I grew up in a diverse family. One of my grandmothers was White, another was Black and Chinese, and both of my grandfathers were Black. Three of my four grandparents hailed from Jamaica, and eventually immigrated to America.
I was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, where diversity was the norm in my home, but not in my neighborhood or at my school. My neighborhood was 95% black, and the neighborhood I attended school in was 100% white. Growing up in both environments forced me to learn how to operate in two racially-distinct worlds.
Daily, I experienced racism. I was regularly called the ‘N’ word and targeted by racial jokes and comments as I made my way to and from school each day. On more than one occasion, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it home alive. And, to make things even worse, I experienced racial rejection in my own neighborhood as well, for not being “black enough.”
I grew up in the culture of the sixties and early seventies, which was a racially volatile time in America. One of the most poignant lessons I learned early on, was that “white was right,” and that “black and brown” should “stand down.” This lesson embodied the very essence of “White Power,” and disobeying it resulted in incarceration or death for people who looked like me.
In essence, “White Power” meant that at any given time, a White person could tell me what to do, take what I had, and determine the outcome of my life. This is what I felt, no matter how true it really was. And people of color, like me, I knew, were powerless to stop it.
As much as White Power impacted me, it was worse for those who were darker than me and even worse for those who were darker-skinned and poor. Because my grandmother was white, I have light skin, causing white people to see more of themselves in me than in darker-skinned black people. That commonality, I was told, lessened their fear. But it didn’t change the fact that I was still just another ‘N’ word to some, causing me to experience a sense of powerlessness that plagued me into adulthood.
Racism becomes even more dangerous when it is combined with this type of power. Though racism is something that anyone can experience regardless of their skin color, racism from White people is uniquely powerful, because it embodies the ability to express hatred in violent and demeaning ways, and get away with it. People of color are painfully aware of this fact, while most white people have no idea how great an impact their privilege has on the lives of their brothers and sisters of color.
Being called the “N” word is not just a derogatory term. Yes, it says to its target, “you are less than me,” but it also conveys the message, “Don’t forget that you have no power over me or your situation. I control you. I can wrong you, even kill you and get away with it, and you will have no power to change that.” This message is what causes people of color to feel powerless in witnessing the murders of black men and women like Ahmaud Arbrey, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. And it is exacerbated a thousand-fold by the sense that they have no way of ever changing it.
The cop kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, even after George was dead, was ultimately an expression of power. To make things worse, while the cop was killing George, he had his hand in his pocket. His casual but lethal exercise of power was embodied in his very posture, as a reminder to all of us “N’s” that he was in charge, and that the rest of us could do nothing about it.
The bottom line is that Whites have more power than Black people in America. And racial discrimination will not be eliminated until White power is used to end it. Blacks can scream until their faces turn purple, but unless White power is leveraged for their benefit, things will stay the same.
It would help tremendously if White people spoke out against abuses of power more consistently, and loudly. But their collective silence on this issue is deafening, and constitutes a form of withholding help from their brothers and sister in need. The best analogy I can equate it to is watching someone else drown, and having a life preserver, but choosing not to throw it in. As Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
I have been sharing with my White friends that their silence tells communities of color, “We affirm our power, and we don’t want to jeopardize it.” It also signals a message that Whites reserve their power for White priorities, and that the lives and welfare of Black people is not one of them. By staying silent, they add fuel to the fire of an “us vs. them” culture, which causes everyone to feel like a “sell out” for speaking up for the “other” side.
It is culture, not God, who tells that being pro-black means being anti-white, or being pro-white is being anti-black. And it’s a lie. God commands us to be pro-people, pro-justice, and pro-love. That’s why I wrote a book called The Third Option, urging readers to reject the trap of “us vs. them” thinking, by choosing to honor our similarities as precious and beloved children of God, instead of focusing on the differences in the color of our skin.
Everyone who says they care about these issues, always asks me what they can do to help, and I’m moved by their desire to take action. But rather than reinvent the wheel on how to change policy and culture, I’d rather focus on offering ideas regarding who we should work to become.
Become an honoring person: Convert every dishonoring label into an honoring one. Whatever label you give someone will be the filter through which your thoughts and expectations are shaped about them – for better or worse. Changing their labels in your heart leads to honoring and unifying beliefs about them, even when you may not understand their words or actions.
Become honest with yourself: Admit that you see color and be honest with yourself about the burdens that come with being a person of color in America. Ask yourself how it would feel if your relatives or people who looked like you were being killed and justice was denied because of their skin tone. Ask yourself whether you value a Black life the same as a White life, and whether you truly believe that Black people are made in the same image of God as Whites.
Become a humble learner: As I wrote in my book, The Third Option, a blind spot is being unaware of something that you don’t even know you think or believe. EVERYONE has blind spots, especially when it comes to race. And the only way to overcome them is by learning the truth about ourselves and others.
Engage in conversations, and do so from a position of humility. Don’t assume the position of a teacher who has all of the answers. Put yourself in the shoes of another, and ask if what you believe about them is fair or true. You’ll be amazed at how simple awareness and an honest conversation can help you resolve your racial blind spots.
Become vocal! Use your words, your platform, and your power to say something. Express your remorse for what’s happening to the Black community. State your belief that all people are created equal and made in the image of God. Affirm your commitment to standing against injustice.
Being vocal will result in three outcomes: first, you will encourage the discouraged (1 Thessalonians 5:11); second, you will challenge others to stand for justice (Isaiah 1:17, Micah 6:8); and third, you will be blessed for “defending the defenseless” (Psalm 82:3).
Miles McPherson is the Senior Pastor of the Rock Church in San Diego. He is also a motivational speaker and author. McPherson's latest book “The Third Option” speaks out about the pervasive racial divisions in today’s culture and argues that we must learn to see people not by the color of their skin, but as God sees them—humans created in the image of God.