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Conversations about Race – Sunmolu Shoyinka

Editor’s Note: The following is one of several interviews we will be sharing from individuals in our church community who have helpful perspectives and vantage points into the issues of race and the gospel.

Sosunmolu Shoyinka is a Yale-trained psychiatrist and faculty member at the University of Missouri. Born and raised in Nigeria, Dr. Shoyinka, his wife Kemi, and their children have been part of our Christian Fellowship family for 5 years.

  1. What experiences or roles have you had that have given you a unique vantage point into the issues of discrimination or racism?

Growing up outside the US, I had no concept of “being black”. Having lived in several different parts of the world and moved around within the USA has also given me some perspective. For the first 2-3 year of my living in the US (in an ultra-mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn), I didn’t even see racism and thought it was all hype, until one day after working all night during my 3rd year of residency, I went up to the roof of my 4th floor apartment for fresh air. A group of orthodox Jewish kids began yelling racial slurs at me totally without warning. Another day, while boarding the train in New York, a passenger indicated that the seat next to him was taken, only to give that empty seat to the next person that boarded who was not at all known to him (he then apologized profusely when I pointed it out to them). I have been followed about in stores (auto, clothes and gas stations) by attendants. In two instances, the attendant left the counter and placed themselves behind me where they could watch my movements. This happened most recently in 2015. Having a relatively privileged position in the community as a result of my profession shelters me some from the effects of racism but not totally. In my public health/policy work I see the effects of systematized racism play out daily.

  1. How do you see God’s heart and the gospel as central to these issues?

Racism is just one example of the division that has come to the human race as a fruit of the fall (witness Cain and Abel). This manifests in different ways in different cultures. Other manifestations are tribalism, nepotism, gender-based discrimination/violence, genocide, and political factions. Like these other manifestations, racism directly contradicts what God desires to accomplish through the new birth: to reconcile all things to Himself–us to each other and to Him through the gospel (2 Cor 5: 18, Col 1.20, Eph 2:16.). I believe that the church is central to those plans. Col 3:14 says that in Christ there are no racial, ethnic or gender differences–or any other for that matter.  I think His love truly is the answer. When it heals us from within, we finally begin to see clearly–beyond our own prejudices.

  1. What do you see as some helpful practical steps toward change?
  • Conversations and exposure really help.
  • Consciously setting aside preconceived ideas of what a person’s background “must be”—on both sides (they are often totally off-base) opens the door to truly learning about a person and for them to open up to you.
  • I think the church as a whole needs to be more intentional about talking about this and dealing with these issues, including what has happened in the past and paving the way forward. Society cannot provide those answers—and politics certainly cannot. Legislation cannot change human hearts.
  • Expect some conflict. Specifically, when you have the conversation with minorities, you may see a flood of anger and perhaps bitterness at first. It can be surprising in its intensity, but realize that it is the result of repressed anger over time. The key is recognizing that it’s not really directed at you. It is helpful to use reflective listening—to listen beyond the words to the very real pain and anger behind those words without getting defensive and listen through that until they can talk to you, not at what you represent.
  • For me, witnessing the humility and openness to learning on the parts of some friends who have been willing to “go there” has been like a salve on those wounds. However, it takes real courage to do that.
  • Going out of your way to plan for and to learn about minorities and their culture. This may mean taking some forethought, asking some questions and being open to trying new things.
  1. What is one particularly helpful thing you’ve learned in your own journey as you’ve wrestled with these issues that you could share with us?

Experiencing racism creates a real temptation to become bitter—to withdraw to safety among your own kind. I’ve learned that most people are not truly racist and are often just unaware. And I’ve realized that I have my own prejudiced issues of the heart to deal with and need prayer just as much as others do.

A few months ago, a friend recommended a book that I’d recommend strongly to others. It’s titled Beyond Racial Gridlock by George Yancey.

Meditating on Col 3:14 and 2 Cor 5: 14-18 really helped.

One thing that has really helped me personally is to have majority culture friends–real friends who don’t see me as an exotic “other” creature or as a “mission/project,” and learning that, in the end, we are all just people.

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