Every day, I live life as an African American woman, a native New Yorker and a Christian, though this is not the sum of myself. Rather, my ethnicity, my gender, my community and my faith shape how I view the world.
Sadly, I am very familiar with people judging me by my appearance alone.
Our minds have been conditioned to categorize people — think of equal opportunity employer statements that mention sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity, religion and numerous other protected statuses. Categories are helpful until they aren’t — like when they reduce people to one dimension.
If we are ever going to heal the racial divide in our nation, we must deal with our assumptions about who people are. Here are three practical steps we can take in the coming days:
We must seek to understand rather than be understood.
For a short time, my family and I lived on 100th Street, between First and Second Avenues, which is considered the beginning of Spanish/East Harlem. 96th Street is the borderline between East Harlem and the affluent Upper East Side — just four blocks away.
The differences between the communities were striking. Wealth and opulence, international business, banks, cleaner parks, better schools, predominantly white residents — opportunity — were the hallmarks of the Upper East Side.
Uptown, there were certainly very good schools, but many were subpar or mediocre. In pre-gentrified Harlem, there were huge vacant lots, abandoned buildings, liquor stores seemingly every few blocks, less banks and more check cashing places, pawn shops and pay-day loan establishments. Open drug use and prostitution took place in some neighborhoods, and those of other ethnicities would drive into our communities to purchase what was not readily available in theirs.
This is what systemic racism looks like — systems and structures erected and allowed to heighten the disadvantages between people groups for the advantage of some.
Bishop T.D. Jakes once gave a talk on the metrics of migrative thinking.
He explained that we must migrate our thinking to be relevant outside of the influence of our own thinking. He added if we can build a demographic bigger than ourselves around us, then we can have a level playing field and change the world.
We can’t confront what we won’t acknowledge. We have to understand power structures and power dynamics: some people have it and some don’t. We have to recognize suffering.
We have to get uncomfortable.
We must examine our biases.
I was eight or nine years old when I first saw a law enforcement officer abuse their power.
We were visiting my grandmother, who lived in East Harlem across the street from a police precinct. I watched as a police cruiser aggressively pulled into the parking lot. An officer hurriedly got out of the car and pulled a handcuffed young Black man from the back seat. He dragged him behind the car, propped him up against the trunk and began to beat him, punching him over and over and over again.
I’ll never forget it.
I’ll also never forget the day I was “stopped and frisked” in my own community as a teenager. “Stop and frisk” was a failed New York Police Department (NYPD) policy which targeted people of color — stopping anyone under suspicion of having committed a crime, which for the NYPD seemed to be only one population of people. My alleged crime? Walking in and out of my own building too quickly.
For many Black and Brown people, interactions with police can mean serious injury or death, as we have seen far too many times.
Some say these tragedies were preventable. But were they?
If, throughout your life, your culture has taught you to perceive a group of people as animals or thugs, ones for whom you must maintain law and order — lest they cross those invisible community boundary lines and invade your neighborhood — how could you ever see that group of people differently?
Viewing people based on their culture — or on what another culture says about them — is wrong. In order to achieve real, lasting change, we need to be in relationship with people and know them as individuals.
We must confess we have stood idly by and allowed systems of oppression to overtly communicate to entire people groups that they don’t matter. We must acknowledge the pain and victimization of people of color and we must confront prejudice when we see it — albeit around the dinner table or from the pulpit.
We must lead with righteousness.
It is far better to be righteous than right. This is my clarion call to all leaders, not just to faith leaders.
Leaders who focus on being right leave people wounded and divided. Righteous leaders help people heal and become whole.
We must denounce the modern-day idol of self-preservation. We must lead with action, not complacency, and when we speak, let it be with the language of biblical justice. We must look beyond political parties and agendas, remembering as image bearers of God, we are called to mend the brokenness in this world, not create more of it.
Though some have observed that Millennials and members of younger generations are steadily leaving the faith(s) they were raised with, Pew Research Center reports 50% of younger Millennials and 54% of older Millennials surveyed indicated they “believe in God; absolutely certain.” Many young people are now expanding their idea of God from what they were originally taught, taking ownership of their beliefs instead of simply subscribing to a specific religious tradition or denomination.
I see signs of hope in these emerging leaders. A generation that is committed to more action and less apathy . A generation that is calling out the hypocrisy of the American church and challenging us to be reconcilers. A generation that’s intentional about relationships and embraces diversity. A generation that courageously says, “not on my watch.”
If we truly desire to make this moment different for our children and our children’s children — to not have any more people abused, maimed, paralyzed or killed because of an inability to communicate and deescalate a situation — then we must seek to understand others, repent of our prejudices and lead with righteousness.
Because if we don’t, then we will perpetuate heartache and dysfunction for years to come.
Ebony S. Small is vice president of multiplication at PULSE, a ministry at the center of the largest millennial-led prayer and outreach efforts in the world. Prior to her work with PULSE, Ebony served as the director of Movement Day Expressions at Movement.org, where she was dedicated to catalyzing leaders to affect cities across the globe. She is a highly regarded speaker, teacher and leadership coach and author of “The Leader In You: Discover Your Unexpected Path to Influence” (InterVarsity Press). Ebony is also an ordained minister and is an associate pastor at Bethel Gospel Assembly, Inc. in Harlem, New York City.