Eyes Washed With Mud
“So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village. Then He spit on the man’s eyes and placed His hands on him. “Can you see anything?” He asked. The man looked up and said, “I can see the people, but they look like trees walking around.” Once again Jesus placed His hands on the man’s eyes, and when he opened them his sight was restored, and he could see everything clearly…” (Bible, Mark’s biography of Jesus, Chapter 8, verse 24)
Have you ever had an experience that was so jarring and so life changing, that when you got through it, the whole world looked different and you no longer felt known by the people you love the most?
I used to be colorblind. Then the Lord ushered me into a work situation that turned my world upside down. For the better.
Seeing the world without color is very nice for a white person who doesn’t know they’re white. Victories are my own. Failures can be overcome. Nothing is impossible.
Overtime, through education, I slowly became aware of inequality based on Color, although strictly philosophically. (Much like my faith in God at the time. I had learned much about Him. I knew Him very little.) I was slow to admit that we have a problem and am very grateful to countless teachers that suffered what I imagine were mind-numbing conversations with know it all teenagers stubbornly clinging to preconceived notions that we have moved past racial issues in our country.
As I become more convinced, I understood clearly that I must fix it. :) And believed firmly that I could.
Serendipitously, I came in contact with a woman who had my perfect solution. An organization that identified unequal education as the source problem therefore education as the salvation to the problem. All I had to do was apply, be placed in a school district that would likely be made up of predominantly Black or Brown students, then work relentlessly and I could transform the lives of whole communities through education.
I was sold.
However… I would soon find that… learning that we have a race problem in our country is inordinately different than standing shoulder to shoulder with flesh and blood folks that are recipients of the short end of the stick in this dynamic.
As I prepared to change the world through teaching math to a room full of seventh graders, panic slowly but thickly set in.
I quickly realized I was in over my head. But there was no backing out. I was stuck in what felt like a black hole of time and space, marching forward endlessly whether I was ready or not.
The first day of school arrived and was a complete disaster. We had our homeroom class for the full day and I ran out of things for us to do after about an hour. Classic newbie mistake.
As a 22 year old recent college grad, I had not yet learned the art of telling a pre-teen no (Turns out, it’s pretty easy. You just say “No”) so as meaningful work ran out, controlled chaos set in. I remember overhearing students, who were huddled in groups doing a “group project”, saying “this is great, she’s the best teacher ever”. That was the mark of death over the rest of the year. I had surrendered control before it even started.
I’m not sure what I was mentally prepared for, but it turns out that while I was colorblind, I did see color. It turns out that I had a plethora of preconceived notions that I brought in and deposited onto the sweet students I was responsible for educating. These preconceived notions don’t need to be recounted here.
As I got to know the students (and my utter lack of preparedness to save the world) something strange started to happen. I could see the problem- on average the students were 2–3 grade levels behind state expectations. But I also couldn’t see the problem.
The students were sweet, they were smart, they were savvy. Where was the disconnect?
Day after day, I came into the same internal nightmare. My job was to save the world (or at least this classroom full of students). But being utterly unprepared for cross cultural teaching I was anxious, struggling, and entirely unsuccessful. Day by day, I watched my lesson plans fail and grappled with the injustice of the situation. These sweet children deserved to learn, and I was failing to meet their needs. For shame.
I was struck powerfully one day by the Lord gently pointing out to me in the middle of a lesson that I am not made to be their savior. Jesus is. Oh, the freedom this brings. But oh, the damage of the lie I had believed!
I had never failed before and here I was bringing all the troops down with me. How can we let this happen?
By the end of October, we rounded a corner together. I learned how to be better prepared and thankfully the students were far more gracious than I deserved. The year was never not a struggle due to the tone I set at first (as one tenured teacher put it, sometimes you just have to get through your first year and wait for the next year to start over), but we got to a point where education was taking place.
I have so many sweet memories of time with this group of students and can only hope that at the bare minimum, they learned enough to be ready for their eighth grade year.
My commitment to teach was for two years and after the second year was complete, on the brink of a nervous breakdown, I packed my bags and went home.
To my shame.
A year after I finished teaching, the entire school district lost accreditation by the state.
The entire public school district lost accreditation by the state.
There was an issue at play here that was far larger than one person, one year, one group of students or teachers. When I graduated high school, I was over prepared to go to college with four college credits already earned and 2 AP courses under my belt.
What does it mean if you graduate from an unaccredited school system?
I spent the next 5 years in a bit of a fog.
I could see men but they looked like trees.
What did I witness and experience? And how is it so different than my life growing up and my life now that I’ve been able to choose to return to and leave the district to figure out how to gain accreditation back (8 years later, it is still unaccredited).
How are things the way the are? With so many committed, hardworking administrators, teachers, parents, and students, how is the end result such a disconnect from the results other districts in surrounding neighborhoods produce?
What was the problem?
The answer, I believe in its simplest form, is racism.
Reading about racism is 100% different than walking through it. Especially when you cannot name exactly what “it” is.
No one made the students go to these schools. No one prevented them from learning and meeting grade level standard. The schools actually had plenty of financial resources.
The loneliest and most isolating part of coming home was not finding a single person who could understand.
I would go to church and stand in a sea of white people, nicely dressed and worshipping God and wonder how the world can keep turning happily while across the country (and city), students are daily preparing to graduate into a life of struggle.
No one had the framework to talk about it. I was thickly isolated in a colorblind, white bubble and it was suffocating.
The two years teaching had felt like a black hole to me. And as I moved forward in time, the black hole seemed to continue to suck the life out of everything and back into itself.
I had panic attacks and nightmares regularly so I started going to a counselor. I derailed in front of him one time and he told me to ask God what he wanted to say to me about my experience.
So graciously, God spoke to me a couple weeks later and said, “It was too much for you.”
I quit counseling and opted to distract myself. I distracted myself well.
But the experience continued to haunt me.
And then slowly, as social media expanded, the country started becoming aware of “controversial” events surrounding police violence.
When Mr. Eric Garner was killed, I remember listening to the controversy. The police murdered him… everyone’s just making this about race…
Neither of those responses sat well with me. Here we are blaming the police when the whole damn country full of white people would likely have reacted the same way if they were in that police officer’s shoes. And many justify his actions.
Seminars started popping up that I became aware of and started attending. I slowly started discovering the answer to my questions about the discrepancies in the schools (Which, by the way, had been part of the training before I even started. I guess I learn the hard way).
My answer was simple and also extremely complex: systemic racism.
Reading about racism is 100% different than walking through it. Especially when you cannot name exactly what “it” is.
Sometimes it’s easy to spot racism, like when someone’s wearing a white pointy hood or claims that whole communities of people’s votes don’t count. Sometimes it’s a seed that was planted two hundred years ago and would have been easy to spot then, but now eight generations later, it’s a full grown vine that’s intertwined with so many other plants that you can’t tell them apart.
No one stood at the door and shouted racist slurs at the students. No one made the students go to these schools. No one prevented them from learning and meeting grade level standard. The schools actually had plenty of (or at least sufficient) financial resources. It could be easy to blame someone like the parents, but that’s too easy. They were recipients of the same resources and education, so I don’t buy it.
But if you trace back through history, there is a bigger story at play which has become more difficult to see if you’re white. I’m not an expert or a historian, so I won’t go through all of that now, but if you don’t believe me, just start researching online, looking for documentaries, or following activists on social media. It turns out if you start looking, there are endless amounts of information about this elusive problem called racism.
What I know with 100% certainty is that having one school district that is failing 5 miles away from another district that is successful is a symptom of a significant problem.
You may ask, okay… but why should I care?
Watching Christian Bale’s “Exodus: God and Kings” movie was an aha moment for me regarding my responsibility in the issue of systemic racism.
When I read the Exodus story in the Bible, I don’t think much of the Egyptians. Pharaoh is the main player and it’s pretty clear that he’s the bad guy. It’s easy to gloss over the part where all the first sons of all the Egyptian families are slaughtered by the angel of the Lord.
When I watch the story play out in movie format, it’s a little more striking. Pharaoh has more of a back story as does the rest of his family. You also see more characters to humanize the experience for that community. By the time the little child who plays God tells Moses that he’s planning to slaughter the first borns, it was hard not to be a bit disgusted at God. How could God kill them? What did they do?
Then it struck me that those little boys hadn’t whipped the backs of Israeli slaves. But they had participated in a society that did. And God was holding them accountable as a part of their society.
As a Christians, the implications of that in our systemically racist society are hard to miss.
The more I learned and the more aha moments I had, suddenly I saw it everywhere. EVERYWHERE!
It’s in the workplace, it’s in the simple connections we make with other humans who we understand (or don’t understand), it’s in advertising, it’s in the context of every story, it’s in the narration of history, it’s in the decisions city planners make, it’s who joins the army and dies in battle, it’s in professional networks, it’s in assumptions made in sermons, it’s in where grocery stores are located, it’s in the prioritization of projects, it’s in who we believe and give the benefit of the doubt (and who we don’t), it’s in the decisions for doling out justice in the courts, it’s in the justifications we tell white children for why society is the way it is, it’s clearly in the school systems, it’s in the pace of life American’s are expected to hold, it’s in our manner of acceptable communication, it’s…. everywhere.
It’s like those pictures that you think are one thing and then you realize it’s also another thing and you wonder how you never saw the second thing before.
I’ve never had to stand in God’s promise of forgiveness by Jesus’s blood alone more than when I realized how deeply the flood of racism’s evil influence runs through my veins and through every thought and look and decision and perception in my own vision and in the environment I cannot depart from. There’s not a country on the planet that it hasn’t touched where I could flee it’s deadly influence.
My only hope is God’s mercy on my soul.
And in this hope I can stand now. Now I can listen to another human and recognize their suffering and struggle. Now I can appreciate the quiet strength next to my loud clamoring to maintain control. Now I can long for the intimacy they have access to with our suffering savior.
Now I have a choice. Do I want to remain in the house of Pharaoh eating olives off a silver platter while my brothers and sisters suffer? Or do I want to go out into the dessert for healing and then follow the Lord as He leads us back into community and liberation together?
Praise Jesus who restores sight to the blind and sets the captives free.
I wrote this and published it on a blog for two reasons. First to process my own thoughts and second because I hope it could be a challenge or encouragement to others coming from a similar spot of “color blindness” as myself.
As I’ve reflected on my experience, I’ve grown to believe that all of us suffer as long as white supremacy and systemic racism reign. As long as a white person exists in this system, our souls are not whole. I can’t hold (even unconscious) views that dehumanize or discredit another person while having a whole and healthy view of myself. My liberation is tied up in your liberation, your liberation is tied up in my liberation.
Watch any “Karen” video- that is not a healthy human. I’ve been there. The heart is not healthy if it can turn on a dime and unleash rage upon an unsuspecting bystander.
However, the benefit of white privelege is that it can be easier for a white person to ignore the issue and enjoy a materially comfortable life. It is a painful and uncomfortable process to come to grips with reality and depart from the worldview veiled by white supremacy.
So I shared some of the details of my vulnerable and honestly kind of embarrassing reaction to my teaching experience, in part for my own personal processing, and in part because I believe it is worth the struggle to come to grips with reality. If anyone else is inclined to write off or ignore the conversation and its implications, I want to say that I feel like it’s worth digging into the messy reality to start the process of healing, as in any healing process from a sin inflicted wound that Jesus has come to heal and give new life.
Blessings on your journey.