From the look of it, David Bailey and Nicole Unice are an unlikely pair. David is an African-American born and raised in Richmond, VA who’s spent the majority of his professional life as a music director and music producer. Today, he leads Arrabon, an organization that builds reconciling communities in a digital, diverse, and divided world.
Nicole is a white Army brat, a suburban mom of three who started her career in counseling at an exclusive private school and now pastors and leads through her books and coaching. But a shared heart for justice and spiritual formation created a friendship that spurs on the hard conversations about race, privilege and social justice. David and Nicole sat down for a conversation together following Nicole’s viral post about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the reality of white privilege.
Nicole: David, what struck me when we talked after the Ahmaud Arbery story broke is how not surprised you were by the video. Tell me more.
David: My Dad was 7 years old when Emmett Till was murdered. I remember talking to him and my uncle about how it left an impression on them in their early childhood development. I think it’s not a surprise to me because the normativity of lynchings is not even one generation old. I don’t know if you realize this, but the first antilynching bill was presented in 1918, but 102 years later our country has never had the house and the senate come together to pass an antilynching law?
Now, I can hear people saying, “David, you’re jumping to conclusions! We don’t know all of the evidence. This hasn’t gone to court!” I agree, it hasn’t gone to court, but my question in response is “In the history of America, do you think the majority of trials that look like lynchings of black men led to a fair trial and conviction of the accused?”
Nicole, you have sons. How do you process this?
Nicole: When I first saw Ahmaud’s face and then the video, my first thought was, “that’s someone’s baby.” It hits me on a visceral level, an overwhelmed feeling of how precious my sons are to me and how life can be taken from all of us in an instant. And my very next feeling was anger–angry that my friends and neighbors and myself can pretend that the world is just and fair and our country is just and fair when it clearly isn’t. And with a few more days to process, I also feel a deep sadness for Gregory and Travis McMichael, the white men who killed Arbery. They are also sons who have been raised in a world where fear and force and power come together in the white masculine identity, who were also, on some level, taught what they see and believe. So, in short, it’s complicated. I feel a great responsibility to teach my children that they have a mandate to understand what it means to have privilege because of the color of their skin and to take up the cause of those who are unjustly treated whenever they can.
There are two phrases that get tossed around a lot: white privilege and white fragility. How do you encounter those in everyday life?
David: First, I think it’s important to define terms before we jump into these two phrases that often get visceral reactions.
It’s important to understand that laws create culture. In America, the driving laws say that we have to drive on the right side of the street, therefore in America, we have a culture that prefers to drive on the right side of the street. In Colonial America in 1705, Virginia passed a law saying that people with European ancestry and white skin cannot become a slave. If you have African ancestry and black skin, then the assumption is that you are a slave and you have to prove that you are not a slave. It wasn’t until 1968 that it became illegal to pass laws that were based on skin color. This was 263 years of laws that were passed that created a culture that privileged white skin.
What if a law got passed today that said we have to drive on the left side of the road? How many years will it take before it was an unconscious cultural norm for us to drive on the left side of the road?
In 1920, most people were driving a horse and buggy as their primary form of transportation. Car culture is only 100 years old and it would probably take multiple generations before that culture would change. My parents weren’t born with their full rights as US citizens. I’m the first generation of African-Americans born with our full rights as US citizens. Do you see how new we are in this conversation?
“White fragility” is a phrase that expresses the discomfort and defensiveness that a white person can experience when confronted with information about racial inequality and injustice. This is a thing because with white people being a cultural majority in America for centuries, having to learn about the experiences of other racial and ethnic groups isn’t a necessity. When one hears that the world isn’t the way that they learned it to be, it can become disorienting and the response can be like the five stages of grief.
So you ask how often do I encounter this every day?
In 1903, W.E.B. Dubois coined the phrase “double consciousness” where he said that black men have to go through life with two levels of consciousness. The first level of consciousness is about going through the world doing what you have to do for that day as a man. The second level of consciousness is filtering through the lens of what it means to be a black man in America. When I’m in my house, I don’t have to think about the 2nd level of consciousness, but as soon as I step foot on my front door, I have to operate at both levels of consciousness. My wife has to think on three levels of consciousness because she is a woman.
When I’m experiencing “white privilege” or “white fragility” in a negative way, I’m reminded that being held captive by “white privilege” and “white fragility” is a roadblock experiencing the fullness of the Kingdom of God, so I pray for healing and deliverance for brothers and sisters experiencing this type of captivity. I try to respond in discipleship from a posture of healing and deliverance.
What has been your journey in understanding “white privilege” and “white fragility”?
Nicole: I appreciate what you’ve said about how new we are to this conversation. I feel that ‘white fragility’ — because I’m embarrassed at how only recently I’ve become aware of the deep, systematic injustice in the complicated mix of race and class in America. For me, it started with the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I attended high school in Missouri and our school played football against schools outside St. Louis, where Ferguson is located. That news story sparked a memory for me…my high school was a very interracial school because of the military base nearby, and I remember our track coach saying that one of the nearby schools wouldn’t come run track against us. Literally, wouldn’t come play with us because some of us were black. I mean, that was in the early nineties. I was blown away remembering that.
Now I live in the former capital of the Confederacy. My children have all been born and raised here. The situation with Michael Brown was that stark reminder that even though we live in “in modern times”, things are very, very different for you if you are a person of color. So I lived in an uncomfortable space for a while of just being disturbed but not knowing what to do with it. I looked around at my life and realized, “I don’t have a black friend that I would even invite to my house for dinner.” My own denial wanted me to believe that it was about “all those people” when in fact, I was those people–the very picture of white fragility!
So I started doing the things I needed to do to change. I followed different people on social media. I read books. The hardest thing to do was just start awkward conversations with people of color that I began to know, just plunge in and ask “what is your experience of _____ as a person of color?” I wanted to just listen and learn. Not to argue or defend any position. And there’s so much more to be done…but that’s a start.
One of the things I love about our friendship is I feel like you bring this hope and redemptive spirit to this conversation. How do you stay positive in light of what continues to be a difficult conversation among black and white people, among churches, and in our country?
David: When we are confronted with the brutal realities of race and class in America, we have three options. The first option is denial. A lot of Christians respond to race in denial because their theology of Jesus is reduced to Jesus’ only dealing with personal sins, so when they hear about a systemic sin that is so great, they choose to reduce the vast systemic sin issue to fit within their personalized understanding of Jesus atoning for personal sins.
The second response is to recognize the gravity of the sins of slavery — Jim Crow, racism, and classism in America — but respond in despair. If you are familiar with the book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t use the language of “sin” but he’s not afraid to own how sinful our country has been in the areas of race and class. When a person takes an honest look at how sinful our country has been for centuries in the areas of race and class it is overwhelmingly depressing! How can one have hope? Ta-Nehisi Coates is a self-proclaimed atheist, so he owns how messed up things are, but he doesn’t have hope. This is where I believe the third option is the best.
The third response is to recognize the sins and hold the promise of Romans 5:20 that “where sin abounds, grace abounds more.” My hope is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus because I believe that Jesus who lived a second class citizen because of his ethnic identity and was wrongfully executed by his government also died for systemic sins as well as personal sins. When I look through the lens of resurrection, I can see when we own the depth of sin, we can also own the depth of redemption. This is what the African-American Christian tradition is based in. Think about the fact that when Christianity was presented to African people on this side of the Middle Passage, the enslaved people were presented with a Jesus that was a tool of oppression from their slave masters. Yet, the Holy Spirit worked in a way when they were presented a distorted version of Jesus that was presented a tool of oppression, they recognized that Jesus was a suffering servant just like them that was wrongfully executed like many of them and they somehow find a deep faith in God to make a way out of no way!
I’m a living testimony of their faith, so I can’t grieve as one with despair because I have a faith of resurrection. It may not be in my lifetime like it was in their lifetime, but in due season a just God will reconcile justice.
Nicole: So many people in my circles are horrified on one hand, but on the other, they are sort of overwhelmed and don’t really know what they can do. I feel like a lot of white people can get engaged for a few hours or days but then it sort of fades away. How do we work with that?
David: At Arrabon, in a digital, diverse and divided world, we build reconciling communities. What else should we do?
I don’t think we should stick our heads in the sand and ignore it like nothing is going on. We should sit around and complain, but not do anything. We also need to realize that the work of justice and reconciliation is not a tweet, but a lifetime marathon of faithful living.
I’m constantly looking back to history because I see how people who came before me learned how to live faithfully. I need this because I grew up with a microwave. The microwave taught me that meals that historically took hours to prepare can happen in minutes. In our day, so many of us try to do the work of justice and reconciliation with a microwave mentality. The NAACP was co-founded by black and white people in 1909, but the NAACP didn’t win the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court case until 1954. It was 45 years before they saw a sizable win in their work towards equity and justice.
My encouragement is to everyone is to 1) learn deeply 2) connect relationally 3) take inventory of your areas of influences 4) see what you can commit to for one year 5) see what you can commit to for ten years.
We often overestimate what we can do in one year, but we underestimate what we can do in ten years.
Want to hear David and Nicole’s live conversation that covers the historical, spiritual and relational implications of race in America — and practical ways to move forward? Listen here on the Let’s Be Real podcast.
David M. Bailey is a public theologian and culture maker who believes the church should lead by example in effective cross-cultural engagement and practices in reconciliation. He’s the founder and executive director of Arrabon; an organization that builds reconciling communities in the midst of a digital, diverse and divided world. Learn more at arrabon.com.