[This is post is part of a five-part series. You can find a link to all five here.]
His words ring like they were rung yesterday,
Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.
Almost 53 years ago Martin Luther King Jr electrified more than 250,000 civil rights marchers from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. (Maybe stop here and watch it?)
In his closing he said,
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood
Less than 5 years later, King would be dead. His voice and his presence have seemed largely irreplaceable. But what of his faith; the faith which allowed King to offer a vision that transcended hostilities in preference of brotherhood?
Having re-read his address, I sought to pay special attention to the basis of King’s faith—for faith misplaced is futile. And I can name three such bases: God, America and humankind. To King these three seem inextricably fused; that God might have actual agency in our society, and that the long moral arc of the universe might truly bend toward justice; that America’s creeds and purported values might continue shaping our nation the way the sea shapes shards of glass; that each human spirit is disquieted by injustice and might be animated by visions of justice, equality and freedom.
But was it all misplaced?
Several weeks ago I began this series of posts on race and racism. In the middle of this 5-part series, I inserted a piece outlining my own impetus for writing on race: to “repurpose this instrument of division into an instrument of dialogue.” But this itself is a statement of faith. Each day I observe evidences that such faith may be nothing more than naïveté; not only in the cultural/societal ubiquitousness, perniciousness and obliviousness regarding racism, but in the dismissiveness, recalcitrance and apathy (viz., “without humane pathos”) toward racism even among people from whom I might expect openness.
My hopes in writing (and engaging elsewhere) must be founded in some meaningful bases on the part of the recipient, mustn’t they?
So upon introspection, I think my own hopes would still mirror King’s: that God is real, always at work and a tireless champion of justice; that the virtues of our codified national values might not be done shaping its citizenry; and that human instincts for justice and equality are, finally, irrepressible.
But what does any of that sweeping rhetoric matter? For you are the one reading. And it is your own bases from which this transaction might falter or triumph. As a communicator, I am inviting you into the intimacy of of this exchange, hoping you will mine your most precious of bases and put aside the dross. I’ll admit that this has been the most challenging of the five pieces I’ve written, and one challenging element has been the difficulty of addressing those brittle bases that might allow for dialogue and growth to take place. Scripture speaks of Jesus as not extinguishing smoldering wicks, nor breaking bruised reeds. It is a picture of supernatural gentleness and care. And if the topics of race and racism in America don’t require this, I’m not sure what does.
Another obstruction for this piece is my own relative novice. Here I intend to write one final piece presenting a way forward in the area of race, but know it would be beyond overweening for me to present anything resembling a road-map; better men and women have so much more to offer! I might rather describe these as “guideposts”—meaningful reference-points toward a preferable destination. For your part, I might frame forward motion as movement in the right direction (which is, of course, simultaneously movement away from the wrong).
One final complicating factor has been the issue of recipient. Author and seminary professor Drew G.I. Hart give an account in his book Trouble I’ve Seen of an appointment he had with a white pastor, who’d invited him to discuss the topic of race. They were drinking sweet tea together, when the following ensued:
…in the middle of the conversation, this white pastor abruptly grabbed one of the foam cups of sweet tea and placed it directly in the middle of the table between us. It was a sudden and unexpected rupture in the flow of our conversation, and I hadn’t a clue what was to follow.
“Drew,” he said, “this cup has writing on my side of the table and a logo on yours.” He paused.
“But I can’t see what is on your side of the cup,” he continued. “Likewise, you can’t see what is on my side of the cup.” This was all happening very quickly, and I wasn’t at all sure where he was heading with this teachable moment.
Then it came. “Because I can’t see what is on your side of the cup, I need you to share with me your perspectives so I can see things from your standpoint,” he explained. “ Likewise, you need me to share my point of view so that you can understand the world from my vantage point.”
This pastor was articulating a common white sentiment regarding this topic of race. To a degree it is true. But Hart’s response reveals the inadequacies of the analogy:
So, first I expressed my gratitude for his nice gesture. Then I said, “But this is not how things actually work.”
I explained that, in fact, I did know what was on his side of a cup. This is because I have learned Eurocentric history written from a white perspective. I have read white literature and poetry. I have learned about white musicians and artists. I have had mostly white teachers and professors through every stage of my educational process. I have read lots of white authors and have heard white intellectuals give lectures on a variety of topics. I have been inundated by white dominated and controlled television and media. I have lived in a mostly white suburban community, and I have lived on a predominantly white Christian campus. The truth of the matter is that I wouldn’t have been on track to a PhD without becoming intimately familiar with the various ways that white people think. My so-called success means that I have had to know what it takes to meet white standards, whether they are formal or informal.
After explaining why I already knew what was on his side of the cup, I continued on. I noted that in contrast to me, he most likely could go through his entire life without needing to know black literature, black intellectual thought, black wisdom, black art and music, or black history. That is, he could choose to never engage with or be changed by the range and beauty of the black community. Nor would he be penalized for it.
Hart goes on, but you can probably extrapolate. I would say that I basically agree with Hart’s corrective and that, in recognition of this, I would have to name my primary audience as being whites who, like this pastor and myself, are earnestly endeavoring a more whole understanding of race.
Yet, while Hart’s point is of critical importance, I might add that non-whites do suffer from a blindness in this area as well; one owing to their own background. Namely, comprehending the difficulty most whites have in understanding issues of race. Non-whites have lived their lives confronted at every turn by racially-based dynamics, so they must extended patience and curiosity toward whites who have not. Racial bewilderment isn’t alway a matter of willful obstinance; oftentimes it is a paradigmatic opaqueness at play. Racial dynamism is so axiomatic to non-whites that they can scarcely conceive an inability to apprehend it. But, if progress is to be made, each side must pay attention to the blindness to which they are prone.
I want to briefly present 7 guideposts. They are:
- Learn & Educate
- Create & Enter Space
- Confront Biases & Structures
- Displace Yourself
- Intervene & Advocate
- Turn the Tables
- Seek Truth & Reconciliation
GUIDEPOST 1: LEARN & EDUCATE
It goes without saying that we are the products of our environments; both as individuals and collectively. This causes us to see certain things, and not see others. When we endeavor to see the world through they eyes of those with dissimilar backgrounds, it is a dissociative space; especially in fractious relationships.
We know there is another narrative, but our willingness to comprehend it requires an unlearning of our own. Unlearning is the most painful form of learning. This is why people have such bad golf swings.
In her wry volume on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss recounts being nonplussed by an encounter with a woman at a book signing. (Truss’s book is a playfully readable primer on punctuation based on joke.) The interaction went as follows:
I was signing copies of my book when a rather bedraggled woman came up and said, despairingly, “Oh, I’d love to learn about punctuation.” Spotting a sure thing (you know how it is), I said with a little laugh, “Then this is the book for you, madam!” I believe my pen actually hovered above the dedication page, as I waited for her to tell me her name.
“No, I mean it,” she insisted—as if I had disagreed with her. “I really would love to know how to do it. I mean, I did learn it at school, but I’ve forgotten it now, and it’s awful… And I’m quite ashamed really, not knowing about grammar and all that; so I’d love to know about punctuation, but the trouble is, there’s just nowhere you can turn, is there?”
This was quite unsettling. She shrugged, defeated, and I hoped she would go away. I said again that the book really did explain many basic things about punctuation; she said again that the basic things of punctuation were exactly what nobody was ever prepared to explain to an adult person.
This stupefying interaction resembles people’s attitudes about race; the dejected fatalism that the topic is innately beyond fathoming. Truss recollects a piece of dialogue from Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks wherein a character wistfully laments, “I’ve always wanted to know how to spell Connecticut.”
The point is this: if you want to learn punctuation or how to spell Connecticut or deepen your understanding of race, then do so!
There are too many great books, articles, podcasts, videos and other resources out there for us to not avail ourselves of them. So many are thoughtful, non-polemic and rooted in history. If you’ll look back over my past “For Your Consideration” posts, you’ll discover many such resources.
Gravitate toward resources that can help you understand and be sympathetic toward viewpoints and experiences that vary from your own. Avoid those that place a higher value on dismissiveness than bridge-building.
In my writing of late, I’ve also sought to play a role of both learner and educator, and each of us can play these dual roles in our own settings. Share resources that are helping you, try to reframe conversations where stereotypes and biases are being reinforced, invite those in your sphere of influence to interact over materials. And always seek to expose yourself and others to alternate narratives. If Fox News or Slate are your only sources of input on matters, you’re only getting sucked into a polemical vortex. (Can I recommend dieting from ingesting points of view geared primarily toward “winning” or ridiculing the other camp?)
We can neither truly learn nor truly educate when we refuse to interface with viewpoints divergent from our own—and that with great care!
GUIDEPOST 2: CREATE & ENTER SPACE
We must create safe spaces in which dialogues on race might be allowed to blossom and fruit. My favorite wintertime spot in Chicago is the Garfield Park Conservatory. There’s nothing like strolling among cacti, palms and tropical flowers in the dead of winter. The Chicago climate cannot support such life, but for over 100 years these flora have grown in the middle of our city.
Our society is like a harsh Chicago climate, and is ill-suited for delicate, human-dignifying dialogue at present. For this to happen, we need to form micro-atmospheres—empathetic conservatories, if you will.
In social spaces, this oftentimes takes the form of questions.
“Can you tell me how this is affecting you?”
“What do you think I’m missing here?”
“Does my perspective on this mirror your own?”
We must be cautious here about two related threats: fragility and micro-aggression.
Fragility is that emotional flinch we experience upon recognizing error. It may be a matter of blame, but more often it is an ego-reflex. Culpable or no, admitting ignorance or misguidedness is unpleasant. If we lash out from this emotive epicenter, it will only compromise the the ground of empathy upon which constructive dialogue must rest.
The physiology of such sensitive exchanges is well known. Your brain actually ramps up its non-rational threat functionalities while, simultaneously, deactivating the rational and empathetic command centers—in tense conversations, we are actually prone to behave less like rational humans and more like instinctual animals. You can feel this happening, can’t you? It makes us prone to erratic, self-preservational modes. In these cases, it may be best to simply acknowledge this: e.g. “I’m not sure why, but this is throwing me a bit. Can I give further thought to what you’re saying and process this more before we continue this conversation? I want to be thinking clearly, because this is important.” Or it may mean simply taking some deep breaths. (Almost all our modern communications mediums lure us into folly in this regard.)
We avoid needed conversations because we dislike the way this feels, and because we know from experience that, when we are sitting across from someone who may be experiencing the same discomfort, things tend to deteriorate. All of this might be worth simply admitting at the onset of race dialogues.
The other threat is what has come to be known as micro-aggression. This idea is meant to address a spectrum of subtle discriminatory statements and careless, flippant attitudes toward their harm. This is a worthwhile effort. However, there is also much retaliatory behavior being done in the name of a redressing micro-aggression. In the area of race and racism, I fear this effectively severs lines of communication for those attempting to express curiosity and to learn.
What I’m saying is that if a white person is asking for help understanding race, racism, ethnicity, culture, national heritage and the like, they cannot be castigated or mocked in every attempt because they lack the vocabulary or frame of reference—not if dialogue and learning are the goal! There is an unavoidable clumsiness here that cannot be subjected to scornful derision. It is almost the same as ridiculing a non-native speaker for their accent or misuse of language. We need to differentiate between micro-aggression and well-meaning ineptitude. (“I know you’re not meaning this, but that term isn’t the most helpful…”) Social media rants desecrate such delicate encounters.
I’ll reiterate that we are trying to create safe-spaces, where correction and clumsiness alike can be offered and received in kindness and grace. Such spaces are almost unheard of. You would be performing a miracle worthy of sainthood to help realize such a thing!
GUIDEPOST 3: CONFRONT BIASES & STRUCTURES
Companies like Google are making concerted efforts to bring to light “unconscious biases” and this is supremely valuable. They address our flawed ways of “pattern mapping” and filling in unknown information through stereotyping or an overlay of our own experiences onto others. And while there are data that these aspects of corporate training aren’t effective, I agree with Joelle Emerson’s recent Harvard Business Review column that we cannot scrap them—we must make them better! We haven’t gotten them right, because they are hard to get right!
My own organization has been wading into these waters over the past few years. During one training exercise designed to help new staff understand their varying levels of privilege using specific indicators (not just racial privilege), it was revealed that there was a large spectrum represented. This was eye-opening, but also disquieting. Some were allowed to vividly see the high level of privilege out of which they were operating, and others were able to grapple with their own significant disadvantages. Some were moved to tears.
People from along the continuum were encouraged to interact over this. One woman sat down with a colleague of mine, who had ended up far down the scale. My colleague was visibly upset. The woman (who had landed far up the scale) said, “See, this is why I wish we didn’t talk about things like slavery and racism! It just makes people feel bad.”
We can roll our eyes at such a statement as betraying ignorance, but we should also see it as a reason why such initiatives are difficult; they challenge presuppositions that discomfort is a bad thing. (That may be the primary assumption privileged whites need disabusing of.) But we can’t set these initiatives aside. We must inculcate a value of awareness—jarring and discomfiting though it may be.
I mentioned Reni Eddo-Lodge’s article in The Guardian on structural racism during a recent post, she writes,
Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up one organisation, and acting accordingly. Structural racism is an impenetrably white workplace culture set by those people, where anyone who falls outside the culture must conform or face failure.
This seeps out in our social interactions, as well as our corporate and institutional ones. It may be behaviors or habits that fall out of what we (and others) consider to be normal, or an inability to recognize the constraints others are facing. Most non-whites feel these, and many can name them. Most whites do not; just as fish take no notice of water.
A failure to understand how our norms skew advantage and even inhabitability away from those different than us creates unconsciously discriminatory contexts. We need to welcome an array of leaders to the table of shaping and speaking to these cultures and biases, and, as members of the white dominant culture, we need to give validation to these efforts.
One thing I’ve been learning is that it isn’t best to ask, “Tell me how blacks/Asians/latinos/etc. think about this.” When we do so, we ask one person to speak for an entire ethnicity or race (already an awkward category). Such monolithic language is itself misleading and puts minorities in a challenging position as meta-spokespeople. Better to just invite them to the table, and let them shape things from their own personal perspective. They may point out facets that are biased or white-structured, or, at times, indicate how someone from their own background might better be served. More often, they’ll just offer angles that wouldn’t have otherwise been seen. And it would be important to err toward incorporating their counsel, which won’t always fit into existing paradigms.
Non-whites can play a prophetic role in predominantly white institutions of all types: meaning, they can speak to the unseen! This is extraordinary, but also perplexing. The very fact that they tell of things we wouldn’t have otherwise seen makes us prone to marginalize their voice. We must take pains not to do so.
GUIDEPOST 4: DISPLACE YOURSELF
In the effort to appreciate the perspective of those with dissimilar racial backgrounds, nothing can substitute for displacing ourselves into their context. I didn’t write “understand the perspective,” because what often happens is that we come to terms with how incomprehensible unfamiliar perspectives are! The question why will surface like bubbles in tonic. Most cultural training will address the distinction between different and wrong, and this is because cultures are what they are: a construct of values and behaviors any given group of people assume to be “right.” The multitude of cultures and sub-cultures constitute a panoply of varying norms.
The hope might be movement beyond the different-not-wrong realm toward a charitable appraisal of other cultures or even a utilization of another culture as a lens through which to evaluate your own.
This is why Mark Twain wrote,
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
Yet even if you come away suspecting that you could never live that way, worship that way, socialize that way, et al, it will have been worthwhile for you to have entered someone else’s native habitat. If you can bring yourself to a place of sympathy for how their community is forced to find their way in your ecosystem, it will have been a beginning.
This is what Drew G.I. Hart was referring to above. Make displacement a value; a habit even! Take others with you and work through the first 3 guideposts. I know of a seminary professor who studied under famed Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer. He teaches a class on apologetics (viz., “defending your faith”), and requires his students to read a book representing an opposing viewpoint. Their assignment is to write a review that is entirely non-critical; only commending the merits of the work.
Good displacement means being charitable, and preferring depth over superficiality. A dandruff shampoo ad once noted, “The tingle tells you it’s working!” The tingle of displacement is endearment and recognition; discovering merits hidden behind unfamiliarity and shortcomings embedded in the familiar. This is important for those from all races and cultures, it’s only that, in America, whites are privileged as to whether they’ll do so—at least for now!
GUIDEPOST 5: INTERVENE & ADVOCATE
There have been a few spectacular examples of intervention and advocacy in the national headlines lately, and also notable missed opportunities. Intervention and advocacy aren’t always dramatic or in the limelight, but they are always humanity at its best!
This has been my effort in writing these pieces, and I am still learning how to effectively do this in real time. Our daily settings present a dizzying array of dynamics, do they not? But we must find out instincts.
Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard educated lawyer, who has made it his life’s work to seek equality in the criminal justice system. He founded the organization Equal Justice Initiative, which is doing stunning advocacy work in many arenas. He was named by Fortune Magazine as one of the world’s greatest leaders. But you know what? There is also a Walmart assistant manager in Arkansas who, during a heated confrontation with a customer spewing racist epithets toward two other customers, not only calmly removed her from the store but had the presence of mind to reframe the narrative:
“This is not your country!”
“This is my country!” the latina customer replies.
“We don’t want you here,” the woman snarls.
The store manager intervenes, “That’s not true. You are wanted here!”
I’m not sure what readied this unassuming Walmart employee for this moment—whether training, upbringing, a compassionate disposition or some combination—but, irrespective, he offers us an exemplar.
Intervention and advocacy are the products of mentality. All things hard and right involve resolution, resolutions and resoluteness. This is actually an expression of Guidepost 1, but forged in the fires of conflict. Similarly to the physiological reactions described above, intervention can be beset by the muddling mental effects of interpersonal conflict.
Intervention and advocacy involve two critical value-analyses: (1) Which words, actions and behaviors demand confrontation, and (2) am I willing to accept the stakes? Whether the space is digital, professional, familial, ecclesiastical or randomly intersectional, there are stakes. On the Portland MAX train, the stakes were fatal. In Walmart, they were emotionally collateral. A recent social media exchange left me grappling with how to confront the harmful expression of a racially-rooted attitude without being harsh or demeaning; let alone airing something needlessly ugly. The result on my part was being un-friended. But on the flip side, what this person didn’t realize was that my non-white friends were aghast at his commentary—hurt and angered.
Pastor and author John Piper wrote a book for pastors, and each chapter is an framed by an exhortation. The exhortation of chapter 26 is: “Sever the Root of Racism.”
He frames both of my questions above through the lens of the gospel (i.e., the Christian message) and compels pastors to strongly address the issue of race.
The issue of racial prejudice and snubbing and suspicion and mistreatment is not a social issue; it is a blood-of-Jesus issue. When you get the conviction and courage to say something about it to your people, tell them you are not becoming a social-gospeler but a lover of the blood-bought blessing of the cross of Christ…
For some of you this might cost you your job. But perhaps you should risk it.
Advocacy and intervention always arise from moral impulses, and always involves risk! We must remember that risk is not recklessness. Philanthropic risk exists in the tension of doing right and doing well. But we must also keep in mind that risk prizes moral necessity above personal preservation or interpersonal placation.
In City of God, Augustine describes sin as a disordering of loves:
When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately… [XV:22]
Intervention and advocacy involve a right ordering of loves, and their morally necessary outworking.
As Irish statesman Edmund Burke observed,
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
GUIDEPOST 6: TURN THE TABLES
Jesus was the original table-turner, and he did so in the face of exploitation.
“It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.'”
What I mean by “turning tables” is upending the narrative; really rescuing it from being a misleading partial truth. Untruth is rarely bold-faced. What makes fallacy both pernicious and pervasive is its seemingly truthful ring. In the area of race, the “upending” is, in my conviction, the turning of tables from upside-down to right-side-up.
This is what Martin Luther King did so deftly in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” after southern clergy openly criticized the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham:
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.
I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
Throughout his letter, King brilliantly turns the tables on their scolding “Call for Unity” tsk for tsk.
This guidepost assumes movement in some of the previous 5 (in particular, 1-4). One must become more broadly acquainted with the spectrum of narratives and experiences in order to perceptively offer a more rounded, truthful version.
The point is that narratives, oftentimes critical and misguided, themselves represent race-based assumptions in need of constructive attention.
Wendell Berry comes to terms with this in his important book The Hidden Wound as he reflects on the vocabulary surrounding accounts of slave-ownership to which he was exposed as a child (specifically the notions of what made a “good” or “bad” slave):
I sense as I never have before the innate violence of the slave system, and the innate flaw of the slavery myth. For if there was any kindness in slavery it was dependent on the docility of the slaves; and slave who was unwilling to be a slave broke through the myth of paternalism and benevolence, and brought down on himself the violence inherent in the system.
Those critiquing slaves as being good or bad were actually unwittingly critiquing the evil of the system. I would offer my pieces on race, racism and privilege as introductory material for understanding both the history and present day narrative. Such skewed racial narratives mislead to this day.
When the religious establishment later confronted Jesus on his audacious table-turning episode, we see him turning the tables conceptually:
“Who gave you this authority?”
He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”
So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
This is brilliant, because it was they, not he, whose unjust behavior demanded accounting; their functional godlessness.
Racial biases are often riddled with glaringly flawed presuppositions. Table turning means bringing these into the light.
GUIDEPOST 7: SEEK TRUTH & RECONCILIATION
Our nation has a troubling feature in its history with race. Namely, that from the Civil War through the Civil Rights movement and since, ground has been yielded begrudgingly.
The racially abhorrent Apartheid system endured in South Africa until 1994. It was finally dislodged by internal efforts and external pressures. In May of that year, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president.
What happened next is something our nation could have sorely benefitted from. It was called “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (an idea that has also been applied elsewhere in the wake of the dissolution of oppressive regimes and institutions).
One of its organizers, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu said,
Forgiving is not forgetting; its actually remembering—remembering and not using your right to hit back. Its a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you dont want to repeat what happened.
The TRC involved aspects of investigating of abuses, victim accounts, offers of amnesty and measures of reparation. The thrust was to construct “an impartial historical record,” to promote national healing and to counteract widespread reprisals. It lasted 7 years.
It was a formalized effort toward national reckoning and lament. Mandela’s presidential predecessor FW de Klerk repeatedly acknowledge his own part:
I apologise in my capacity as leader of the [National Party] to the millions who suffered wrenching disruption of forced removals; who suffered the shame of being arrested for pass law offences; who over the decades suffered the indignities and humiliation of racial discrimination.
They even changed their flag to represent a new, inclusive era. Did TRC resolve the ills of South Africa? No. Did it end racism there? Again, no. But it was a cathartic and important right of passage for a country with such a heinous racial history.
Nelson Mandela brought dignity to what turned out to be an excruciating process,
If the pain has often been unbearable and the revelations shocking to all of us, it is because they indeed bring us the beginnings of a common understanding of what happened and a steady restoration of the nation’s humanity.
There is no pain-free path to the restoration of any nation’s humanity.
Our national extraction from racism has been at best lurching; laws, institutions, communities and individuals have come haltingly to recognition, acknowledgement and action. We have lacked prominent moments of penitence, and thus prominent occasions for truth and for reconciliation.
Post-racial America can be nothing more than a mirage; birthed of a desperate delusion that racism might be painlessly put behind us; that its historical and ongoing harms might be dispelled as a bad dream. This was the sentiment expressed to my colleague during the privilege-awareness exercise: “Why linger on the pain?”
But we must linger on the truth. Pain is only truth—the nerve-system of our American corpus alerting us we are not yet well. As with any illness, we ignore its signals to our peril. Not only the pains, but the self-diagnosing symptoms of this ongoing disease are innumerable; the historical record harrowingly vivid. I’ve written at some length on all this.
My generation was indoctrinated into the post-racial mythology, and not just whites but all. We called it “color blindness” and it sounded sublime. But it was a bandage on a gangrenous wound; partially concealing, but impeding real healing. I mentioned it in a previous post that America cannot ever be truly post-racial. Racial ideology is among the chief architects of our nation and, as such, its infrastructures and design-intents may never be fully resolved. Post-racial America may be an oxymoron, but a racially redeemed America may be a worthy undertaking.
Truth and reconciliation must go hand and hand. Real reconciliation can never happen apart from truthful reckoning. I mentioned above the importance of our bases. Reconciliation places the basis of human concern above all others, be they politics, pride, personal preservation or the like. Nothing kinks the hose of empathy like defensiveness in all its forms.
Seeking truth and reconciliation means not minimizing pain, listening simply to understand, grieving others grief and, yes, owning up to our complicitness. I must say here that the onus rests on primarily on white communities. Race has visited its harms in our nation upon non-whites like an apocalyptic plague. If the least whites can do is come to terms with this, and learn to lament, it will be a quantum leap.
I harbor no real illusions about a sweeping moral awakening in our nation, nor grandiose aspirations for these writings. But I know for certain that those with alacrity and resolve tend to wield more power than they might accredit to themselves; that ability is less important than availability!
I invite you, yes you, along with me on this pilgrimage. I prefer the word pilgrimage to “journey” because it is imbued with the sacred. I hold the belief that humans bear the image of the Creator—imago dei—ergo, dehumanization is akin to idolatry. Racism is idolatry. Yet, on this pilgrimage of race we are offered endless sacred tasks in which we may play a role in, to borrow Mandela’s phrase, restoring humanity. In accepting our part, small or great, in this endeavor, we shall be restoring the imago dei in others and in ourselves.
If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you. It may indicate that you are indeed a fellow pilgrim, and I would welcome your voice and companionship. I wonder if any settings in your life came to mind as you read? Many came to my mind as I wrote. Put pencil to paper, or, better yet, pen. Inquire of yourself, “What is my role to play?” and “What steps are there in front of me?”
As I’ve been finishing this series, I’ve felt slightly out of steam. Today I bumped into a precious black friend, and she blessed me.
“What you’ve been writing has been a highlight to me,” she said. “I keep telling my friends how amazing it is to be understood. Thank you.”
I’m tearing up as I remember that. I’m not sure why. But don’t we all hunger to be understood? Why would I deprive such an incredible young woman of this dignifying gift? What a thing to play a part in!
I returned home re-invigorated to finish: There’s work to be done.