Growing up in a predominantly white church, I learned about vertical reconciliation from a very young age. Felt storyboards and youth group retreats all taught about Jesus’ reconciliation of humanity with the Father. However amidst wrestling with personal experiences of racism, my identity as an Asian American, and my calling to serve the least of these, I encountered the notion that the Gospel was about more than my vertical relationship to God. Not only did this Gospel called for a transformation of how I related to myself in embracing my ethnic and racial identity, but it also called for a radically different orientation towards horizontal relationships with others.
For many Christians the horizontal dimension of reconciliation only applies to creating and maintaining amicable relationships with their immediate acquaintances. Despite Scripture’s consistent call for our love to cross both ethnic and religious boundaries (ex. the parable of the Good Samaritan) the entreaty to love our neighbors is often only applied to those who share our race and socio-economic status. When I ask well meaning white folk about how they interact with people of color and the issue of race I typically get quizzical looks and hear some form of the defensive response, “I treat them like anyone else. I don’t see color or race.”
Social psychologists call this phenomenon racial colorblindness. The underlying belief is that because people are born equal, race is a cosmetic difference that should not effect our interaction with others. You see this in grocery stores and parks when a child asks about the color of another person, and the parent quickly hushes the child with reminders that everyone is same on the inside. This well-intentioned reprimand communicates that the discussion of race is forbidden and that racial differences do not exist. These messages are internalized and lived out far into our adult years.
Despite colorblindness’ attractive face value and its attempt to sustain social equality, it undermines true horizontal reconciliation and blinds its adherents to the realities of interpersonal and systemic racism. A plethora of social science research indicates that people have implicit and explicit beliefs about race whether or not they admit it—suggesting that true colorblindness doesn’t actually exist. While everyone is indeed born equal, we are not all born with equal opportunities. Life does not begin on equal footing, and society does not judge with an equitable yardstick. In spite of the progress of the Civil Rights movement and the achievements of individual people of color, many white people (especially white middle class Christians) live in a fundamentally different reality than people of color.
In one reality, police are reliable and trustworthy. In the other reality, parents teach their kids how to avoid interacting with police officers for fear of their child’s safety. In one reality, store attendants follow you to ask if you need help. In another, store attendants follow you to make sure nothing is stolen. I remember the story of a black staff member at my Christian undergrad university speaking about the excessive number of times he got pulled over in the surrounding town’s white neighborhoods. In the memorable film “The Color of Fear,” a group of men from different ethnic and racial backgrounds gather to discuss their experiences of discrimination. David Christensen, a white man who listens to these countless stories of racism, is incredulous and struggles to comprehend this “alternate reality.” When asked what keeps him from believing these stories, he responds, “Because it seems like such a harsh life. I just don’t want to believe that your life is that hard, difficult and unpleasant.” When asked what it would mean if the stories are indeed true, he comes to the realization, “That’d be a travesty of life. You have here something that shouldn’t exist… I don’t want to believe man could be so cruel to himself and to his own kind.”
And yet, multiply these types of stories to all areas of life, and indeed, the alternate reality that people of color experience can be horrible. As people of faith, we desperately yearn for a justice and shalom that is not yet fully realized. However, for people of color, that shalom is even farther away. Colorblindness prevents us from seeing the world as it really is, replacing reality with a sanitized version, and undermines the difficult process it takes to achieve communal and interpersonal shalom.
For those of us actively engaged in confronting our own racism and acknowledging the different aspects of our unfair advantage, the surgery needed to gain a comprehensive vision can be a painful one. Humans tend to gauge the veracity of claims based on our own experiences. However, unlike book knowledge, the ability to understand social experiences is based on the constellation of factors that compose who we are, including the color of our skin and the privilege that comes with it. When one believes in a just world and others speak about an injustice so foreign to our own lived experience, it takes an act of faith to believe their words. Choosing to believe our brothers and sisters of color may be personally painful because it requires a shift to our stable worldview. It requires us to acknowledge the world is actually much different than how we imagined it.
It is painful to recognize our participation in a system of oppression not dependent upon conscious individual acts of racism. Our system is set up in a way that people of privilege can live without an awareness of this privilege. The very function of an oppressive system is to normalize distortions of power. If all of this is true, then the deep problems associated with it cannot simply be wished away with the ignorance of colorblindness.
Recognition of the holistic, reconciliatory and revolutionary nature of the gospel calls us away from the preservation of our own illusions of safety into the broken world around us. Colorblindness, at its core, is a false shalom built upon blindness to the suffering of others. It is an avoidance of the difficulty work that true horizontal reconciliation requires. To love our neighbors, we must listen to their stories and experiences, even if listening means a confrontation with the reality that this world is more broken than we ever knew. It is the hands-in-the-dirt, discomfort-in-your-gut life-long process of recognizing our own participation in an oppressive system so that we can humbly join our neighbors in its repair.
At the end of the “Color of Fear,” David enters into the frightening alternate reality of injustice and the personal pain in doing so creates the foundation for new bonds between himself and the people of color around him. As people of color, we will continue speaking our realities to the church and culture. However, those with privilege must realize that reconciliation with all of our neighbors, especially brothers and sisters of color, begins with seeing colorblindness for what it truly is: blindness to reality.
Chuck Liu is a graduate of Wheaton College is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at University of Massachusetts Boston. His research interests include the experience and effects of racism, acculturative stress among immigrant families, and the intersection of social justice and spirituality.
 Attempts to explain away their experiences to preserve our feelings of safety enact the very oppression we claim does not exist. When a person of color engages in the risk of sharing about their experiences, it only serves to compound the violence they have already experienced when people of privilege assuage their own guilt with the trite niceties of colorblindness.