As a non-profit, Be the Bridge depends on a large team of volunteers to stay afloat. The beautiful thing about that is the broad range of people that have come around Tasha’s mission and vision. We want you to get to know this great team of people and be encouraged by their stories.
Today we are interviewing Micah Smith. Micah is one of our moderators for the Be the Bridge Facebook group and is co-leading this summer’s Whiteness Intensive. How did Micah go from reenacting and defending the Civil War to weeping over racial injustice? Read his story below!
Can you tell us about your childhood and your understanding of race at that time?
Growing up in Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia, saying I understood race at all would be overstating it. There was no explicit instruction or discussion within my family, and I was always insulated within white cultural contexts, with the occasional person of color who was always considered, “just one of us.” I went to private schools or was home schooled most of my childhood, and went to a private college in the 1990’s that was not only similar to my white high school experience, but was named after George Washington and Robert E. Lee, who were both venerated as Christian national heroes all through my childhood into young adulthood. On top of that, my main hobby was Civil War reenacting, so I thought I understood the complexity of the Civil War as well as anyone, and it wasn’t about slavery. My first article for my high school newspaper was actually on that topic, and it was well-received.
Looking back, I can see now how I was implicitly instructed by my family and culture to normalize whiteness and fear “other.” In a way, those are the two pillars of White Supremacy, and it doesn’t take explicit instruction to have that ingrained in your self-identity. I think more people are like me where it was the constant background distrust of people who looked and acted outside of our cultural expectations of whiteness. One quick example from elementary school days is when we lived in a pretty rough part of town when my dad was going to University of Mississippi for Medical School in Jackson. The people right around us were all students, but Black kids from the neighborhood around us would sometime walk through. My mom would always look at these kids suspiciously and wonder out loud if that was the kid who stole my bike one year. An even more subtle example was out next-door apartment neighbors, a family from Thailand. I never learned their actual last name because it was hard to say, so we all just called them, “the Thais.” I’m also realizing we played right into the resegregation of America following Civil Rights, because it was the early 80s, and while my parents didn’t have a lot of money, they didn’t send me to the public school in my neighborhood, but scrapped together the funds to send me to a private school where there was only one black child in my grade.
Of course I didn’t have the framework or language to understand all this until more recently, but that started to change when I went back to college in the mid-2000’s. (I didn’t do so hot the first time.) I fell in love with psychology and pursued a bachelors and masters degree in the subject. During my Social Psychology course as an undergraduate, we tackled the ideas of bias and prejudice, and part of how the instructor did that was to have us focus on ourselves. It was at that point I started to have an understanding of how my reality is shaded by my experience, and also how my reality isn’t necessarily the same as others. During this time I was also introduced to Langston Hughes, and his work blew me away. He was unapologetically Black, and I don’t think I’d ever truly allowed myself to experience Black writing. I didn’t really understand it, though, until I read, “Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain,” and that’s when something really clicked for me. Black people have their own American identity that is different than mine, and that’s okay, or at least should be okay.
What really pushed me forward, though, wasn’t this general intellectual acknowledgment, it was emotional connection. I was still mostly blissfully unaware of historical, systematic oppression and how that was impacting Black people and other people of color today. In fact, when Ferguson happened, in 2014, it barely registered in my newsfeed or my mind, and when one friend posted something on it, I have a distinct memory of seeing the headline and lead picture and thinking, “I wonder what country Ferguson is in? That sucks for those people.” And then I scrolled on without reading. Looking back, I couldn’t even conceptualize the idea of Black people protesting racial issues in America, or how my white privilege allowed me the choice to dismiss it. My emotional spark came about the same time as Ferguson, though. It was Eric Gardner. It wasn’t when it happened, but I think when they decided not to indict. Again, a friend posted the video on Facebook, and I didn’t scoll past this time. I watched it. I cried. I remember sitting in my office feeling broken by the unnecessariness of it all. But then, when they didn’t indict the officer, that was when my “just world” thinking got destroyed. There was no way society was just if that officer could walk away from what millions of people watched him do to a non-violent, unarmed man selling cigarettes. I was sparked, and had to do something, and for the first time in my life, I realized I didn’t know a single Black person well enough to have a conversation about it.
So how did you find Be the Bridge?
Tasha always says, “Be the Bridge is an ‘on ramp.’” And when I realized what was happening and was broken by it, but didn’t know what to do, that “on ramp” was placed right there for me (and many others). I knew some Be the Bridge thing was going to be featured at some “IF: Gathering” thing for women, and you could register online. So being the rebel I am, I ignored the “women” aspect, registered online, and watched. And that was it. I was in. I downloaded that first guide that night and read through it. It was exactly what I needed, exactly. It framed addressing racial issues from a Christian perspective, which I needed, but hadn’t really been exposed to in the White church. And in that conversation at IF, there was a lot of discussion about silence, and the silence of the White church, and how people of color were hurting and were looking for White friends who were speaking out for them, but were instead finding silence. I could no longer be silent, but didn’t yet have the words to speak.
What has changed in your life as a result of your involvement with Be the Bridge?
There is so much learning that I needed, need. If you are a White person and you struggle to see how firm the racial barriers are in our society, take an honest look at your connections and your influences. Mine were ALL white. After watching Tasha, I went through my Facebook friends and calculated how many were people of color, and specifically how many were Black. I was shocked, and I was shocked that I was shocked. Like, how did I not notice this before? I started expanding my social media to include voices from others, and I started listening and speaking into the silence virtually. Like Amena Brown said at that IF Be the Bridge demonstration (although I had no idea who she was at the time), “Don’t be afraid to start small, and start with yourself, and pray.”
Be the Bridge has so many resources for starting with yourself and introducing you to voices of color, and that was a big part of my learning. It was also a big part of me forming relationships with people of color. Like I said, that barrier is for real for real, and I had no idea how to talk to a Black person on a non-superficial level to develop a relationship, let alone have vulnerable transracial conversations on a sensitive topic. Being willing to engage in the Facebook group in a way that respects the culture created there – where voices of people of color are elevated and centered as they are the experts in their own experience – and learning openly from them and being willing to mess up and keep going, all of that helped teach me what I didn’t learn in childhood about racial dynamics and how they play out, and why it matters. It’s more than an intellectual exercise; it’s everyday, emotional, lived reality for people. It even helped my better understand my own identity as a White man.
Perhaps most of all, it’s helped me understand I have a role to play in all this as a White man. I had a lot to learn, so it was a long journey; it took me a few years just to get my feet under me. And I’m in an area where this is hard, and I have failed here both in engaging in relationships with people of color and introducing Be the Bridge, but looking back, I see all the little pieces and influences and how they have nurtured (and pushed) my growth, including my amazing fellow moderators here at Be the Bridge. The Black women on that team, Cassandra, Micah Rose, Kristina, and Tanya are taking me next level. But that “start small” and keep going approach is culminating in running a successful group with plans starting to emerge of how to grow as a group having real conversations that influence change in our sphere of influence for God’s glory. What has changed in my life through my involvement with Be the Bridge? What hasn’t? I have a purpose and the tools to work toward it because of Tasha and Be the Bridge.
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