I felt stupid and scared this week, and I took it out on a well-meaning white guy.
Here’s what happened: I was working as part of a team to plan a high-profile event for local pastors to speak out against racism. It was collaborative (which is hard), it was high-stakes (everybody’s a critic), and it was not being led by white people (translation: I was not in control).
These kinds of projects are never easy for me. I get hyper-motivated by fear: fear that I’ll fail as an ally and try to take over control. Fear that we’ll say something the activists will rip to shreds. Fear that some Christian will say “that’s not orthodox.” (It’s all fear that I’ll be kicked out of one of the clubs to which I so desperately want to belong.)
So anyway, we had a high-stress change of plans in our group process which took a few hours to sort out. I had exhausted myself with all my fear. I logged onto Facebook to “decompress.” A person I am connected with posted something about racial justice. I saw my chance; I went in.
It only took a few well-placed words for me to feel I’d effectively scolded him for his ignorance. And it was just the dopamine hit I needed after all my hand-wringing the hour before. I felt so superior.
I confess this because I think it’s important to know what you’re getting into, if you’re new to this stuff. White folks: racial justice work is going to feel bad. It will shine a light on stuff you’d rather not see, or let others see.
I mean there are times when it feels good, and that’s because it is good. It is the Kingdom. It is the good news. It’s The Way It’s Supposed To Be. There are glimpses of this, there are tastes of this, and it feels like holy ground.
But along the way, there are lots of parts that just feel… bad. Exposed. Vulnerable. Out of control. Painful.
White people who are just starting to speak on this stuff, be warned: your feelings are going to get hurt. And it will make you want to quit. This is a good thing. This means that you’ve taken the first right step. If it feels awful, you’re probably doing it right.
Here’s what will happen.
Your feelings will get hurt because a Black person will get mad at you. Someone will tell you, maybe right out in public, that what you did or said or thought was actually still racist. Or that it was too little, too late. Or that it was just words, and words don’t make change.
It will feel really bad. You will feel stupid and small. You will feel defensive and misunderstood. You’ll think something like, “It wasn’t *what* they said, it was *how* they said it,” because you feel exposed and ashamed. (All this stuff has names: white fragility. Tone policing. It will take ten seconds of this to recognize that you’re a very unoriginal white person.)
You will realize that you expected to get thanked for what you did/said, and instead you’re getting corrected. You’ll want to quit.
Don’t quit. This is a first, awful step. That person is probably right. (They have, after all, an entire lifetime of experience with this topic, compared to your five minutes of engagement.) Tell them they’re right, and you’re going to change how you talk about that in the future. Thank them for helping you learn. You want to, need to, see what you have let yourself be blind to. Then, keep going.
Next, your feelings will get hurt because a white person will get mad at you. They will pick apart your words. They’ll tell you that you’re being divisive and political. They’ll tell you you’re conforming to the world, that you’re trying to be a trendy SJW. They’ll tell you that you’ve been manipulated by the mainstream media and send you a link to a video of a Black person debunking BLM. They’ll say, “I can’t believe you’re defending violence and riots, I used to respect you.”
It will feel really bad. You’ll want to explain yourself. You’ll be tempted to capitulate to ideas and messages that you find offensive, just to get them to stop being mad. You’ll realize that you actually don’t have a good argument to defend against their attack, and you’ll feel stupid. You’ll feel alone and vulnerable.
You will realize that you expected God to bless you with bravery and wisdom — you’ve been called to justice! — and instead you’re less confident than ever before. You’ll want to quit. Don’t quit. Tell them you love them, and Jesus, and you’re learning, and you want them to be quiet for a while and learn, too.
The truth is (and especially true if you’re a white pastor): you’re late to this table. I am, too. Dr. King was speaking to pastors like us from his jail cell in 1963, and his words are as relevant today as they were then. Things have not progressed — not in society, and not in the church. This is because too many of us are opportunists when it comes to racial justice. We participate when it is less risky to speak than it is to remain silent. (Like now.) We are largely unwilling to shoulder burdens or risk loss of power or position for the cause of Black dignity and freedom. Actually, forget real losses like those — we are largely unwilling to stay in this thing when we simply feel small, stupid, or misunderstood.
If, in 50 years’ time, the white American church is finally able to say it emerged from its complicity and worked toward repairing the harm it has caused, it will be because you and I persisted past our own defensiveness and cluelessness, past our own confusion and vulnerability. We will admit that we have made this about me, me, me; we will hold each other accountable to growing up.
If anything changes in the white American Church, it will be in part because we took a first, awful step. And then, instead of apologizing to our critics and turning back around, we continued to move forward, one pain-filled step at a time.
We will do this because we have allowed the Good News of Jesus to become a tool of oppression. Our tiny twinges of pain are nothing next to the mountain of harm that a white supremacist church has caused.
If this hurts, beloved white Christian, that means you’re doing it right. May this be the moment we allow our fragile selves to break apart, so that something more faithful can emerge.
(Photo by Stephane YAICH on Unsplash)