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Storyteller. Grace Dweller.

I’m Jennifer — wife of an Iowa farmer, mom to two girls, new book author. I believe in you, because I believe in Jesus. You matter to Him, and you matter to me. more »

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Thursday 7th August 2014

I’m a White Girl from Rural Iowa … and I’m ‘Going There’

When I was a little, I always pulled the apricot crayon from the cardboard box when I needed to color a face. I would lightly brush that crayon against the page, face after face after face, page after page, to make everyone in the coloring book look like everyone in my Barbie case, everyone in my neighborhood, everyone in my little white world in northwest Iowa.

The brown crayon was reserved for tree trunks. The black one was saved for the color of a night sky. Or for patent leather.

I remember how, when I was allowed to wear pantyhose at age 13, it never occurred to me that “nude” would be any other color than a shade similar to my own whitish-peachish legs.

My limited exposure to people of color came through the Zenith console TV in our living room. Hunched over a bowl of dry AlphaBits, I would watch Gordon on Sesame Street. Or the Cosby’s. Or the Harlem Globetrotters. That was a rural Iowa white girl’s brush with diversity.

So, maybe that’s why I have rarely felt qualified to talk about race, even at age 42. Maybe I have bought into the false notion that my view doesn’t count. Or that I’ll mess something up. Or say something wrong. (Which I very well might.)

But fear has always been a horrible excuse for not doing the right thing.

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I’ve had a lot of meaningful talks about diversity with my dear friend Deidra Riggs. She’s been out front, willing to sit at the table and have these kinds of conversations. She calls it #GoingThere. She writes about it on her blog from time to time, and she talks about it from the podium. I’ve listened from the audience as she’s Gone There with almost-all-white audiences.

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I have always told Deidra that I am “cheering you on” and that “what you’re doing is really important, D.”

As if that were enough. But is it? I mean, is it ever really enough to cheer on a good friend from the sidelines? Is it enough to raise my little white fist to the sky, in agreement? I want to get off the sidelines and onto the field. 

I have an obligation to do more than “cheer on” the leaders. I have to become a part of the conversation, and I have to risk stubbing my toes or losing face or saying something stupid. I want to do more than placate myself with words like, “Oh, but look how much progress we’ve made!”

I don’t know exactly what this looks like, but I’m not willing to sit on the sidelines anymore. I want to sit at the table — but I’m not satisfied with sitting at tables where everyone looks sort of like me. I also want to be willing to mess up, for the chance that I can be part of making something better.

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Let me start here: Color matters. I see color. I know that some people say they don’t see color, and that they are “color-blind.”

But if we don’t see color, maybe we don’t see people?

I want to see color, and I want to celebrate it, and I want to go places where color is seen and celebrated and included.  I want to sit at tables where people are willing to Go There.

I don’t want to hide, all paranoid-like, with an apricot crayon in my fist.

For me, it’s starting here–

It starts with standing up right here, to say I’m #GoingThere.

If God went to the effort of thinking up all these colors, it seems we ought to take a good long look at each other. And then, we ought to reach out our white or peach or brown or black hand to hold the one right next to us.

The Jesus people — of every color — ought to be the ones leading this, but what are we as Christians doing about it today?

Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1963: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”

Sadly, almost 50 years later, the church is still overwhelmingly divided by race.

And it’s not just the Sunday morning churches. It’s our weekend Christian conferences and our retreats and our blogging trips.

I want to be a part of conferences and retreats and trips that celebrate diversity, not tokenize it.

I want to read more books and blog posts and essays from people of color. I want to learn, and listen … and speak up.

I also want to teach my children well — not only with my words but with my lifeOur family goes to Haiti almost every year, and I don’t want my girls to have some sort of Savior complex that messes with their developing thoughts on race and humanity. Yes, we want to go there to help the impoverished Haitian people. But we also desperately want our girls to have a balanced, truer picture of Haiti and her people. As much as we want our girls to serve a bowl of  rice to a starving Haitian, we want them to meet many Haitian men and women who have already risen up in their own country to lead well. I want my girls to go to Haiti to learn from people of color.

I want to talk about this. I want to #GoThere. I stand with Deidra, and I’m sticking with Deidra. Just as she’s stuck with me. I don’t want to miss out on the richness of all God has made us ALL to be. I don’t want to make excuses for the lack of diversity in my rural Iowa life. I want to Go There — with Jesus.

I am picturing it all now … that Great Day, when – at last – every tribe and tongue and nation shall bow at the feet of one very inventive Creator who came up with ROY.G.BIV … and all the stunning shades in between.

Until that day, I shall take one big breath, coax out my courage, then put these peachy, Caucasian fingers to this keyboard. Not because I’ve got any big answers. But because I’d rather be color-celebrating, than naively color-blind.

(And I’d rather talk about it, than hide.)

Who’s with me?

Related: I’m a white girl from South Africa and I’m Going There by Lisa-Jo Baker. 

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  • I’m with you.
    As a white girl, living in the hood, in the dirty south,
    I’m going there.

    Love you and your big heart.

  • Jennifer… I have loved and have been challenged by Deidra’s series… I grow up in more racial charged time… we had race riots at our small town high school… I had to be locked in the clinic because I was on a “hit” list… I was too “ popular” with some the black athletes and I was a cheerleader… two strikes against me and and also my sister… we had police patrolling our house for a number of weeks…the lines were clear… I am thankful for the changes in me… and the world around me… but I know there is much much room for growth in this area. I want to be challenged… prejudice thoughts uncovered… and to walk in HIs love everywhere… with all His Children. thanks Jennifer… thanks Deidra!!!

  • Krista Sprankle

    If God went to the effort of thinking up all these colors, it seems we ought to take a good long look at each other. And then, we ought to reach out our white or peach or brown or black hand to hold the one right next to us.- LOVE THIS!!!
    I’m so glad that you shared this message even if you did do it afraid!
    What you’ve shared needs to be spread like wildfire! 🙂

  • I’ll go there. I’m super-white, mainstream, suburban. As a social worker, I have had many experiences with people of color and marginalized populations, but I don’t want to “go there” just as a job. I want to go there to find out about all of the other people God loves – not just the ones who are like me. Plus, I would probably follow Deidra just about anywhere. So I guess we’ll all go there together.

  • One of the great gifts that Deidra gives to her world is a willingness to engage in conversation about race without shame, anger, or pretense. I love that about her.

  • Sharon O

    being brave and joining her, at the jumping tandem retreat.

  • I love Deidra’s willingness to go there. She has encouraged me to step out into unfamiliar territory more than she knows, though I tell her often. I am going there with you, Jennifer. Stepping out a bit, hoping to find grace and understanding.

  • Vicki

    I love this so much! I also love when God really wants to get His point across! We are in suburban Minnesota with a mostly white congregation but God has been speaking to us about this exact thing! Just this past Monday at our weekly intercession meeting our senior pastor was talking about a conference we are having this weekend that the Holy Spirit told him would change the color of our church! It would break down the walls between communities. God made us in His image and why would we want to be blind to His creativity!!! We don’t just want to “go there” and help others, we want to invite them into our family and join theirs as well, really to become one family!!!

  • Amy Hunt

    Yes. And so much what the vision of “C’est La Vie: The Magazine” is about . . . EVERY ONE getting real and raw about all of our experiences and perceptions . . . no more “inside” the tent conversations that inevitably means others are “out” . . .

    you have a very real place in all my ideas around this. Stay tuned.

  • Karrilee Aggett

    Oh girlie… I am with you… and Deidra and so many others who are willing to be, (I love how you said this!) color-celebrating rather than remain naively color-blind. It’s funny, before I read your post, I shared LJ’s on my blog fb page and I wrote this: “Lisa-Jo Baker is #GoingThere with Deidra Riggs and really …let’s all go there and talk about this! To be honest, my thoughts have often errored on the side of “We’ve come a long way” – and (maybe) we have, but that’s easier to say when you are a white middle class American who has lived mostly segregated in small town living.” #Kindred Let’s be the change and go there together!

  • Beautiful post, Jennifer! I’m in!

  • Lynn D. Morrissey

    I went there years ago when I asked my best friend Lynne with an “e” (I’m without one)to come home from grade-school with me to play. But I didn’t go there far enough, because I asked her to stand in the alleyway, so I could check to see if my grandfather were home (he lived in the flat below us). He was a good and kind man, but somehow, he couldn’t show the same kindness toward people whose skin was darker than mine, and I was afraid of his reaction. I hurt so badly for my friend and felt so ashamed for asking her to stand on the outside, and I never forgot it. Even then, in my childhood brain, I knew it was wrong (and maybe my grandfather would have been okay, but I had heard his prejudiced comments enough to wonder). God, amazingly, gave me a chance to meet Lynne again when we were adults, and I apologized. She didn’t even know to what I was referring (and yes, love does cover a multitude of sins). I went there years ago when I visited my other grandfather’s neighbor, who cradled Grandpa in his lap, after my beloved one had a fatal heart attack. I went there when I joined my parents in prayer meetings in their little church, and I saw a weaving of Black and White hands drape over Daddy’s shoulders like a variegated prayer shawl, when they beseeched the Lord to heal him of kidney disease. I went there when, for a number of years, I possessed one of the few White faces in a building in the inner city where I worked. I went there when I asked my beloved friend Myrtle, a Black octogenarian whom I’d met in our interracial church, to be Sheridan’s great-godmother. (You may see her photo and read about her here:
    http://nourishsoul.blogspot.com/2012/09/thrilling-guest-thursday-lynn-d.html
    I wish we’d all go there more often. My daughter has a number of Asian friends, but I don’t. And I know Sheridan’s life is far richer because of knowing friends whose exterior packaging looks different from hers. I think that Dr. King’s having been appalled by segregation in churches, especially, is poignant and right on target. And what about neighborhoods and schools and, for goodness’ sake, funeral parlors? I attended a wake recently, and saw a beautiful mingling of tears released from eyes set in light and dark faces. Still, the White lady was “laid out” in a funeral home where only other White bodies lay in repose on clouds of white satin. We don’t integrate in life or death, apparently. I’m so glad that you and Deidra are going there, Jennifer, and encouraging us to do so to. And may we never return from where we are going. Because in the end, we are all one in Christ. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” We are all heirs. And we are all going there—going straight to heaven and the new earth one day—TOGETHER! So, let’s get used to it. Let’s be blessed by it. Let’s continue to take a stand. Thank you for taking yours, Jen!!!

    Love

    Lynn

  • Marni Gallerneault

    Love this so much!

  • pastordt

    Oh, yeah. I’m there. (You and Lisa-Jo coordinate this morning??) I am afraid of putting a foot wrong and inadvertently insulting someone somewhere, I’ll be honest about that. And I’m not at all clear about what I actually can do, but I’m willing to learn. And I’m willing to go there. With some fear and trembling.

  • Having lived in Iowa all my life, I really didn’t experience different races and cultures until I lived abroad, first in Mexico, then in South Africa. It really hit home when I lived in a “black” village in post-Apartheid South Africa. To the villagers, my skin automatically meant my name was “lekgoa” (white person), I spoke Afrikaans, and I wanted the white rule of Apartheid back. That was their only experience with white people, and it broke my heart. It took months and months to show my village counterparts and children that it simply wasn’t true. That I had an African name, spoke their language, and loved learned about their culture. Life really isn’t colorblind. It’s learning to weave those different ethnic experiences and relationships together in a vibrant, colorful life.

  • Debbie Hintze

    I am in with you Jennifer, you and Deidre. I was with you when I moved 30+ years ago from Iowa to Bushwick Brooklyn and was one of a handful of white people in a neighborhood that was rich with color. Although I do say I don’t see color, I see people…people of different nationality, religion, and yes, color… fell in love with the different colors, nationalities, and lifestyles I met in the years I lived there. I have become godmother & sometimes a 2nd mother to people of a multitude of colors, people who, to this day introduce me as their mom, and grandmother to their children. So yes, Jennifer & Deidre, I am in…

  • Kristin_theschellcafe

    I’m with you. And, Deidra. And, all who are color-celebrating. My story, like so many others, is one of fear – saying the wrong thing, inadvertently offending. Fear keeps a white girl in hiding. We are better together! Linking arms to #GoThere with you.

  • Jennifer, Good on ya, girl! I could have written this same story as our upbringings were very similar. I have just started “going there” at age 40 and it is enriching my life in astounding ways! Looking forward to where God takes you in this. xo

  • IfMeadowsSpeak

    There’s so much to learn from all these stories. I wanta go too.

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  • Chrystal

    Lots of thoughts but this one resonates. You said, “Our family goes to Haiti almost every year, and I don’t want my girls to have some sort of Savior complex that messes with their developing thoughts on race and humanity.”

    Thank you.

    if there is one thing that is itching me under the skin… is that helping people that are different than us leads to the idea that different peoples have a permanent place of needing help. It bothers me to think that pure-hearted people don’t get a holistic view of what a people group or a group of people of color are capable of… around the world or in their back yard.

    Thanks.

    I’ll continue to ponder.

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  • April @ 100lbcountdown

    I love this! I think you should “go there”. It’s really irritating to me when people say “I don’t see race”, it means they are trying to see me. Race is a part of me. It’s not all of me, but it’s like not paying attention to my hair color, my weight, my intellect, my style. The only way that’s a problem is when you use that information to make unnecessary and unearned judgments about me. I don’t even have a problem with it invoking or provoking you to ask a question about me. I just changed churches to join one that was more diverse and I love it.

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  • Your imagery of the crayons reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my sons. He was coloring and asked me which crayon was skin color. I told him it depended on what color person he was coloring because there were all kinds of skin colors. I *knew* he meant *his* skin color but I wanted to use it as a way to be aware that his skin color is not the default. And, we live in a neighborhood that is slightly more diverse than the town in general, which I think is great.

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  • Simone Dankenbring

    I’m color celebrating right along with you!!! I know when you’re with Deidra, you’re going to “go there”. She knows how to gently embrace you in a place where you learn, grow and become fearless to ask the questions that so many want to know. Be safe as you all travel to Ferguson to hear the stories and to love on people.

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