Covering it up is easier than cleaning it up
In Egypt and in the Middle East, there’s a saying that roughly translates to, “a sin covered up is half forgiven.” Sin in Egypt is largely interpreted as a matter of shame, and this shame isn’t just located to the individual, it’s transmitted to the whole family. That’s not a very popular idea in the rather shameless West, but I think it is actually good to have an understanding that our actions have communal consequences. But the trouble with the shame dynamic here is that it can be so potent that we end up hiding our sin, rather than confronting it. And so to go back to the colloquialism, we cover up the sin.
Shame is a double-edged sword, though. I may feel ashamed of when I miss the mark, but I also feel ashamed when I am sinned against or when my enemy or my neighbor makes me feel less than I am. Such is the life for a person of color in the United States. We are ashamed when we experience racism, and then we have to decide what to do: do we confront the person that sinned against us, or do we absorb it? Do we sweep it under the rug, to use a similar phrase.
Confrontation is difficult for a few reasons. For one thing, it is rarely received well, often no matter how gentle we are about it. For another, it’s hard to believe your own experience after a defensive response. What white people often ask people of color for is the benefit of the doubt. We need to consider their intentions as much as the outcomes of what they did. And that means, we must second-guess our own experience and wonder if we really were wounded, or if we just made it up. Because the white person is often in the position of power—and I mean this by virtue of the fact that they’ve wounded you, but also because that’s how our society is racially set up—it can be very challenging to own your own dignity without eliciting a very defensive reaction, while simultaneously continuing believing in yourself. This is made even harder when the person you are confronting knows you intimately, or is adept in social and behavioral science, or if it’s someone you admire, or look up to, as a leader, mentor, or authority figure. This mirrors other kinds of abuse, but my experience is largely surrounding racism. (Side note to pastors in particular: our people often see us this way, and so when they occasional confront us, be sure to listen carefully. A sign of a healthy pastor is how they respond when they are disagreed with or confronted.)
Confrontation is also difficult because it almost seems like our bodies protect us from the pain. I think we create defense mechanisms that don’t allow us to fully receive the hatred that we experience as people of color in a white society because it is just too much to handle. So I never knew that the shame (there it is again) that I felt as a person of color when my mother packed me a pita with peanut butter and jelly, or when she spoke in an accent in a department store, or when my friends laughed at my grandma who couldn’t speak English was, simply put, the result of racism. That shame I felt for who I was, and who my whole family was, only occurred because our skin color and our heritage.
I became a master at assimilation
My parents were not very helpful with this, though, because they were deeply committed to assimilating into the American context. For them, it was a matter of survival. Furthermore, appreciating and understanding a culture’s norms seemed hospitable to them, because they came from a place where hospitality was an important gesture. So as guests in another country, surely it made sense to assimilate. They assimilated not because American culture was superior, but because that is where they now lived. The key here was to hide our cultural aspects and try to adapt.
The expectation, in return, was that when you visited our home, or our country, you’d try to do the same. But we all know that’s not exactly how it happens, which is why my cousins in Egypt play acoustic guitars in worship. Whereas my family assimilated to the United States culture, when Western culture arrived in Egypt, it colonized as opposed to assimilating. So the hospitality wasn’t returned.
Despite their good intentions, however, my parents taught me to assimilate, when to blend in, and not make my race or a culture a problem, because that would bring shame upon the whole family. And so I learned to absorb or deny the pain I experienced because it would just be too painful to confront it. As a result, I have an uncanny ability to adapt to new contexts and cultures without making my own body known or a problem. That’s how you survive in Lebanon County growing up, and evidently, it’s how I survived in a lot of white majority contexts.
And so because I have the tool to adapt, to accommodate, and to deny my experience for the sake of peace and the sake of harmony, I’m often a person of color that really does get along with white people, absorbing the microaggressions and denying my own experience. And this is reinforced when I occasionally am hurt so much that I feel the need to say something. The automatic defensive response, that seems to be given to white folks by the powers above them, makes it very easy for me to revert to my denial, my avoidance, my sweeping of the sin under the rug. Sometimes I have even heard that my experience was simply informed by the culture around me, that I artificially learned to experience racism, instead of authentically experiencing it. Ironically, the automatic defensiveness of white folks, and their fragility, isn’t something they consider having learned from the culture.
Owning our full selves to confront and to repent
And the lack of success I have with reaching out to my white enemies and neighbors when they’ve hurt me doesn’t encourage further exploration. And also because I am trained not to bring shame on the people close to me, when they hurt me, I rarely confront them because I would rather avoid the shame on the family, of which I am a part.
But through conversations with other Egyptians, Arabs, overseas immigrants, and people of color, in general, I’ve had the courage to interrogate my upbringing and even my current context to notice when I’ve experienced racism and how that has formed me. It is a deeply painful process, but one that is good for my own self-awareness, as I try to be the fullest person I can be. I need to know all my pain, so that God might fill me with new meaning and healing. Avoidance isn’t a recipe for self-awareness and growth, and I am committed to becoming the fullest expression I can be, my full, true self in Christ. Without confronting the racism I’ve experienced, I am less than that.
With this newfound awareness, the calculus that I use to decide what is worth confronting or not is usually based on the likelihood of success. If I sense too much defensiveness, I probably will learn to cope. If people seem open, I might engage. If it is an intimate relationship, I may have to confront it regardless of my likelihood of success or not. But to be honest with you, I do not think that calculated approach is the most mature one.
I think that for a person of color, or any oppressed person, it is elemental for us to know that we are God’s beloved, wonderfully made, and no matter what our experience is at the hands of the people around and the greater society, nothing can take away God’s love for us. We don’t need to organize around the racism we experience, we can freely discover it, because we know that racism doesn’t tell the truth about us. That doesn’t mean racism isn’t real, because the pain and the wounds of it are all too real, but it does mean it doesn’t have the final word about who we are. We can own our full dignity and be sincere about our experience, which is confrontational, but if we do it out of a place of security in God, it is not necessarily adversarial otherwise. And because of our empowerment through the Spirit, and I’m speaking to myself, as much as anyone, we needn’t fear the power of the person we are confronting. And so we are likely to come from a place that isn’t just angry, but truthful; that isn’t vengeful, but restorative.
But for white people, the same truth applies. You are also God’s beloved, and wonderfully made, no matter how society has named you, empowered you. Your skin color and the privilege and power that comes with it is as much of a lie about who you truly are, as the racism that too often defines who people of color are. You no longer need to organize to protect your privilege and power, and you can listen to the experiences of people of color to learn where it hides, perhaps unbeknownst to you. You can freely confront it, because you know that it’s also not the fullest expression of yourself. Like I said above, that doesn’t mean that white power and privilege (and fragility) aren’t real, but they aren’t the final word about you. And so you too can own your full dignity and repent without condemnation, even if confronting your sin feels shameful. You don’t have to hide from your shame, knowing shamelessness isn’t the same as righteousness. With the knowledge and experience of your belovedness within you, you might have the humility to receive what your family is telling you back, and you don’t need to guard your power.
This is really hard work. It’s not easy for either the victim or the perpetrator here, and it’s not so easy to organize everyone by the power they have or don’t have, because in almost any case, you are neither exclusively an oppressor or an oppressed person. I know this because even though I’m a brown child of immigrants, I’m also an educated man. So I hope we can all learn from one another, as we learn to receive our full dignity, and gain the courage to confront the sin against us, and to repent of our complicity in it.