Carolyn B. Helsel: How can white Christians talk faithfully about racism?

Group of white people having a serious discussion

It's important that white people who care about racial reconciliation and healing have difficult conversations in their own communities -- such as church, says Carolyn B. Helsel. Bigstock/Kasia Bialasiewicz

White people may feel shame and guilt about racism -- but that should not halt the conversation, says the author of the new book “Anxious to Talk About It.”

How can white people talk to each other about race -- and why should they?

“As Christian leaders, we can talk about this in a way that’s invitational, that invites people to consider where they are in God’s story, where their story fits in this larger story in which God cares deeply for our brothers and sisters who continue to be harmed by racism,” said Carolyn B. Helsel, the author of a new book on constructive conversations about race.

In the book, “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism,” Helsel offers a framework for people to talk about race in small groups, even when it makes them feel uncomfortable.

Using a framework of racial identity development theory, she explores the ways that white Christians can work through their initial feelings of shame and guilt and develop healthier ways of addressing our society’s racist past and present. And even if the ultimate goal is reconciliation, it's important that white people begin the conversations in their own communities -- such as church.

“White people need to take responsibility in helping educate one another so that we’re not constantly relying on the people who are already struggling under the system to do that work for us,” Helsel said. “But ideally, these conversations wouldn’t stay there. Ideally, conversations would broaden out.”

HelselHelsel, a PCUSA minister, teaches preaching at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She spoke to Faith & Leadership about why anti-racism work is particularly important for Christians to engage in. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What led you to do this work?

I had been raised in the church, formed by communities of faith, and went to college to immerse myself in the Christian tradition and Christian history and biblical studies and Christian spirituality.

It wasn’t until I was in my first year of seminary that I learned about racism -- not as an event of the past -- but as something that was ongoing in the current era and still continuing to impact people.

In the communities where I was formed as a Christian, there was a lot of emphasis on holy living and on confession of sins. But nowhere was there a confessions of white people’s role in the history and ongoing perpetuation of racism.

So that shock to my system made me really curious.

If this was how I was raised, there are others that were also raised in similar ways. How can I go back to these communities that I love and who have shaped me and help them talk through this?

As I did my own learning and participating in diversity training workshops and educational opportunities, I was struck by the consistency of emotional responses that I would have: shame or guilt.

Often, those responses would make me want to shut down, would make me want to say, “Why am I doing this? I don’t want to do this again. These are too painful.”

I started working on a Th.M. to try to address this question -- “How do I talk about this in a white congregation?”

A professor pointed me to the work of Beverly Daniel Tatum, the former president of Spelman College. She wrote about racial identity development in the classroom, a theory based on Janet Helms’ work.

Tatum talked about [the benefit of] letting students know that they would go through stages of racial identity development. This includes really disorienting feelings but doesn’t end in those feelings; [the students] progress and continue to learn.

This was really eye-opening for me -- to realize that shame and guilt are not the answer. They’re not the final stopping point. So how do I help others who are like me, who get stuck there, keep moving?

The book tries not to be overly analytical, overly scholarly, but to speak to people who are trying to figure out how, in today’s world, they can address this deep and troubling problem and not let their own emotions of guilt or shame keep them stuck and prevent them from staying engaged.

Q: What is the ending point, in your view?

The stages of racial identity development explain some of the possible experiences. Not everybody is going to go through all of these stages, but they’re helpful for mapping out what you might go through, what you might experience.

Ultimately, what Janet Helms and other racial identity theorists point to is this sense of autonomy toward the end. Autonomy isn’t a stage where you’re separate -- by yourself -- but rather autonomous from the white supremacists’ message that you get in society that whites are right and whites are the best.

You’re continuing to try to learn, build coalitions with, see connections between other oppressions as well as racism, and working across the groups to try to make the world a more equitable place.

That doesn’t mean that you’re a full-time activist. We need people in all spheres of society working against racism. It just means using your gifts, using your sphere of influence where you can to make a difference.

Q: Why is this important for Christians in particular?

There are several reasons. First is because that’s the community that raised me to want to live a Christlike life, to live a good life. It’s my community that I’m speaking to.

A second reason is that the origins of racism and how it was justified in our country have a lot to do with Christianity and Christian rhetoric and preaching.

It’s because of Christianity’s role in racism and its perpetuation that I think it’s important that we look at this specifically through a Christian lens -- to say, “Where did we go wrong, where did our imagination start to get so warped?”

There have been some great writers who are already doing this. Willie James Jennings’ “The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race” is a great book about this.

And third, churches continue to be really segregated -- and also the places where we are trying to do the most good, where we have community engagement.

Q: Why focus on getting white people to talk among themselves? That seems counterintuitive, since we typically think of racial reconciliation as bringing people of different races together.

One of the really draining things about racism for people of color is continually having to educate white people who are asking them, “What can I do? What can I do?”

When you’re trying to just live a normal life and having to face racial discrimination, it’s really taxing to, on top of that, be an educator of white people.

So repeatedly, through the civil rights movement and anti-racism movement, there’s been the insistence that whites need to do their own work, whites need to educate themselves.

White people need to take responsibility in helping educate one another so that we’re not constantly relying on the people who are already struggling under the system to do that work for us.

But ideally, these conversations wouldn’t stay there. Ideally, conversations would broaden out.

Q: When you lead conversations about race in white churches, how does that work?

I’ve done it a number of different ways, but the book is meant to be used in small group settings. There are six chapters, with the idea that hopefully church groups, small groups, can come together and read a chapter a week.

There’s a study guide available on the Chalice Press website that walks through what a typical one-hour session might look like.

Q: You write a lot in this book about people’s feelings; do you see this as a psychological work or do you see it more as a political work?

I would use a different category and say that it’s a spiritual work that is very much tied to our emotions, our psyche, but is also tied to our politics and how we live in society.

As Christian leaders, we can talk about this in a way that’s invitational, that invites people to consider where they are in God’s story, where their story fits in this larger story in which God cares deeply for our brothers and sisters who continue to be harmed by racism.

I draw from psychological models because I found them to be helpful, but ultimately, I hope this is something that is seen as a spiritual approach encompassing our emotions, our bodies and how we live in society.

Q: In some ways, the book feels like it’s almost a preparation for the “real work” -- as if you are preparing people to then move on or out into a different conversation. Is that correct?

This book aims to help increase whites’ capacity to hear the pain and suffering that others are experiencing.

There is other work that needs to be done. This is an ongoing work that may never be done in our lifetime; it’s been around for hundreds of years, and it doesn’t go away overnight. The work is a lifelong, continual effort. This work is preparatory, but it also aims at helping us to sustain those efforts.

So yes, it’s a beginning conversation, but it’s also hopefully a conversation we can return to again and again in trying to figure out, “How do I sustain this work in the long run?”

Q: One of the chapters is called “Expressing Gratitude.” Why?

When I was doing my work at Emory, I came across the work of Paul Ricoeur, who was a hermeneutic philosopher. One of the last books that he wrote before he died was a series of lectures called “The Course of Recognition.” It highlights this word “recognition” from three different perspectives.

First is recognition as a cognitive task, how it’s a challenge for us to call to mind ideas.

In the second part, he talks about recognizing the self and how sometimes we ourselves become unrecognizable -- the challenge of recognizing ourselves.

But the third notion of recognition that he highlights is when we talk about recognition as gratitude, in the sense that we say, “I want to recognize these people who helped me to get here, to where I am today.”

What this framework offered me was a chance to put together what I had found in my studies: whites have a hard time recognizing in a cognitive sense what is meant by the word “racism.”

We also have a hard time recognizing ourselves, understanding what it means to be white in a racialized society.

This notion of recognition as gratitude highlights some of the other political theory about a struggle for recognition, where philosophers have talked about groups that are a minority struggling to be recognized by the larger society. The struggle is always one of conflict.

But Ricoeur suggests, what if we instead conveyed “recognition” as an opportunity for a gift exchange, where we’re seeing one another as offering gifts? So recognition becomes less a conflictual struggle and more an opportunity for gratitude.

That’s something that I landed on that felt like, yes, that is much more sustainable, in my view, than feeling like, “Here we are in for another struggle, another conflict, when we talk about this.”

What if we approach these conversations with a posture of expecting there to be a gift that we will receive through this hard conversation? And maybe -- even more radically -- thinking we might have gifts to offer in this conversation too?

So that gratitude becomes this grace-filled and grace-led movement of understanding that God is at work already ahead of us, working in and through people who are different from ourselves.

How can I look out for the gifts that God has already given to others? And how is God using me, in spite of my inadequacy, to offer gifts to this greater struggle?

Letting our eyes be open to the gifts of others is a really important part of this gratitude piece, as well as being grateful for God’s role in saving us before we knew we needed to be saved and continuing to redeem us.

We’re not going to become good white people by doing X, Y or Z. We’re already saved by God and are trying to make this world more just and live more like Christ.