if I said that, I’d be lying.
The reality of that day was reporting the situation to local adults involved at the school, only to get blank stares in return. “Ohh-kay, seestah.” After having a family friend of the young girl call her grandma to come pick her up, she agreed to meet her halfway home; but she never even left the house. After finding and confronting the little boy, my concern only grew. Where did he learn this? Why did he think this was acceptable? I ended up walking Kuhlile through the winding dirt path back to her house that day. The little boy followed us the whole way.
Approaching Kuhlile’s homestead, I noticed the neighboring huts, signifying her father’s multiple wives. I gave Kuhlile one last hug and told her to pray to God. “He hears you. He loves you.” As I introduced myself to her grandma, I watched in shock as the little boy walked past us and entered into the hut across from Kuhlile’s. He was her half-brother.
At the end of the day, when I finally had a moment to sit and process all that had unfolded, I found myself extremely angry. Why did no one take this more seriously? Why hadn’t Kuhlile’s grandma picked her up? Why did the women at the school give me blank stares? Did no one care? A few hours later that question was answered. The owner of the children’s home I was volunteering with called me into her home. Upon hearing my story, I saw the look on her face change from that of concern, to what seemed to be defeat. She explained to me that this was a normal part of life in Swaziland. “Most women in this country experience this multiple times in their lives.” I began to realize that in this situation being normal, in the exploitation of women and children being normal; there was something larger at play.
It’s been a year and a half now since I moved back to the States from overseas. I came back a changed woman. My eyes had seen too much to continue life as normal. Little did I know, this was just the beginning of the transformation that began in me that sunny day in Swaziland. My eyes were about to be opened to a whole new world of social injustice; this time, much closer to home.
“Ms. Bryant! Ms. Bryant!” I hear their little voices call. I feel a smile spread cross my face as I take in their laughter. It’s recess time in my little yellow classroom, full of my favorite little humans. As I sit at my desk attempting to get work done, I can’t help but get caught up in their play. They proudly show me their drawings or lego creations; their homemade meals from our play kitchen, or their spelling words spread across a small dry erase board. These five year olds have completely stolen my heart, and I am so honored to be their teacher.
After changing into their gym clothes, we moved to the carpet to prepare for transition. I looked down at my little Amariel’s t-shirt. Black girls rock! I commented that I liked her shirt and read it to the class. With this came a conversation about race; a regularly discussed topic in our classroom and in our unique little social justice school. Yet, even with the topic of race being discussed so openly, it never ceases to amaze me how much the world has already imprinted itself on their little minds. The conversation quickly turned to my students explaining to me that I am American, but they are not because they’re black. “Americans are white,” they tell me. Where did they learn this? Why do they feel their skin disqualifies them from being American? The more I began to think about it, the more I wondered myself why every ethnicity in the U.S., aside from caucasian, is hyphenated. Why?
Last year I had a student tell me that it didn’t matter what she wanted to be when she grew up because she was just going to end up in prison like everyone else in her family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my five year olds tell me they don’t like their hair or their skin; that they wish theirs looked more like mine. Why don’t these children feel beautiful? I’ve heard the shock in fourth grade students’ voices as they begin to comprehend that I am white, and yet love them and show them kindness. Why does kindness from a white person shock these students?
Growing up, I thought racism in America was dead. I thought we had moved on as a nation. When we elected our first black president, well, I thought that really sealed the deal. What I didn’t realize though, was the privilege I grew up in. I lived in a town full of primarily white residents. I went to a well-funded school with a reputation of rigor and opportunity. I watched TV shows and movies that starred people that looked like me. I saw women on magazine covers that looked like me. I didn’t realize that I comfortably fit into the society we have created as a nation. When I looked at people of color in my life, like my best friend Marchay, I didn’t see them facing racism. Marchay was well-liked by everyone. I guess my view of racism was much more narrow then than it is now, though. I viewed racism as not liking someone because of the color of their skin. While I do still believe that is a part of racism, I believe that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Over time, I’ve realized that I haven’t met a large population of individuals that don’t like people solely because of the color of their skin. Yet, racism surely exists. Why is that? I think this is the question we should be asking ourselves as the body of Christ. Why? Why are there so many black men incarcerated in our country? Why is government housing so often filled with people of color? Why are our cities so segregated? Why are so many unarmed black men killed in the name of self-defense? “Why?” is a powerful question.
When we begin to ask why, we open ourselves up to answers, and I truly believe God has heavenly answers and solutions in store for us.
We as the church have done a good job at recognizing injustices around the world. We see the Kuhlile’s of the world and feel their pain. We sponsor children, go on mission trips, advocate for women trapped in sex trafficking. While that is all beautiful and necessary, I believe that we as the Church should be just as passionate and active about seeking justice from systemic oppression in our own country. There are so many people in our towns, our cities, our neighborhoods that are hurting because of a larger system at play. We may not always understand the issues at hand, but we need to be asking why.
We need to be asking why, so that we can then ask how. “How can I bring love to this situation?”
We serve a God with a heart for justice, and we have been crafted in His image. It is in us to want to heal and to help; but in order to do that in our own homes, we have to be willing to listen and engage with those around us who are hurting.
In the book of Micah, we read about God’s heart for his people and justice. In a time where people are being oppressed, taken advantage of, and even scalped at the hand of the Israelites, God steps in. He sends his Prophet, Micah to speak to his people. “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” In some versions, mercy is replaced with kindness or steadfast love. God has shown us what is good. He has shown us His love, His mercy, and kindness. In turn, we should be showing that same love, mercy, and kindness to this world. Israel was always meant to move mountains, to be a people of world changers; but how could that be accomplished with an unjust societal norm in place?
Systemic oppression is a heavy, loaded topic. Attacking this issue, even comprehending this issue, is not something that is going to happen overnight; but it begins with allowing ourselves to ask questions and have hard conversations.
Let us be a people who want to bring Kingdom to every corner of the earth; from the mountaintops of Swaziland to the inner city of Chicago.