When my husband took a job in Mississippi, I didn’t know if I could do it. We lived in Atlanta at the time, in the middle of diversity. And all I could think about Mississippi was, “Can my white mom and black dad come visit me there? Will it be safe for them?”
I admit that’s a gross stereotype. I think we can also admit my concern was rooted in historical facts. Fourteen year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered for (allegedly) harassing a white woman in 1955. Anti-miscegenation laws (prohibiting mixed marriages) weren’t federally overturned until 1967. And given that last year, a couple in Tupelo was kicked out of their neighborhood because of their mixed marriage…clearly, race is still an issue in Mississippi.
Here’s what I didn’t know. I didn’t know my parents would visit Mississippi, and love it. I didn’t know some of the closest friendships I’d ever develop would be in Mississippi, with folks of all races. I didn’t know that I would have more, better, and deeper conversations about race than I’d ever had before, here in Mississippi.
And when I started to realize these things, I had to ask, “Why?”
Why hadn’t that been our experience in Atlanta, the so-called “City Too Busy to Hate” in the Civil Rights era? Why, in all my visits to cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, and DC, had I not felt the same awareness of race, the same deep discussions that we have in Jackson?
I had bought into the myth of being colorblind, and it took moving to “Mississippi Burning” to find out what it means to be, as a dear friend once said, colorbrave. That means being willing to dive into the hard stuff: the awkward conversations, the micro-aggressions, the blatant discrimination.
The painful vestiges of manstealing, chattel slavery, a bloody war, brutal reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, state-sponsored discrimination, poverty, white-flight, underfunded schools, and complicit white churches (I could go on) are everywhere in Mississippi. Yes, individual responsibility matters. Yes, poor white folk have it hard, too. Yes, things have gotten better in some ways. Yes, there’s hope for the future.
But that doesn’t excuse the racist past. And it also doesn’t explain the racist present.
I couldn’t figure out why I feel as supported and challenged as I do, until I started to really think about the folks I know here in Mississippi. The gracious people of color. The passionate white allies. The surprising number of mixed couples, multi-ethnic/multicultural folk like me, and other multi-hued families.
I know I’m biased about Mississippi, because I have the incredible privilege of belonging to a multi-ethnic church with a black head pastor. I have the incredible privilege of sending my children to a public school system that intentionally integrated their schools to ensure equal access for children of all races. I have the incredible privilege of going to school and work with a variety of folks from many different backgrounds and ethnicities.
I really do think Mississippi is different, and here’s why.
In Mississippi, we can’t pretend. We can’t pretend that none of the past happened, nor act as though it doesn’t affect the here and now. Because in Mississippi, black folk have been learning how to struggle and thrive as minorities for centuries now, even if they are numerically the majority. Black folk have been learning to forgive, and trust God, and pursue what is just and right in the face of unspeakable evil.
In Mississippi, we can’t pretend. Because in Mississippi, many white folks have to come to grips with the atrocities of their ancestors, whether they are from here or not. Majority folks of privilege have to be willing to admit and wrestle with the fact that their ancestors—if not their genetic ones, then their spiritual ancestors—were complicit in a society that proclaimed people of color to be less than human.
White people in Mississippi—even ones in poverty—have to be willing to speak truth about how the system still unfairly values them above those with darker skin. White people have to be willing to repent, ask for forgiveness, and try to move forward while understanding how much the past affects the present.
Mississippi isn’t perfect. Far from it. Our multi-ethnic church still have work to do across cultural/socioeconomic lines. The public schools in Jackson are woefully broken and underfunded, and the public schools in the town where we live are still mostly staffed by majority culture white people. There is equal access to classrooms, but I’m sure there are inequalities in rates of discipline and suspensions.
My seminary isn’t perfect, the law school where I have the privilege of working isn’t perfect, and I, as a racially Asian/White; culturally Black/White woman, am definitely not perfect. My white fragility wrestles with my POC weariness all the time, and I can tell you who usually wins. Our great state of Mississippi—with all of her diverse peoples—isn’t perfect. But that’s the point.
Many of us are willing to admit that we’re not perfect. We’re willing to admit that this work of racial reconciliation is hard, and messy, and often heartbreaking.
Here in Mississippi, where the state flag still includes the Confederate flag, here in Mississippi where some people aren’t afraid (especially in this political climate) to use racial slurs and threaten people of color, here in Mississippi, where trees still stand which once had the broken bodies of image bearers dangling from them, here in Mississippi—we go in.
We talk, and we lament, and we cry for justice, and we get angry, and we get sad, and we praise Jesus even when it feels like our chests will burst with grief and frustration and despair.
That’s why Mississippi is different, and that’s why I’m proud to call it home.