I’m Not Welcome Here

U.S. flag with Statue of Liberty

During my junior year of high school, I participated in a university course away from home. One day during that year, I received news that I must call my mother immediately. I picked up the phone and dialed my parents number. My mother answered, telling me she had something important to talk with me about.

And then I heard words I will never forget – someone has painted a racial slur against you on our family fence: Lucas is a sand nigger.

I still cannot fully articulate the complex mixture of feelings that followed. Confusion – how is this even possible? Dumbfounded – racist people lived elsewhere, not in my community. Fear – will something worse happen?

And most profoundly – Is something wrong with me? Am I not welcome here? Do people in my own community prefer I didn’t exist?

There must have been a pause while I was on the phone with my mother, but I don’t remember to be honest. Too many things were happening inside me and between us. Maybe she told me how much she cared about me. Maybe I told her it’s okay. Maybe we were just quiet together, in that safe space. But I don’t remember. All I remember is that flammable cocktail of feelings.  And the silence. And the image of those words in my mind. And not knowing how to react.

***

Racist words, protests, and directed violence ought to make us angry. The recent protests in Charlottesville are no exception. We should be angry that some leaders – both civil and religious – suggested that multiple perspectives are worth respecting. This is legitimately infuriating.

But however righteous our anger, this fury has a way of blinding us from what victims of race-based hate acts experience and feel. Like me, many of these victims are usually not angry. They are terrified. They are confused about how the safety of home has suddenly become abrasive.  As the New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham writes, they are afraid that going home means they might become a victim of domestic race-based terrorism.

We are right to condemn violence – both word and deed – that lead to fear, terror, and death. We should want true justice and right relationships in our communities again, especially for victims of identity-based hatred. That being said, condemnation is not enough.

Knowing that most of us are not victims of violence based on our skin color or other aspects of who we are, can we challenge ourselves to understand the feelings of those who are? Can we use our hearts to imagine what it would be like to suddenly be unwelcome and hated? Can we imagine what it might feel like to know that millions of people in our country would rather we didn’t exist?

This shift in imagination can change our political community. Without that shift, another white supremacist protest, like the one in Charlottesville, will inevitably occur. Next time, maybe it will be in our own city or town. And maybe someone we know and love will called by their mother to let them know of a racial slur painted on their fence, or the object of angry people carrying torches. 

But with imagination, perhaps we can imagine a new way to live together. There, perhaps then we’d become more empathetic. Perhaps we’d see the terror and lament of our minority sisters and brothers as our own. Perhaps we’d fight against “harmless” racial jokes and see how legitimizing them contributes to a culture of hatred and exclusion. And perhaps we’d give ourselves to the project of racial reconciliation – so that no one feels excluded, unwanted, and unwelcome.

It is unlikely that we’ll actually achieve this. But what we can do is commit ourselves to the struggle, the struggle for faith, and the struggle for racial justice which it includes.

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Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user Radhika Bhagwat, found here.

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