“I Don’t See Color”

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian Wallace
Associate Minister for Emerging Ministries &
Acting Head of Staff
Thursday, February 15, 2024

In honor of Henry Highland Garnet Weekend, 2024

There are big moments in our lives.  Developments or revelations that are so consequential that our world and reality are forever changed. And there are the moments that, while not as reality-altering, cause a shift in our understanding of the world in such a way that they become etched in our brains.

I had one of those moments a few years ago.  During the summer of 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, my colleague and friend Ralph and I were on the phone talking about ordinary work stuff.  As we talked, he randomly interjected, “Oh, and the twins passed their driver’s test.”  Without hesitation, I responded, “Oh, congratulations, that’s awesome – less driving around for you, right?”

I’ll never forget the pause on the other end of the line.

Ralph finally said, “Yeah, man, it’s awesome.  I mean, yeah, it is,” and his voice trailed off.

That’s when it hit me. In the world I’ve grown up and, to be frank, in the world I’ve spent most of my time in, a teenager passing their driver’s test is cause for celebration (and perhaps a little worry).  But I realized in that moment that the celebration and worry weren’t the same for Ralph, as a person of color and the father of two teenage boys of color.

The social phenomenon commonly referred to as “driving while black” is a complex and nuanced thing, and nonetheless, is a reality for every single one of my friends who are themselves persons of color or are raising children of color.  Every one of them has talked to me about the conversation they have had, often many times over, with their sons about how they should act and respond should they get pulled over by law enforcement.

It is all too easy and convenient to make this about the role of policing in the United States and the problematic nature and history of law enforcement, and I refuse to do that.  There is no perfect profession, and that includes lawyers, police officers, and, yes, pastors.  And, as a personal note, I have a great deal of respect for and count among my friends individuals who work in law enforcement.  They willingly face things daily that I never could, and I am grateful for it.  But contrary to popular practice, two things that are often positioned against one another can be true at the same time.  Saying that one must choose between acknowledging the reality of the “driving while black” phenomenon and supporting law enforcement lacks nuance and fails to account for the complexity of the world in which we live.

So, what does any of this have to do with following Jesus?  A lot.

One of the things that I’ve come to recognize more and more is that our life experiences shape how we view and interpret the world around us.  Where we grew up, how we grew up, and the experiences of our formative years shape who we are and the lenses through which we view the world.  I’ll give you an example.  Having grown up in the snow belt, I will always roll my eyes when a two-hour delay or school closing is announced in Western Pennsylvania.  My frame of reference is different because my growing-up experience was different.  In a similar vein, if you’re going to be my friend, you’ll need to, at least, on some level, try and understand how I experience and see the world, and vice versa.

It is common to hear people who look like me and share a European heritage say things like “I don’t see color” or quote Martin Luther King Jr. that people should be “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  And this, for the most part, is well-intentioned but usually misses the point.  By choosing to “not see color,” we are making the subtle assumption your race and ethnicity have no impact on the way we experience life and that those differences don’t impact our day-to-day lives.  But, that breaks down – go back to my first example about the driver’s license.  Despite our many similarities, Ralph and I routinely discover a significant difference in how we view and understand the world due at least in part to the different cultural and ethnic settings in which we grew up and the color of our skin.

Fundamental to our call as Jesus’ disciples is the command to “love others.”  And, if you’re going to love someone, you must at least try to understand who they are and how they experience life.  That means rather than choosing to “not see color,” we need to, all the more, take seriously the different ways in which we can experience the same situations and learn to recognize when race is playing a factor in our different understandings.  To be clear, this is important not just when it comes to race, but age, gender, socio-economic condition, and familiarity with Presbyterianism can all have a profound impact on how we experience life in general as well as our experiences in the church.  And that’s not a bad thing.  The better we understand one another, the better we all can love and support each other in the work we are all called to do.

To put it simply, to love someone, you’ve got to try and see the world as they say it, even if just for a second.  You’ll never truly get it, but some level of understanding is needed.

In my early college years, my mom and I were talking about issues of race and racism, and I made the following observation: “It seems to me that at this point in history, it has more to do with socio-economic status than it does race.”  That comment was reflective of how I understood things then.  I also would have readily acknowledged, even then, that the racial history of our country had a direct impact on socio-economics, but in essence what I was saying was this: If two families had the same income and financial capacity and lived in the same community, race doesn’t matter anymore.  I would no longer say that.  It’s not that what I said was 100% wrong, a very good argument can be made that socio-economics in fact, does have a greater impact on long term outcomes than race does, but to draw then the conclusion that all things being equal financially, race doesn’t matter – I don’t think that’s true like I once did.

The only way I’ve gotten to that point, that I’ve allowed my understanding to shift, has been to listen to my friends who are not white, take their experiences seriously, and allow my own assumptions and beliefs to be challenged and ultimately to change.  Am I perfect in that?  Definitely not.  It’s not uncommon for me, at all, to have an interaction with someone where I realize, usually in hindsight, that I allowed a person’s race/ethnicity to drive my assumptions about that individual, only to find out later I was wrong.

Our recently adopted purpose statement for the Presbytery opens with the line “Pittsburgh Presbytery is a covenant community of Jesus Christ…”. To be in covenant relationship with someone is to be family.  Within any healthy family system that I’m aware of, there is always a consistent and mutual effort to understand one another’s perspectives and experiences better while allowing our assumptions and understandings to be challenged.  I hope and pray that Pittsburgh Presbytery, as a community, will be a place where this is our commitment to one another.  Not for our sake, not even for one another’s sake, but that we might be a stronger community committed to reflecting the values of the Kingdom of God in the world.

In Christ,

PS – Along a similar theme, I would commend to you the update from the Alliance for Honor and Repair, that is shared in this week’s newsletter.


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