Essay

Dear White Friends and Colleagues,

By December 18, 2014 No Comments
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I’m writing this blog for me and you. It’s about our personal and collective response to racism, particularly a kind of communicative praxis that I hope we might adopt. All this comes not so much from my own wisdom as it does from the wisdom I have gleaned from those on the margins, from those who live with fears I do not face, from those who are justifiably exasperated by “good white people” like me and you.

Listening is ambiguous. Listening is essential in life-giving relationships, in working for peace, in creating connection and solidarity. But some forms of listening reinforce white privilege, because they put us at the center. (Perhaps this is not really listening at all.) I won’t belabor the point from my previous blog post, but sympathy can be oppressive, because it frequently blurs the distinction between our experience and the other’s experience. Sympathy can ignore the irreducible otherness of the other. White people have done this too often. And I admit that I’m tempted to do this whenever I compare (usually in my own mind) my experiences of sexism with others’ experiences of racism. Instead of conflating the two experiences, I have to remember the fact that as a white person I cannot get inside the experiences of African Americans, for instance.

Second, listening is ambiguous if it’s limited to a small group of (let alone just one or two!) interpersonal encounters. We must diversify the media we watch, the books we read, the communities we accompany. Third, listening is ambiguous if it doesn’t lead to action. Here again, we might wonder if it was really listening at all if it doesn’t lead to and include action. God’s deep listening to the cries of God’s people moves God compassionately and thus moves God to acts of liberation and reconciliation. If our listening doesn’t move us to some form of active solidarity, then it fails to correspond to and participate in God’s listening.

Moving out of the center and doing our own work. When we realize that we are blind to our own racism, we can feel overwhelmed. We don’t want to be racist, but we know we are. We can’t see it clearly enough to prevent it or cover it up. Even if we had a fig leaf, we wouldn’t know where to place it. When we realize this, it’s tempting to run to our black friends, colleagues, and neighbors for help. “Please be patient with us.” “Teach us.” Or worse yet, “Console us and tell us we’re not that bad.” All of these messages place us at the center. We’ve made the pain of racism about us. We’ve demanded those who lives are severely diminished (if not snuffed out) become our educators and caretakers. If we persist in this, then we’re dangerously close to acting like the abuser who deftly turns himself into the victim and demands her compassion and forgiveness without ever doing his own hard work of repentance and restitution.

It’s true that racism is about us. It is a white problem, and it diminishes all life. (But again, we accrue many benefits, socially, politically, economically, on account of racism. And that makes our pain qualitatively different than the pain of people of color.) It’s also true that we need to talk and to learn and to act. But we need to take responsibility for this with one another and avoid placing any further burden on the backs of those suffer daily in ways far beyond us. We also need to say hard things without demonizing one another. In this there is grace but not cheap grace.

Choosing vulnerability. For those of us who know that we are blind to our own racism and who fear acting in racist ways, it is easy to remain silent. White fear, white anxiety, white guilt: these are real and powerful motivating forces that push us toward silence. “Better to say nothing than say the wrong thing, or contribute to more hurt, or appear racist,” we tell ourselves. This is compounded for academics trained to conduct thorough research, to analyze a wide variety of perspectives on a given topic, to reflect and ponder over a long period of time, and to edit and re-edit our words so that we can communicate with precision. Yet, when it comes to racism, this is a luxury that the world cannot afford and a reflection of our white privilege. We must speak and act and we must speak and act now. Even if that means that our speech and action might be flawed, limited, misplaced, or wrong. (Of course, our speech and action are always tainted by our finitude and sin.) I’m not promoting thoughtlessness or recklessness here. But I am suggesting that silence and inaction are not options and that we likely will need to change course, apologize, and confess our sin and shortsightedness many times along the way.

Welcoming the convicting work of the Spirit. Recognizing the ways in which we have participated in racist systems and the ways in which we have oppressed others with our words and deeds is painful. Speaking and acting in racist ways precisely in the moment when we long to do the opposite is even more painful. Even if we do not make our pain the center of attention, we wish it were not so. But there’s really no other way forward. Growth, sanctification, and liberation: these all entail conviction of sin. And conviction, if it is the work of the Spirit, leads to confession and confession to repentance. This confession and repentance cannot be limited to the interpersonal realm. It must be collective. It must address our participation in and contribution to systemic and structural evil. Anything less (and again, I’m not saying we can be perfect in this) and I fear that we will miss the very heart of God’s work in our midst. In this regard, the spirit of this quote seems apt (in spite of its unfortunate militaristic language):

“If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.”

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