Eyes to See: How We View Racism in the Church

An Interview with Dr. Drew G.I. Hart

by Micky ScottBey Jones

Dog-whistle politics. Protest in the streets. Changing religious norms. For many, there is trouble to be seen everywhere we look. In Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, author and theologian Dr. Drew Hart shares the racism he has observed in the American church and in the larger culture.

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Hart for an interview. Here I share that conversation, and in a subsequent post I will offer my reflections on his book. I would love to hear your thoughts on his book as well as any reflections you care to share on the trouble you’ve seen around racism in the church.

In the first chapter of his book, Hart shares a very personal story concerning the arrest—for “fitting the description”—and subsequent release four months later of his brother. My heart was in my throat reading this story, so I asked him about it.

Drew, what was it like to put that story out there for everyone to read? How did your family handle it?

Hart: It’s complicated. My brother doesn’t mind, but everyone always asks me for more details, and I can’t give more because it is his experience and his story to tell in detail. For my mom, it was hard, but she valued the story being told because it is important to tell the things that are happening to real people. I think people need to understand that these issues are impacting every black family directly or indirectly—not just in abstract ways but with real impact. The white readers especially need to see how it impacts us as black people and families directly. It was a huge transformative experience in my own life.

Was this book written with a specific audience in mind?

Hart: My goal was to write this for everybody. White readers may need this more than black readers, who may need less reflection on the realities of race and racism. But there are black middle- (and upper-) class folks who may be disconnected from the masses who need it, too. They understand racism, but there is selective attention to these issues, respectability politics etc. Everyone—not just black and white, all that are dealing with the racial hierarchy that affects us in America—needs to read this.

I think I wrote in a way that teens, young adults, seniors—entire communities—can come around and read together; even those with theological training can be stretched and those having the conversation for the first time can enter without being too intimidated.

There is a lot of history in this book. It is woven into your theories and stories so well. Do you feel that the historical context is often missing in our discussions of race but is necessary?

Hart: Yes, historical context is usually missing in our conversations about race—we discuss it from an a-historical standpoint. We collectively forget how past, present and future are woven together. I’ve heard it called the United States of Amnesia—and if we can’t take seriously the origins of white supremacy—Native American genocide, race-based black chattel slavery—then racism can never stop. It just mutates into new forms. We have to understand the problem thoroughly before we offer comprehensive solutions.

Black Lives Matter, police brutality, mass incarceration—knowing history really helps us understand why they are happening or coming to the surface now. These things being front and center right now made it clear what needed to be highlighted as I explained the current story in the book.

You have a chapter called “Don’t Go With Your Gut” where you encourage white folks, and those in any type of privilege, to basically submit their “gut feeling” to those most affected—those experiencing the most marginalization. This has been a challenge for me with even well-meaning white folks. How do you see people really get ahold of this?

Hart: It’s really challenging. When white people are being socialized by community that have been getting [the experience of oppression within communities of color] wrong for centuries—it’s really difficult. I think it is possible, and there have always been righteous white folks who have been able to enter into oppressed communities and learn from them and learn how to fight justice from those perspectives. It takes a lot of willpower. It takes a lot of work. It’s possible for those who seek to learn. Only time will tell how ready people are to do it and stay with it.

I find it’s really hard to maintain. There may be an initial reaction of white folks believing my stories, but then they get frustrated and want me to move on, stop talking about race.

Hart: The other thing is you have to actually love and value black people to do it. If you can’t love the people, it is a drain and not a joy. They have to find joy from it.

So how have you seen it actually work?

Hart: I’ve seen glimpses of it in different people. When I was living in Harrisburg, PA, there was a white guy, Patrick, a lawyer. He always wanted to spend time together, to talk, to listen and see things from a different perspective. He wanted to be in solidarity. He wanted to understand and knew he had blinders. He knew he couldn’t just trust his own perspective, and it helped him to actually start from there.

Let’s talk about whiteness: This seems like the latest buzzword. You dedicate an entire chapter to it in the middle of the book. How do we talk about whiteness in a way that is productive, non-shaming, and clear—and calls people to action?

Hart: What was important for me to talk about before I talked about whiteness was the framework of a racialized society. White people hear these words [used in dialogs about race] and don’t understand. So we need a shared framework. For so long, we talked about the negro problem. Whiteness is not just another way of saying this is someone of European ancestry. Whiteness is an issue, a problem—it’s a system of social dominance that different groups opted into, consciously joined at different points in recent history. Racism is being complicit in this white supremacist system. We need to think about this problem of whiteness and how it shapes who we think we belong with and what we think is good and right with the world. These are social and theological conversations, and we have to have to talk about how it impacts daily social performances and experiences.

Have you gotten negative feedback, pushback or anger?

Hart: No negative feedback—of course, some people are wrestling with ideas in the book. There have been a few weird responses. My book was assigned for a college class, and I was able to sit in. The class was all white students. The two reactions that stand out: they told me they thought I would be one, older, and two, angrier. The students started out very tentative, but once they saw me as vulnerable (sharing my own personal stories and perspectives), they opened up. White people specifically often have to get past the fear of saying something racist, something wrong, and the need to look perfect on these issues and into vulnerability.

You know, people are working through their own personal stuff as they read the book. If they are willing to do that as they read—reading themselves as they read the book—they will push through some of those negative or uncomfortable initial responses. I get emails and messages weekly that say the book has been perspective-changing for them.

You mentioned them thinking you’d be angry. I remember first watching Dr. James Cone (one of the “fathers” of black liberation theology) speak, and then meeting him. He was so gentle, kind and, well, normal. Yet I had, of course, heard him described as angry. I’ve been accused of being an AngryBlackWoman. It’s frustrating.

Hart: Anger is used to dismiss. It’s such an overused trope. I’m not an overall angry person. Yet, it’s okay to be angry. When you are aware of the history of white supremacy and racism, it’s okay to be angry. If you are woke (aware of oppression and marginalization), you are going to be angry.

You are in the Anabaptist tradition. What has it been like to interact with other Anabaptists and Mennonites on the topic of race?

Hart: So, I published with a Mennonite publishing company, and it’s funny, because I’ve been going to a lot of Mennonite churches, and I was on the cover of a Mennonite magazine and kept seeing my face on the magazine when I would show up at the churches. Yes, the Mennonite church is deeply engaging this now. There are others who have come before me whose shoulders I am standing on, and that allows me to continue the work I’m doing as I engage people today. Because the book is very accessible, it is being engaged by lots of Anabaptist denominations and congregations. Some include Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, Neo-Anabaptists, Mennonites—really a lot of engagement all throughout.

Now you’re teaching at Messiah College (Brethren in Christ). This is a change from your last teaching experience. How have your teaching methods or strategies changed?

Hart: In my last teaching position, almost all of my courses were at the urban campus of the university. I taught courses like level-one theology for the urban cohort but then taught a semester on the main, suburban campus. The urban campus had nearly all students of color. The main campus, in the suburbs, was mostly white.

I teach Cone, Baker-Fletcher, postcolonial evangelical perspectives, and others often not in a “standard” theology course. I only had one white male author on my book list. Students in the urban cohort loved it (mostly students of color) and yet the same syllabus, same class in the suburbs left students complaining, struggling, upset because it was not supposed to be a black theology class. I didn’t change the syllabus, but I changed teaching style and methods. So I’ve had to work with students coming from different places. I have to figure out how to consistently teach a mostly white student body as a person in a black body. The material is received differently because of that.

I kept pushing but gave students more space to dialogue and process. Dialoguing a lot, most students turned the corner and enjoyed the class by the end. There were still a couple of students at the end who didn’t like it, who weren’t happy that it had been a black theology course (because some of the authors were black). The question for me as a professor is: How do I engage my students in a way that is transformative and liberative for themselves and other people, in the long run?

Where do we go from here? You talk about seven practices for the anti-racist church. In what ways have you seen these lived out?

Hart: I wish I had one church where I could say: “They’ve got it all going on!” But, I don’t. I went through and thought about what anti-racist practices were strong in different churches that I have been a part of and been familiar with and discerned the practices in the book. People love to talk about multi-ethnic churches, but I don’t think that’s the answer. They have mixed results for real change. The congregations where I’ve seen some of these practices include some that are really trying to figure out how to do life together, how to come together across difference. In Harrisburg I saw this a lot. I used to be a youth pastor for a youth congregation that was about 40% black, 10% other people of color, and the rest white. Most of these students now are unsatisfied with the status quo on race, justice and community. They want something different as they grow up. I am seeing some of these practices being lived in various churches.

In the book’s epilogue you lament that as you finish the book, another black person has been killed by police officers. How do you keep hope, keep up the fight?

Hart: I think hope has got to come, has got to be part of the dialogue. It can be very discouraging if you stay tuned in to what is happening—it’s just depressing. I find hope in God, in Jesus. I find hope in the God of the oppressed. I find hope by living in solidarity with the oppressed and in being engaged in the struggle. Being a part of communities that give hope and encouragement, in the midst of the struggle—my black community and black church family—by remembering the ancestors and the even more dire circumstances that they fought through—these are all sources of encouragement and hope.

How do you realistically stay connected to hope and to that community that grounds you?

Hart: Education is important to the black community. I think people value me having this education (PhD), but if I’m not careful, I can feel like I know it all and devalue the oral tradition and what can come from those who don’t have the education I have. I’m always navigating with people in my community who are struggling and in different places than I am. I need to see the wisdom and gifts that come from the “streets,” so to say. I have always lived in black and lower-income communities with my family as an adult—it is a choice and a preference, and I want my kids to have that experience and be able to engage the world from that perspective. It’s not perfect. We romanticize it. We have to keep wrestling with what we bring to the table and how we interact with people in their strengths and hurts and our own.

You can read more about Dr. Hart and explore more of his writing at his website, his column at Christian Century, on Facebook and on Twitter: @DruHart. His book is available at Amazon.com.

Micky ScottBey Jones is, among many other things, one of the Sider Center’s Associate Fellows for Racial Justice.

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