“She’s difficult.” These two words were all it took for me as a university administrator to deny a colleague a seat at the table. With these two words I finalized a team without her, brought them together to develop a plan and then implemented and finally celebrated its successful conclusion. She missed out.
Now, years later as a pastor once more, I still remember the chain of events and conditions I created with these two words for my Black, female colleague, for myself and the team and for the university and community. It would take weeks and months for me to learn about the part I played in perpetuating systemic racism and to begin repenting of it.
As significant as it is to me, my repenting is only a drop in the deep-running river of recognizing and dismantling the sin of systemic racism. I am only now in the last eight years awakening to the realities of it in American society and my part in it. The fact that I am beginning to see systemic racism, to feel remorse for it and to redress it in my life and in the church does not deserve a shift of the spotlight from the lived experience of those like my colleague who have suffered on account of it for generations. If my story is to contribute, then let it turn your attention and open your eyes and ears to those who have suffered and suffer from it still.
I had no idea
It had not occurred to me that my colleague was anything else but difficult. I certainly wouldn’t have said she was difficult because of her race, nor would I have attached my perception to her gender. I’m smarter than that; I’m neither a racist nor a misogynist. Looking back, I can see how such positive self-assessments actually blinded me to the truth about myself, society and people of color like my colleague.
Smart as I thought myself to be, I had failed to learn anything meaningful about her or from her prior to that decision. I had made my assessment having never once even worked with her. Colorblind as I prided myself to be, I had failed to see the impacts of our racialized society on her life or how her Black heritage had given her a wealth of wisdom, experience and fortitude the team might have needed. And as egalitarian as I was, I had failed to recognize the mettle she had developed on account of her gender.
I had no idea the perseverance she had demonstrated as a Black woman to earn her doctorate. None of these things mattered to me then. As a professional white Christian man, I was simply accustomed to setting standards and defining norms for my family and the churches and communities I served. I judged her to be “difficult” and acted to exclude her because I was in a position to do so for the best interest of the team and organization. That she spoke up in disagreement with my decision, not unlike protests following brutal police actions, only reinforced the rightness of my decision and my assessment that she was difficult.
Over the next few weeks following my decision, a series of events put my colleague and me in closer proximity to each other. Her office was near mine and when I stopped by on one occasion, she mentioned that she had volunteered for the team I had put together. She wondered why she hadn’t been selected. I hesitated to say the words, but finally told her I perceived her as difficult. That confirmed what she had been told. Could I give an example? she asked. As I did, I realized I had only been judging her from a distance. I didn’t know her and hadn’t cared enough to try.
Listening and learning
And so, a relationship began. I listened, and I learned. I saw how the small decision I had made about her had been made from a place of privilege and power, the kind that was able to set standards for how people worked and by which she had been judged “difficult.”
Did I care to know of the crucible her difficult life had provided as a foundry of her character? Was I prepared to see the difficulty I was perpetuating in her life? In the shared difficulty of that current situation, could she count on me to be empathetic, understanding and open to listening and learning? Was I the difficult one? Such questions gnawed at me.
I had hurt my colleague deeply and recognized how vulnerable she had been in sharing that with me. And because of her persistence in challenging me, we entered a process with others to gain understanding and to seek restoration. Little did I know the grace, wisdom and strength of my colleague! What I discovered through her and the process was instructive and transformative. I was living and leading while never examining the influence and the privilege systemic racism had provided me. She and other colleagues, alongside the Word and work of the Lord in my life, had revealed what should have been self-evident: I was participating in the perpetuation of systemic racism.
Learning to be difficult
At the conclusion of the process, my colleague invited me to a table of repentance. Before two dozen of our colleagues I laid out the role I had played behind the scenes in her life and in ways that had affected them in the organization, too. My decisions were influenced by my assumptions, virtually none of which I had examined. She was a single Black woman with an earned doctorate, a devoted follower of Jesus, an educator and an activist committed to breaking down the barriers of systemic racism. She was difficult, indeed. She’d had to be all her life. And though I had not known it, I needed her to be.
I am learning to be difficult, too. My ongoing repentance, growing recognition and calls for redressing the privilege and power from systemic racism in society and in the church has created difficulty for some around me. Much of that difficulty is exacerbated by the polarized politicization of systemic racism as an issue and the way it is portrayed in the media. And yet some are engaging and learning along with me.
Whole generations are growing up around me already awakened and increasingly active in exposing and dismantling these systems. They are looking for spiritual leaders to take the Bible’s calls for justice and righteousness seriously. One of the ways I’ve responded was to purchase and use the newly published and first-ever New Testament commentary from an African American perspective, True to Our Native Land, to help me see and share the text from that lens of experience. As a pastor and leader, my words matter.
Two words set me on a course I could not have predicted. I came to value my colleague in ways I had not imagined. New insights continue to spark increased empathy. And though the experience was one of difficulty, it has opened a path to greater understanding and a shared hope for God’s justice and righteousness—his kingdom—on earth as it is in heaven. In the words of the song known as the Black national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing:
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in [that] path, we pray.
Mark Isaac is lead pastor of New Life Community, formerly Dinuba MB Church, in central California. He is a graduate of Tabor College and MB Biblical Seminary, now Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, and has pastored churches in California, Oklahoma and Kansas. Mark and his wife, Laurie, have four grown children and three grandchildren.