An Autobiography of Race

*This is one of the scariest things I’ve written, still not knowing if they are words of offense or healing. I’ve decided to risk mucking this up in favor of honestly embracing my failure and acknowledging my hope for personal change. Lord help me.

I am in a Tennessee locker room in 6th grade when I become aware of race. Gym class with 8th graders is already terrifying, but especially in the racially charged South. As disparate elementary schools feed into one middle school, class and race divide. An older black girl corners me and I tremble at her rage, fully aware it has something to do with my whiteness.

I am eleven and I am not color blind. Instead, I am swept up into the pain, confusion, and ignorance of both white and black Southerners. In 7th grade, I proudly win the 200-meter dash, beating several black girls, the measure of speed itself in Chattanooga. We leave the Smokies and head for the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In 9th grade, I facilitate a student council led discussion on race in Charlottesville. My family cheers in the T-ball stands alongside black families, but some of them are my mom’s “families” from Head Start. In the South, we whites blur socio-economic and racial lines, still ignorant to systemic racism.

In Virginia, I learn new sports. Lacrosse and Field Hockey are what my classmates play; the classmates in A.P. courses who invite me to the beach for vacation. I ride the bus with black students who play softball and run track and are not in my A.P. classes. I am confused about the division, attributing it more to income than race, oblivious to the connection. I have a sense that all “this” is problematic, that I would like to have black friends, but I do not. Nor do I try hard to change that.

I head to Chicago for college, thinking I’m comfortable with race. My roommate is black. We are on the opposite sides of politics, faith, and just about everything else. She hangs up political posters on her side of the room. When the bishop of her church comes to town, I take her up on the invitation to attend, embarking on the oddest night of my life to date. It is a cultural experience and it confuses me.

That summer I stay in the city for an immersion project. I learn about John Perkins, serve at Lawndale Christian Center and other ministries on the West and South side. My heart breaks for the poor, who happen to be black. At least, this is what I think is happening. I change my major to Social Policy and intern in Chicago Public Schools. My first post-grad job is an inner-city youth counselor; my first church ministry is with at-risk youth. I am trying to be a white savior. I am so ignorant.

And then it all goes dark.

For a decade, I am mostly in the Middle East, removed from America’s racial tensions and very unaware that they are heating up. When I return to the Pacific Northwest and then land in Northern Colorado, there are so few black people I literally go weeks and weeks without interacting with anyone who is not white. We visit Chicago and drive westward home with me sighing relief. I am ashamed to tell my husband I am thankful to not be daily living in tension and confusion.

My justice-seeking heart will not allow my ignorance to continue unabated.

I cannot shake the sense that I am complicit. That I have been so wrong. And the more I read and listen to people of color, the more I want to get on my knees and repent. I am a beneficiary of white supremacy and a participant in systemic injustice and racism that grants me the privileges I’ve known all my life. I am so sorry. Will you forgive me?

So, I attend every session on race at conferences and stay to hear the lament of my sisters of color. I will listen to every uncomfortable and condemning word to try to better understand. I will read their books and wrestle with my response. I will road trip to Birmingham and Montgomery with my girls so that we can confront our historical sin. I will show up.

I will show up to this discussion, difficult party that it is, with my messy, mucked-up, racist self, seeking to learn, and change, and be the change. Jesus would have it no other way.

Beth Bruno is passionate about issues of injustice and a global sisterhood. Often, this looks like curating the stories and work of incredible women and calling her two teen daughters at least once a day to “come watch this.” Married for 23 years, she and her husband share a love for dark chocolate, dark coffee, and bold wine, among other passions. Their son is headed to college so Beth is not thinking about it by nursing an obsession with Turkish hot air balloons and European villages on her Instagram feed.