the durag of belonging

By June 25, 2020article

One day a year or two ago, a friend posted a funny meme about durags and it sparked a conversation between us in the comments. 

I can’t remember how it all went, exactly, but it was something like this:

I emoji laughed. 

He emoji first bumped. 

I said something about how white people don’t have anything as culturally interesting as durags. 

He emoji hearted back. 

Then a few weeks later, when we saw each other in real life, he handed me a present. 

Wrapped in a cute bag and tissue paper was my very own durag. I had never felt so loved before.

“Just maybe don’t wear it in public,” his wife laughed.

I am proud to say I already knew that would have been the wrong move. God and other people had already taught me the lesson of this durag of belonging long before I had my own.

Where the lesson really began

Back when I was a wee baby in high school at track practice one day, I was telling a black student I had just met about a friend of mine when he interrupted me.

“What is she?” he asked me.

I was completely confused by this question. I didn’t know what information he was actually soliciting from me. 

“Um.. she’s a girl? A sophomore?”I tried to answer.

“No. I mean is she white, black, hispanic, asian…? What is she?” he asked.

“Oh… I mean, she’s white, I guess….” 

I was very uncomfortable, learning in such a direct way “what” my friend was and therefore what I also was. From this boy’s perspective, before I was anything else, I was white.

I spent another three or so so years pretending like this didn’t happen.

However, God thought it would be fun to expand my racial education and call on me in class even though I sat in the back and kept my hand down when he asked for volunteers. 

In college, my black roommate taught me how different our hair was, what black church culture was like, and all about soul food. The church she and I attended was almost entirely black and it was there that I learned I was very bad at freestyle rap games, but that it was also every black person’s joy when I tried to join in. #mynameiscarrieandimheretosayilovejesusinamajorway

Fast forward a few years and all of a sudden, I was married to a campus minister at the University of Texas. One fall, fifty black students came to Christ at one of our outreaches. Those students taught me many lessons about faith, community, love, and showing up for one another. I learned that diverse spaces allow our uniqueness to be celebrated in a way I had never experienced before. I was loved when I was culturally irrelevant and clueless about their life experiences as black people in America. I’m embarrassed to admit that it shocked me the way those students loved me simply because I showed up and tried to love them well. I was hooked on this diverse way of life. I never wanted to be a part of homogeneous spaces again. 

Learning forward

When my husband and I moved away for a few years on a ministry assignment, I learned that our new city was fairly segregated. I refused to look at houses in the all-white part of town. I couldn’t stomach the thought of my children growing up with friends who only looked like them. If a neighborhood had houses with confederate flags in the yard, we moved on. I wanted a life that made as much space for diversity as possible.

Eventually, we moved back to Austin to be the pastors of the church where many of our former students were still members. As a diverse church, we weathered painful elections and horrific police shootings and fought hard to learn how to talk about what the gospel specifically had to say about racial justice. White people who found the conversation uncomfortable left. Some left quietly. Some left accusing us of near-heresy and horribly flawed leadership.

When they left, we said the painful goodbyes, cried our hearts out, and kept talking about Jesus, our Jewish Messiah who came to set the captives free and liberate us all from the sin of self-centeredness so we could love God most of all and others more than ourselves.

All the while, the lesson of the durag rooted itself deeper into my soul as the black people in our church let me into more and more of their stories. They exposed me to a horror I had naively missed in our nation. 

Some of my friends have been pulled over for a broken taillight or for driving 5 mph over the speed limit, and then they were asked to get out of the car for these minor infractions. When they were too slow for the policeman’s liking, or when they put their hand in their pocket to get their wallet out, they were yelled at, they were told to lie down on the ground, they had their heads slammed onto the hood of the car and were handcuffed. Eventually, they were released but warned they might not be as lucky next time. 

Some of my black friends pray for daughters because they are afraid of raising a black son in the America they know. Some have been stopped while walking in their own neighborhoods and asked what they were doing there. They never touch anything in a store unless they are buying it. They have to plan road trips carefully and drive mostly at night because in prior years they have been yelled at by gas station owners that “their kind” wasn’t welcome there. My friends avoid driving through some more dangerous states, if at all possible.

While these stories are horrific, the real horror I learned from them was this: my black friends have more reasons not to want to be in a relationship with me than I ever could have guessed.

Even so, they love me. One of them even gave me that precious durag to show me that I am a welcome part of his life and story.

The lesson of 2020

I have been watching white people learn so much in the past few weeks. I’ve seen many posts with repentant white faces explaining that they now see white privilege is real, that they want to help change things, that they are ready to be a part of the reconciliatory work. I’m grateful for the awakening. But I also am concerned that there is a lack of understanding about the cost of this choice.

Once you walk through the door into another person’s story and decide to pick it up as if it were your own, there is no turning back. You will find you can’t live in whatever neighborhood you want any longer. You won’t be able to sit at board room tables with only white people in the seats and be okay. You won’t expect black people to get out of your way on the sidewalk. Nor will you hold your purse closer to you when you walk by a black man at the mall. You won’t be able to accept that it’s okay for someone to post on your neighborhood Facebook page that there is a strange (black) man driving through the neighborhood.

If you choose to champion anti-racism, you can’t just agree ideologically that black people should be equal. You have to actively love them, promote them, protect them, and insist the people around you do the same. There will be people in your life who will not like this. Some may even be in your family, your workplace, or your closest circle of friends. You will have to love black and brown people more than the acceptance and validation of these people. 

Racial justice is costly, and racism only dies when those who have benefited from it are willing to die in a way, too, so we all can live a more equal kind of life together. It took me years of longing to help promote racial justice to fully own this reality. But then I hit a breaking point a few years ago.

My point of no return

It was the summer of 2016, and our family was on vacation when two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, were shot by police in Minnesota and Louisiana. My husband and I put our vacation on hold, left our children in Dallas with my in-laws, and drove home to Austin so we could lament with our congregation and give whatever comfort we were able to offer. On our way home, while our children and in-laws were supposed to be in downtown Dallas at a museum, rioting began at a demonstration there. Downtown Dallas became a warzone. The area the museum was in was put on lockdown because there were people with guns out in the streets. We tried to text and call my in-laws, but they had gone radio silent.

For a few short hours, I was suddenly inside the stories many black mothers had shared with me in the past. I was afraid for my children, who might be in a place where the color of their skin made them vulnerable to another person’s anger or foolishness. My husband and I were powerless to do anything to help them. No one would be able to look at my children and know their white parents have taught them that back lives matter very much, or that we have thrown our lives and privilege into creating racial equity. It was unfair and unjust that my children could be judged and found guilty simply because of the color of their skin.  

Ah, I thought. This is the terrible vulnerability I’ve heard so much about. 

Hours later, we learned that our children had elected to go to the movies instead of the museum. We hadn’t been able to contact my in-laws because their phones were turned off as they sat safely in a theater, far from downtown Dallas and its danger.

My short-lived moment of fear can’t compare with what black Americans have faced day-in and day-out for hundreds of years. Once I knew my children were not in downtown Dallas, I also knew they were still in a nation that does a very good job of keeping white people safe and comfortable. 

The boy at track practice was correct. What I am is white. But what I choose to do in my white skin is up to me. 

Consequently, I am uncomfortable in restaurants and stores when there are only white customers present. I will not attend a conference if it only advertises white speakers on its website. I have asked to be replaced with specific black or brown speakers at my own church many times. If a white person were to ask me if they should either buy my book or a book by a black author, I would ask them to leave my book on the shelf. Diversify the voices in your life, I would tell them. Set your table and refuse to only fill the seats with people who look like you. I have prayed for God to give me friends who are different races, who are from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and who have different views of sexuality. Then I ask God to help me love those people well.

It isn’t that I feel shame about who or what I am. I’m not necessarily trying to make up for the sins of my ancestors. (Though I wish that I could undo all the terror and trauma people who looked like me have caused in our nation.) It’s just that after living blind to the hiddenness of racism for most of my youth and childhood, I can no longer sit comfortably in a place where my involvement or participation is a kind of silent conspiracy against people I love— against people God loves. Because at the heart of the lesson of the durag is my faith in Christ, who commanded me to love other people more than myself— particularly people who have been oppressed and marginalized.

The greatest privilege of all

I suppose I’m offering you a warning and a blessing today. The warning is that if you choose to love people who are not like you more than yourself, it will cost you something. The blessing is that someday, because you have chosen not to deny the gospel’s call to love and seek justice for all people, God will not deny you belong to Him.

Every day, I am aware that in a random drawer in my bathroom, there is a box with a durag in it. In some ways, it is a useless possession. My silky, flat hair needs very little help learning to lay smoothly against my head.

But my heart and soul need the lesson of the durag. I need to remember that there are people who, despite their own pain and struggle, have gathered me close to them and allowed me to hold a piece of their hearts in my own hands. Their love for me is not unlike the love God has for me. I earned none of it. True love and belonging are the fruit of someone else’s great sacrifice, and they obligate a kind of payment from me in return. I must love others and welcome them into the center of God’s heart, where our differences are evidence of a diverse triune God, who made all of us in multi-faceted His image.

What a blessing, to be born into a world where the supreme God has wrapped His supreme love around us like a piece of black silk wraps around your head.

You could even call it a privilege to be loved like this. I know I would.

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