I asked my friend, Rai King, to guest blog for me on the important topic of using "black" as the color symbol in our Christian narrative for "sin". As a Jesus following black woman, Rai has taught me so much about how destructive this language can be for our racial identity and spiritual reconciliation. I hope this post provokes and causes change in our churches...
I grew up in church. My earliest and fondest memories are of Sunday school lessons, the basement with punch and butter mints, and of course, Easter speeches, gloves, and fancy hats. Also, entrenched in my deepest memories are the rousing songs the choir used to sing. I grew up in a time without praise leaders and worship teams. There was just the pastor’s wife on the piano, a choir adorning matching robes, and a choir director who was largely unnecessary, but made for a good show. Though I am now, as a late Generation X’er, somewhat estranged from the church, I can still call on an old hymn to encourage and strengthen me when life gets dark.
There is something about learning to call on Jesus at an early age sticks with you.
Many of the hymns sung from the old, red hymnals with the gold lettering on the front have a predictable refrain - asking of God to take all of our sins away and wash us “white as snow”.
In both of these passages we see the word “white” used to reference that which is clean, pure, and unblemished. It's why most brides wear white wedding dresses, and not red, or green, or brown. According to the Bible, and to wedding tradition, white represents the absence of sin.
What, then, does black represent? It is in every way the scientific and the figurative opposite of white. Just Google the definition of the word “black.” Miriam-Webster gives 13 options ranging from benign definitions such as: “lack of absorption of light” and “referring to people having dark skin - particularly those of African descent.” Continue reading, though, and a much more sinister definition emerges. Words such as "dirty, soiled, wicked, sullen, and gloomy" are all listed as definitions of the word black. One definition even reads “connected with or invoking the supernatural and especially the devil". This is from the most trusted, mainstream source for defining words!
Colors serve as symbols and symbols make imprints on our minds and our hearts.
So, what does it mean when we choose to use colors as representations of real human actions and attributes? What does the difference between black and white mean when using those colors to metaphorically represent weighty matters such as sin, love, and forgiveness? I can tell you from experience, that to the Black child, colors as symbols mean everything.
I’ll never forget the day I realized my daughter was ashamed of her own skin. We were sitting in the car, running errands in midtown Atlanta, when my beautiful, intelligent, 5-year-old exclaimed that brown was a silly color for people to be. I was completely horrified! I have always worked to deliberately instill a sense of pride in my children about their heritage.
I was aware of the Mamie Clark Doll Experiment of 1939 (recreated and aired by NBC in 2012) that asked Black children a series of questions about two dolls that sat before them. Watch this 1-minute clip. It’s truly heartbreaking to me. Where in the world do these preschoolers get these ideas?
Colorism may have started on the slave plantations of the south where light-skinned slaves were given preferential treatment over the darker-skinned ones. But the message of whiteness as pure, and blackness as evil and ugly has seeped into every aspect of society since. Take a long, hard look at the television shows, commercials, and print ads bombarding our children. What is the standard of beauty put forth? White or light skin, straight hair, and thin noses. Very, very early, Black children, particularly girls, receive the message that who they are, and what they look like is inherently bad and undesirable. I don’t know a mother raising Black girls who has not had to deal with this issue. It invariably comes up in comments like “I wish my hair was straight like Sarah’s.” or “Why do I have to be so dark?” My children are actually the product of an interracial marriage, so I had to explain to their White grandmother why I couldn’t allow her to buy dolls for my girls that weren’t Black. On the surface it sounds racist in itself. However, symbols matter. To combat the constant negative messaging they receive, Black children have to see themselves reflected in positive, light-hearted ways-in their toys, books, and television programming. We are just now getting to the point where this may be less of a concern than it was even a few years ago thanks to characters like Princess Tiana and Doc McStuffins.
My childrens' experiences in school reveals that we still have a long way to go, though. Teachers still assign insensitive assignments that ask children to tell about their families migration through Ellis Island. What about the 3 Black children in that class whose ancestors were brought to this continent in chains? What story do they tell? Students still say things to my 12-year-old daughter like “Oh, you’re Black. Is that why you’re so dumb?” (And she’s not dumb....she’s a 4.0 student). Recently, my 7-year-old was asked why her hair looked so "weird" when she was simply sporting a curly ponytail. All of these things, and more, constantly reinforce to our children that they are not good enough and the things that make them “Black” make them less than their White counterparts.
What does all of this have to do with the church?
Several years ago I met my friend, April, at Newsong Church. I was volunteering with the children’s ministry and while prepping for Easter services I noticed that the children were going to complete an activity about Jesus dying on the cross that represented sin as black, and Jesus’ forgiveness of sin as white. As a result of my own experiences and painful conversations with my friends about how best to instill pride in our children about their Black heritage, I knew that I could not allow my children to participate in this activity. I wrestled with how to address it - OR whether or not to address it at all. Contrary to popular belief, Black people do not enjoy being crusaders for the race. We are just regular people - not Malcom X’s and Angela Davis’ or Martin Luther Kings'. We are just everyday people who would love the opportunity to raise our families without having to deal with any of this stuff. But when we think of our children, and the world we want to leave them, we are often compelled out of our discomfort to confront the friends and people we love who might not understand our place of hurt. Because I trusted April and the good people of our church, and because I knew their heart’s desire was to be welcoming to all people, I shared my perspective with them on the harmful nature of casting sin as black. They thanked me for sharing, and expressed a desire to understand more.
It is so easy to point out ugly, blatant, racism. Someone calling me a "nigger" is obvious nastiness, and most Christian Whites would never engage or condone this kind of behavior. However, it is the subtle, undetected racism that truly threatens to derail our relationships as Christians. Racism, and colorism are old and are a part of the very fabric of this country. It is not a part of the kingdom, though, and if our prayer is that God will establish His kingdom here on earth, then we have a lot of work to do on this issue.
This Easter, I urge you not to perpetuate the hurtful myth that black equals sin. The children in your church are watching. And though they can’t articulate it, how you frame them and the skin they’re in, and the skin their friends are in, matters.
It matters so very much.
(NOTE: Part 2 will be posted shortly)
FINAL THOUGHTS FROM ME: Big thanks to my friend, Rai, for speaking to this tender and important issue. I've walked with Rai and seen how she and her family personally, confrontationally, forgivingly, and powerfully are working through the Gospel issues of race and reconciliation for the sake of seeing the Kingdom come more on earth as it is in heaven.
I'd love your comments and questions below, especially if they are helpful, repentant, learning, humble, and honoring to each other's God-given humanity. But if they are hateful and unwilling to listen and learn, they will be deleted.
Rai King is an elementary school teacher with a B.A. in Child Development from Spelman College and a M.A. in Gifted Education from Arizona State University. With 14 years of experience, she has taught in private, public, and parochial schools in addition to homeschooling her own children. She currently resides in New York City with her husband, Shaun, and five children ages 17, 14, 10, 7, and 3. In addition to her passion for education, Rai is interested in the modern church’s role in pursuing issues of social justice.