By now you’ve probably heard about the Kentucky church that decided to ban interracial marriages and even membership privileges for interracial couples. In the wake of embarrassing news reports that quickly went viral, the church is now reconsidering its 9-to-6 vote to forbid interracial relationships. But the episode’s stark reminder that our nation — and thechurch — is still mired in the sin of bigotry and racism has not gone unnoticed.
When I see disturbing stories like this one, my heart aches — but not before I’m forced to examine it for my own hidden pockets of racism.
I cannot remember the last time I had an open discussion about race relations. Some might consider that a good thing—that maybe I have resolved my personal prejudices and do not feel the need to have conversations about issues that I have settled in my mind. And, after all, we have laws to guarantee civil rights and to protect against discrimination—why stir up controversy? But I am not so naïve as to believe that our laws have done away with racial tension in our country, and I also recognize my own need to repent for past ignorance’s. I know that my silence is not helpful or healthy.
Over the last few years I have begun to acknowledge that, as a white American man, I am sensitive about, and mostly avoidant of, the subject of race relations. It seems that my common reaction is to become defensive when someone brings up racism—as though by acknowledging the problem I am somehow degrading myself or my ethnicity. And considering my profession as a mental health counselor, and that I frequently encourage clients to be open about even the most painful subjects, I find my reactions more perplexing and I wonder about the underlying cause of my avoidance of race issues.
Recently I was watching a documentary on the Civil War and was gripped by the narrator’s descriptions of the hardships endured by families living in slavery. I was particularly stunned to learn that many slave couples would change their wedding vows to read, “Till death or distance do us part,” as there was always the possibility that the couple might be forcibly separated by their owner, with no regard for their marriage. As I watched that documentary, I was disturbed by how much I do not know about black history. But I was more disturbed by how little I consider the thoughts and feelings of my African American friends and acquaintances as they relate to that history.
I remember studying about slavery, segregation, and discrimination in school, but even back then my common thinking was, “That’s all in the past,” or “It’s great that we don’t have to worry about that anymore.” I memorized the facts for the tests, or outlined the events of black history in my term papers, but I rarely allowed myself to be touched by the tragedy of our past and the consequences in the present.
Earlier this year, I attended a meeting at work and as we were gathering in the large conference room an African American woman whom I had never met came and sat near me. She looked to be in her mid to late sixties, and as we made small talk I began to think about how her life experiences could have influenced her view of me. In her lifetime, she possibly attended segregated schools, was probably not allowed to eat at certain restaurants, and had surely endured derogatory, racist comments from men who might have looked much like me. She greeted me with warmth and kindness, but was that greeting difficult for her — did I remind her of someone who may have been unkind to her in the past?
At times I have been guilty of rolling my eyes when I would hear the subject of racism on news shows or other media — as if to say, “Here we go again; why can’t everyone just get over it.” But I cannot imagine counseling a client who has endured some sort of trauma and telling them to “get over it.” I am proud of the progress our country has made in the area of civil rights, and I am not suggesting that anyone dwell on the negative, but I do believe that ignoring wounds from the past can be as hurtful or damaging as the initial trauma.
So again the question dogs me: How and why have I managed to dodge the issues and discussions that should be so crucial to racial reconciliation and healing in our country and world? Part of my avoidance (and I do not believe I am alone in this) is born out of shame for the sins of the past, and a feeling of helplessness that comes from not being able to undo those offenses. There is also a fear of disagreement and of being misunderstood — discussing race issues seems to be taboo in some circles, along with other topics to be avoided such as religion and politics. And when racism is viewed on a global scale, it is only natural to have feelings of despair and to question whether an individual can make any real difference.
But I believe I have misunderstood what is needed and what may be most helpful in relating to my neighbors and friends of other races. No one has asked me to find a universal solution to racism in our world, but in my lifetime I have missed many opportunities to simply empathize with others — to try to understand what it is like to be discriminated against because of my color, or to have parents or grandparents who have endured the pains of Jim Crow and the civil rights struggle, and who may still bear scars from those battles.
I no longer want to be ruled by fear when there is an opportunity for me to listen to someone and relate to them as they share their life experience. Though I may not be able to offer easy answers, and may not be able to give immediate relief to their pain, I can offer my presence and attention. And in those moments where I and my neighbor take the risk of being vulnerable, we may both find healing — not in solutions to problems, but in our service to each other. And in doing this, perhaps we’ll be able to carry out what Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
UPDATE ON DEC. 4, 2011: The Kentucky church that voted to ban interracial couples held another vote today to reverse the ban and welcome people of all races.
With such a passionate response to my last article,“10 Ways to Recognize a Good Guy,” I felt the need to do a followup that addressed the other side of the coin. Many women may have read the “Good Guy” list and thought, “Well, I guess it’s time I admit my man is no good.” I’d hate to leave that reader hanging, since I believe firmly in presenting solutions and not just pointing out problems.
Toxic relationships inhibit peace, destroy self-confidence, and hinder your ability to make wise choices. In extreme cases, these relationships can include emotional or physical abuse. But, wherever they fall on the spectrum, all toxic relationships lead to unhappiness — and they are difficult to leave. There comes a point, however, where you have to decide that your happiness is more important than the irrational security of a dysfunctional situation. I’m here to tell you how I ditched my own toxic relationship. Before I could move on, I had to accept the fact that despite my positive self-image, I had allowed myself to plunge deep into a place where I did not belong. I’ve been there, so I share this list with the utmost sincerity and sensitivity.
1. Seek God!
When you are in a toxic relationship, you usually have begun ignoring God altogether. You figure you already know what He thinks about your situation while in reality God is not burdening you or even making you feel guilty. You know all He wants to say to you right now? I LOVE YOU! That’s it. Stop beating yourself up. Get in the Word and see what He really thinks about you. Remind yourself that you are beautifully and wonderfully made! It won’t feel right at first, but if you meditate on that thing, it will grow and develop. I remember what God told me when I was really in deep: “I will restore you to a point even better than you ever once were.” And He did! I would have never believed that in the thick of it, but God WILL hear your cry and He will always give you a fresh start, if you REALLY want it.
2. Reconnect with People Who Have Known You Longer
It wasn’t until I started spending more time with family, that I realized something had really happened to me and the change wasn’t positive. Being around people that knew me before my corrupt relationship not only put into perspective how much I had changed, but also how awesomely happy I used to be. This was a crucial part of my process because one of the first changes that usually happens in a toxic relationship is you begin to distance yourself from friends and family. Call up an old friend, spend a day shopping with a family member you haven’t spent time with in a while. This will provide healing, although it may be uncomfortable because this is likely to bring conviction.
3. Stop Making Excuses
This may be the hardest one to do. By now you’ve probably been told by a few people that your relationship is having a negative impact on your life, and you’ve probably told a few, if not all, of those people off. So, it’s certainly not going to be easy for you to swallow a few of those statements and digest them. The next time you catch yourself defending your relationship or your man, don’t! Ask yourself, if this person NEVER changes a single thing about himself, the way he treats you, or the way he treats others, will you be able to be at peace? If the answer is no, start accepting that you have to leave.
4. Have a “Me Day”
In a toxic relationship, you feel completely consumed with making things better. You absolutely never consider yourself, and the guy always takes priority. Take a day to do all the things you never do for yourself. Go out with your girlfriends, go to the spa, or spend some time relaxing without him!
5. Get in Shape!
This may seem like an odd suggestion, but you will be surprised how disciplined you can become in other areas of your life when you discipline yourself to workout. Getting in shape will also boost your self-confidence and help relieve stress. This is not superficial at all; you’ve spent enough time taking care of “project relationship,” next goal = project me!
6. Make a List of Pros and Cons
In Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, Janet Jackson’s character dropped some good advice when she told her girlfriend to write a list of reasons to stay and reasons to leave. I took that advice! By the time I got done with the list, I had three pages of cons and a pitiful half-page list of pros. Man, was that mind blowing! How on earth did I even want to stay? I learned that the main reason was because I felt leaving was losing rather than gaining “me” back. I put a lot of time and effort into that relationship, I wasn’t about to give up now! Obviously, my perspective was WAY off. Thank God for grace!
7. Tell Him NO! Rinse. Repeat.
At this point, your man is so used to getting his way, he doesn’t even think he has to ask for it! I think Beyoncé said it best in her lyrics, “The first time I said no, it’s like I never said yes.” He throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way and spends a great deal of his time trying to tell you what to do with every aspect of your life. Decide today to stop letting him act out. You have a good head on your shoulders and you have the Holy Spirit inside of you, desperately trying to get your attention. You’ve changed a lot of your normal activities to cater to his mood swings and you tell him what he needs to hear. Here’s a revelation: Tell him NO! And then do it again, and again. You will see just how little he loves you, and how much he loves himself!
8. Take Inventory of Your “Friend Zone”
I consider myself a pretty confident person, but after a few consecutive failed relationships even I had begun to lose faith that an “ideal” man existed. Looking back, ironically enough I had several examples of good men close to me, and chances are you do too. The funny thing is that those men cared very deeply for me. I called them when things went wrong, and they were always there with a listening ear. (Don’t go jumping into their arms, carelessly thinking you’ve fallen in love because you’re wounded, but do take inventory of all the good men around you — friends and family — to remind yourself that your high standard does exist.)
9. Reject Guilt
Guilt is a dangerously powerful emotion. It’s absolutely imperative that you forgive yourself for falling in love with that fool in the first place. Depending on how toxic your toxic relationship was, this step can take years. Unfortunately, even though you may have taken a huge step towards your future by leaving the relationship, the people around you may not be as supportive and sensitive as you need them to be. It amazed me how vocal people were in support of me leaving him, but how unhelpful they were when I needed to talk. You may be the only one to forgive you for your past, so make sure you do it!
10. NEVER LOOK BACK!
Say this out loud: “We can never be friends!” Keep practicing it until you can say it to him. Don’t fool yourself into believing your situation is different. No, it’s not! Never looking back was the best thing I ever did. Despite all of my regrets and embarrassments over my past, never looking back is one thing I can actually be proud of. Going cold turkey is like an honor badge that anyone that’s ever kicked an addiction can understand. Somehow it restores some of your pride. It’s like all of the sudden, the lights turned on and I could finally see the door! I just walked out; and it was the best feeling I’ve ever had. I knew it was the right thing to do, although I had tried to leave before and had quite a different experience. I was miserable and depressed. You know what made the difference? God! I tried to do it on my own the first time and failed. The second time, it was like the welcome-back party for the prodigal son. It was beautiful.
I say this with love in my heart. This is for all of the women I have known in toxic situations, and for the ones that I know right now who are struggling. That toxic situation is trying its best to take you out, but it’s not too late. God’s power to transform and redeem is so amazing that you’ll hardly recognize your old self once you allow Him to work in you. Forgive yourself and move on; there’s more living for you to do.