Essay

Being Kind, Being Racist

By May 28, 2020 14 Comments

My son has discovered a love of birds. 

It happened after I gave him a thrifted copy of a bird book. It wasn’t long before he was identifying every bird he could see, ingesting fact after fact, planning how he would transform our backyard when we got home to attract and sustain a habitat for his beloved creatures.

I love this, and encourage it. I’ve always thought that men who love birds are the kindest men. And I want my son to become a kind man.

Christian Cooper was birding in Central Park when a white woman used her power to threaten him. 

Something about that detail — Christian Cooper was a birder — has mattered a lot to me. I’ve become curious about why it matters to me so much.

I’ve tried to be honest about why it matters. I think it may be because the actions of that white woman offend me more because he was birding than they might have if he had been drumming or playing basketball or asking for spare change. Because he was harassed and threatened while birding — an activity that I so deeply approve of as kind, as safe — maybe that means he had reached a different threshold of worthiness. Perhaps it made him more real, more human to me.

Maybe the birding mattered to me because it surprised me to be reminded of the peaceful, trustworthy men I know. Men who are white. Men who are safe. It surprised me to be reminded of my best hopes for my son. Maybe I need to admit that it surprised me to associate those things with a black man. And admit that this detail helped make me willing to feel hurt for what happened to him.

I haven’t figured it out yet, it’s something I’ve been wondering, been turning around inside of myself. 

It’s been hard for me to know the best way to respond to the headlines of black violence and black death — to Ahmaud Arbury, to Brionna Taylor, to George Floyd, not to mention the disproportionate rates of black deaths due to COVID-19. The instincts I’ve relied on in previous moments — to organize, to rally — feel impossible, or irresponsible, during a pandemic. I still feel the same desperate energy and outrage, but I can’t find my usual targets. I’ve been forced to self-interrogate, maybe just to have somewhere to go with all the angst. 

I’ve wanted to publicly prove online, for example, that “I’m not one of those white women.” I’ve wanted to share the memes and use the hashtags. But I haven’t done it.

Because I am one of those white women. It is so easy for me to tell you the logic that led Amy Cooper to speak those words, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” It is easy for me to imagine her thinking, because I swim in the same waters of entitlement that she does. These waters make someone else’s legitimate need look like a threat to my safety (or comfort, another distinction that entitlement helps me blur so easily, so often).

It feels desperate and terrible to be living in this moment — to watch the loss of black lives on our computer screens, again and again and again. To be stuck in our homes, afraid and powerless. 

Would it serve you, too, dear white reader, to turn some of that energy inward? To spend a moment lingering in curiosity about why you want to know what Arbury was doing in the partially built home? Would your sadness over Breonna Taylor’s death change if there were drugs in her apartment? What makes you need to know more about the forgery charges against George Floyd? Do these things make those victims feel less like you, and maybe then less human? And does that make you feel less afraid? Less lied to? Less complicit?

I feel powerless during COVID-19. But perhaps that powerlessness can be useful to me. Perhaps I can choose not to waste it, but instead to let it shed light on the racism that has taken root in me.

My son got a birdhouse today. He’s been busy researching the best place to put it. He’s so curious. He’s changed his mind a few times already about where it should go, about what birds it might attract. He is so open-hearted. He wants the birds to feel safe, so all the birds will come to the yard. He is so kind.

May we be curious. May we be open-hearted. May we be kind. Let us be those things for ourselves, turning with kindness and courage to what lies within us that we might rather not see. And so when it is time to come out of our homes, and face our broken, hurting world, we can engage it better — with more honesty, more humility, more courage. This, I believe, is true kindness.  

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

14 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    My devotional “reading” for this morning. Thank you.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Kate, for a thoughtful article. I think we all look for good traits in our children that we want to encourage. But recognize (in Christian thought) that we all, including our children, come into the world with fallen sinful natures. No one asks for such a nature at birth or at some age of accountability. That nature is ours, want it or not. The natural inclination of all people is toward sin. So maybe that goes part of the way in explaining that white woman in the park or maybe some of our own prejudices

    Also recognize that your son has probably only encountered small and friendly birds (at least friendly in our minds). Would he feel the same had he observed the habits of predator birds, the ones with curved beaks made for tearing flesh, and strong feet with sharp talons for capturing live animals? Is it any wonder that other birds and even animals fear such predator birds?

    Nor do we know the background of this white woman in the park. Would it make a difference if she was raised in a black ghetto where her brother was perhaps killed or beat up regularly for living in the wrong neighborhood?

    As much as we may appreciate your sentiment in this article, it seems a little naive (maybe a lot). But certainly it is food for thought. Thanks for the challenge.

    • Jim Payton says:

      What?! Do you feel safer now that you’ve qualified away the points Kate made so well in this thoughtful piece? Instead of this article being “a little naive (maybe a lot),” your response seems “privileged” and “protected” (and maybe a lot). — Thank you, Kate, for the reflective, humble, pained insights your article presents.

  • Mark says:

    Do we dare go deeper than racism, and sexism, and homophobia, xenophobia? Do they all meet at some point way, way down there? I don’t think we should try to go there unaccompanied. Fortunately we don’t have to – but that doesn’t mean it’s not a frightening excursion. Thank you for these observations and challenges.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    I’ve missed your essays Kate and am glad to read this one…

    If I could – I would send a piece to you written by a dear friend who is African American…a fellow Alma grad, phenomenal high school band teacher, ardent woman of God, and a mother who is terrified for her son – a student at Princeton Seminary.

    In the piece she wrote the other evening following the murder in Minneapolis she expresses her fear and exhaustion from her daily struggles to fight racism as well as her ideas for fighting against this evil.

    It brought me to tears, but also caused me to think seriously about what I, a privileged white person, can do to make any kind of difference.

    These are frightening times we live in for many reasons and I’m not sure what the answer is. I pray that at some point people of good will might prevail and once again begin to make a difference.

  • Kathy Van Rees says:

    To be able ro plumb the depths of ones’ own soul is a gift beyond measure You do it so well, Kate. And then teach us well how to do the same. Thank you for your kindness.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Welcome back, Kate! I’ve missed your blogs.
    Thanks for challenging us to look inward to see what all this death and destruction is doing to us. I hope it develops more kindness and courage in me.

  • Dana R VanderLugt says:

    Thank you for this. Thank you for your vulnerability. And for challenging me.

  • Tom says:

    Mr. Cooper was a birder. As a little more context becomes available (his Facebook posts) he also appears to be a jack-ass. Ms. Cooper might be a racist, I don’t know, but clearly she is also a jack-ass. Maybe she thinks whites are superior to blacks; he clearly seems to think birders are superior to dog-walkers, at least dog-walkers that don’t follow all the rules.

    I’m not that interested in making their interaction a parallel for race relations because, in the end, this is just two jackasses getting angry with each other. I’d rather see each of them take your last paragraph and apply it to themselves – they BOTH need it equally.

    • Harris says:

      What strikes me is the gender question; we might read this as a tough woman pushing back at men, with race playing something of an instrumental role, it’s the stick she has. Professionally, Ms Cooper held a fine position in finance, a testosterone world, and she got there obviously by being able to go head-to-head with the guys. She’s a jack-ass because that’s what her job requires of her. Challenged, she responds. Given that she loses both job and dog, there is also something quite tragic about this, undone by the very thing that raised he up.

      We might also ask, who in turn will be kind to her?

  • EMILY JANE STYLE says:

    Thank you dear white writer for asking: “Would it serve you, too, dear white reader, to turn some of that energy inward?” My white answer is YES. Thank you for offering here some of your own white inner exploration, curiosity, and courage. Among other resources that bubble up from my own exploration of this inner white terrain is the explicit wrestling that the white mainstream American novelist Jodi Picoult did—as part of crafting her 2016 novel Small, Great Things. Her use of three narrators: a black labor & delivery nurse, a young white supremacist father whose baby dies, and a white female lawyer – offered me – as a white reader – a provocative array of “windows & mirrors” about the inner & outer complexity of the racial terrain of our country, historically and in the here & now. May we keep on encouraging each other’s white learning, in that – as Peggy McIntosh puts it: “we are all a part of what we are trying to change.”

  • Marlin Vis says:

    I’m curious as to why so few who are writing on this event are not mentioning Mr Cooper’s statement to Ms Cooper, according to his own FaceBook account. “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.“ Now, obviously, I wasn’t there. I can’t hear how he said it, his tone, etc. I didn’t see the look on his face when he said it, but it sounds like a threat. I mean, what exactly did he mean? “I’m going to do whatever I want, and you’re not going to like it.” Now if any woman of any color would have had a rather large man of any color say this to them in a secluded place after an argument, well, then what? It’s easy to target either party here, I get that. I’m honestly not defending Ms Cooper. However, this comment by Mr Cooper is a threat of some kind, and I am just pointing this out in order to be fair to Ms Cooper. And it bothers me that folks are ignoring it. It just seems significant to me. But maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe I have bad information. I got this from an article in CNN opinion page, entitled, “Central Park confrontation sends an ugly message”, by Jill Fillpovic. Just curious as to how others feel about this being left out.

  • Barbara Egeler-Bailey says:

    YOU can do something about racism. Engage white people in conversation about it. Don’t pretend with white friends that it doesn’t exist or that it’s a taboo subject. That’s condoning it. Challenge people about their beliefs in a civil way. Then people have to own it or not. But at least they are now aware of it. I do this with my white suburban students. It allows the minority students in my community college classroom to feel validated that I even raise the issue. I live in an integrated neighborhood by choice, and my son (who is white) is a far better man for it. Shame on suburbanites who fled the city or who do not interact with anyone of color!

  • Paul Kortenhoven says:

    Hi Kate
    Very well written article and you rightly identify the biases that we all grew up with in the white Dutch community whether it was Chicago for me or western Michigan for you. White privilege is simply a fact. We can use it for good or ill and I hope the latter wins. We tried to use it for good in many ways during a horrible war. Mary used it for good to get a program started for abused and neglected women. I like to think that many lives were changed for the better. They certainly were : “The least of these”.

    Your son’s birding is beautiful. It will last a lifetime and take him to many places just to see an unusual rare bird. He will say, “Mom, we’ve got to go to Lowell! There’s rare duck on the the Flat River a mile west of town!” It will be early spring with ice still on the shore waters and you will happily freeze while you watch the joy in your son’s eyes as he spot it.

    Blessings to you and your family, Paul

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