There’s an anonymous quote which gets recited on occasion in Virginia that goes like this:
“To be a Virginian either by birth, marriage, adoption, or even on one’s mother’s side, is an introduction to any state in the Union, a passport to any foreign country, and a benediction from above.”
This week we are reminded that to be a Virginian is also to be acquainted with the disease of racism. As revelations about our governor and attorney general have surfaced, many of us Virginians are honestly unshocked; but not unmoved.
For white Virginians there are likely a spectrum of reactions to the news. Mine was, in part, to reflect on my own racism. I’ve never painted my face black. I’ve never worn a KKK hood. But I do remember the first time I said the N-word. I didn’t say it as a put-down or epithet. I said it the way my black friends seemed to say it.
I went to a predominately Black school and so I had heard the N-word used commonly by my Black classmates. Like all middle schoolers I was trying on new identities to fit in. I even loosened my West End of Richmond braided leather belt and pulled down my pleated khaki shorts once I got on the bus each day so I could “bust a sag” like the cool kids. I ended up just choking off my husky rear end half-way down so I looked like I had two buts.
It was in 6th grade gym when we were playing basketball and I thought I’d try to fit in by talking like the cool kids too. A classmate made a three pointer and that’s when I said it.
“Nice shot nigga…”
I know, it’s cringy on so many levels.
The room went silent and frozen except for the slow bounce of the basketball coming to a stop.
“What did you just say?” asked my classmate.
Another long silence.
Then my friend Ricky spoke up:
“He didn’t say nothin’. Come on let’s play.”
Ricky checked the ball and we moved on. With those words “He didn’t say nothin’,” my sin was blotted out. I had been given mercy. I had been saved. And I believe that Ricky offered me that day is, unfortunately, one of the only things that can save Virginia.
As my friend Jason Micheli once said on his podcast, these days:
“Those who want to expose privilege often do so in finger-wagging ways; and those like me immediately get defensive.”
That’s a good part of what we’ve seen in the last week, and in many ways it’s something we see everywhere these days. As famous people are “found out” to have made major mistakes, intentional sins, and horrifying yearbook photos, they’re called out and, rightfully, exposed as unworthy of the position and prestige of the office they occupy. What seems to happen in the aftermath is a variety of forms of self-preservation, particularly a stance of defensiveness with an excuse-laden apology that no one is really eager to accept.
What I haven’t seen much of, but what I regret to report may be the only way to get from the feigned racial reconciliation we have had thus far in Virginia to actual reconciliation, is some version of what post-apartheid South Africans called amnesty. Perhaps if these politicians were told they would be permitted to stay in office if they were willing to give a full account of their racism, they would have the space necessary to actually, honestly, confess and repent.
The absolution in our liturgy always comes after the confession of sin, it’s true, but if every Sunday is a little Easter then the confession is only made possible in light of the mercy made known to us already in Christ and him crucified.
The Law, Paul says, not only accuses us but exhortations from the Law elicit the opposite of their intent.
Thus, call-outs in our culture, as appropriate and righteous as they are will only exacerbate racism not eliminate it.
Amnesty Mercy is what we need.
Mercy is what all of us need.
To be a Virginian is to be acquainted with the disease of racism. Not just acquainted, afflicted. To be a White Virginian is to have inherited the legacy of slavery like a gene, to have been born into it like, well, like sin. To be a White Virginian is to have a particular version of Psalm 51 to pray, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a racist when my mother conceived me.”
In Virginia our racism is so pervasive and thorough that the only way through it is to seek and swallow the good but grueling declaration “your sins are forgiven.”
The alternative, shame, is too much to bear.
And, as a future post about post-apartheid South Africa will suggest, I really believe it is only in the context of unmerited forgiveness that we can truly know our sin, have the space to face it honestly, and repent.
Maybe that way we could one day say “To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side is, by the grace of God, to be acquainted with both the sin of racism and the joy of reconciliation.”