Amy Julia Becker
NavPress, 240 pages
Amy Julia Becker grew up in Edenton, North Carolina, a town whose racial divisions were prevalent to the point of being casual, assumed. Her childhood is recognizable. Her words are beautiful and utterly disarming. You can almost smell the magnolias of a hometown that Becker loves. Readers are captivated by the bonds of affection she has for Jan and other African-Americans who occupied places of honor in her early life even though they worked for her parents.
Then comes “real talk.” It’s good to know your family medical history, without editing out the parts you don’t like. So, Becker tells it straight. Her hometown was also a society that “depended on racial hierarchy but spurned hatred and violence, one that affirmed the inherent value of all people but expected those people to stay in their assigned social place.” Yes, there are dignified good white people, Christians who work for justice. Here is the rub. Racism isn’t just about donning a KKK hat or unleashing dogs on people; it’s a system that has been created over centuries, and Becker makes the powerful case that it is damaging all of us.
Fences keep some people out and keep others in. That white picket fence between us is neither ornamental nor benign. Becker writes that it is:
“A wall that has surrounded us, protected us, cut us off and kept others out. As an educated married Protestant white woman, I find myself stuck behind this wall of privilege. It feels safe and comfortable, and there are plenty of everyday difficulties to occupy my attention. Still, the boundaries hem in my friendships and experiences and block others from the comfort and safety I enjoy. These walls have both protected me and cut me off — from risk, from growth, from acknowledging the hardships many other people face through no fault of their own, cut me off from connecting with people outside the fence through shared struggle or joy.”
Besides the link between privilege and the growing isolation, addiction and mental health struggles of wealthy white Americans, Becker lifts up other areas where “work” needs to be done. She exposes how much of her life she had chalked up to God’s providence or good sense without seeing the mechanics of privilege cranking away underneath.
This book goes beyond “everyone should have a friend of a different race.” A seminary-trained scholar, Becker brings the heft of the Christian faith to the conversation: prayer, lament, confession, humility, fasting and, most especially, love. These powerful tools already exist, but often go unused in conversations about race. Her description of these spiritual disciplines is one of the most instantly applicable, preachable offering of this book.
I would commend this book to Sunday school classes, small groups and leadership teams who want to be honest about race and privilege, or who even start to define terms in a helpful way. Non-white readers may discover new terrain for conversation and compassion that can start to dislodge some of those stubborn barriers.
For the many white Americans who feel stuck in despair (“What more can I do?”) or denial (“I am color blind!”), this book will take you deeper and might heal parts of your soul you didn’t realize were aching.
Rebecca Messman is co-pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia.