As a pastor and professor of preaching at Austin Seminary, Carolyn B. Helsel understands deeply the anxiety many white people feel when the topic of race comes up. She’s been there herself, but she also knows it’s an issue that can no longer be avoided by white Christians in America. And so she has written a book designed to ease us into the conversation and help us stay there despite our anxiety, guilt and fear.
When I began “Anxious to Talk about It,” I thought, “Uh-oh, she’s going to sugarcoat reality so that timid white people can feel good about themselves without actually facing the truth of our national situation.” Helsel quickly proved me wrong. She has written this excellent primer so readers may “reconsider where race continues to operate in our society and in our lives” so that “when the opportunity to act comes, you will know what to do.”
Because Helsel has been there (and sometimes still is) and because of her strong faith, she honors and attends to readers’ emotions and encourages them to do the same through exercises and stories. She seeks to emulate Christ – who was said to have “broken down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14) – as she walks with readers through this journey in the same Christian ways in which she found support for her own journey. She does this, in part, by being lovingly honest about her own painful journey through race and racism and revealing the grace that journey has brought to her and many others with whom she has traveled.
The book mentions the intellectual methods of many anti-racism workshops for countering arguments of “reverse racism” and “color-blindness,” for example, and offers instead a process for coming to understand how and why many white people feel this way. She provides fascinating and convincing material for enlarging readers’ empathy toward people of color, as well as tips for talking with and understanding other white people in ways that also increase empathy and space for continued conversation. Her book comes as a breath of fresh air for many who have felt wounded by more confrontational approaches to dealing with racism and for church leaders trying to have that conversation.
She places strong emphasis on self-compassion and its importance in enabling individuals to face their fears honestly, but in a way that moves them gently and lovingly into creative involvement with racial justice activities. We need to go into those hidden places within ourselves to recognize and uproot negative characteristics we may have been projecting onto people of color, a problem I discovered in my own book research, which directly relates to our nation’s history of racism and racial violence.
Most profound and potentially groundbreaking about this book is her use of the concept of gratitude, rooted in biblical teaching, as the spiritual bedrock for exploring our deeply-rooted and often invisible racism to emerge with more wholeness than ever before.
She describes her own experience confronting racism as “a gift” of God working in the midst of “these challenging conversations,” leaving her with a deep sense of gratitude for being allowed to join what “God in Christ is already doing and what I feel like we have been allowed to join.”
Karen Branan is the author of “The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets and My Search for the Truth.” She lives in Washington, D.C.