“The objective reality is that virtually no one who is white understands the challenge of being black in America.”
These past two weeks. Have left me with a dry mouth, unable to form words. I wanted to be able to say more but the letters on the screen all blurred together.
The death of George Floyd was but one in a long line of wake-up calls about racial disparity, but it’s a loud one.
But this dares me to have hope: that we might all agree there is a problem. And when we do, our call is to stay focused on addressing this problem amidst all the distracting reactions and counter-reactions.
“How did I miss this?”
To move forward, though, we must move past fear. This is the fear that paralyzes my vocal chords – afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid to sound like I know it all and afraid to admit I don’t. I’m a White-skinned writer with limited experience – how could I possibly get it all right? But hearing humility from others, from leaders in many sectors, gives courage to my voice.
My company’s CEO was tearful as he told us “Words are necessary but not sufficient”. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes (oh how to narrow it down), “It’s humbling to find out you’re a novice when you fancied yourself already educated.” …. The Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech (where I currently take online classes) wrote a beautiful and surprisingly personal letter to students of how he is not Ally-enough, feeling both “horrified and unworthy”. ¹ A beloved pastor in town repeatedly saying, “How could I have not known this before?” while hosting a panel of People of Color last year.
It’s a question I have had to ask my Straight White Male self a lot.
These confessions open up a space inside to go further. In that space lives the voice of Grace that, seeing my late arrival to the funeral, welcomes me in anyway. And from the back row I can slowly wake-up and move forward: more listening, more watching, more, “How did I miss this?”.
Floyd’s death was a wake-up call. And it’s moving to hear so many waking up.
(I’m about to use the term White People – and there is a lot going into that word. One poetic and thoughtful place to unpack that is Dear White People by Bayo Akomolafe. Another is Nancy Rust Myers 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness.)
We’ve lost so much time – among those of us clumped into the group called White People – ignoring or at best debating whether there actually was still a problem with inequality or racism in America.
There is a real problem here – and the more people who agree at least on that, the sooner we can move to real solutions. As I’m so late to discover, the problem has been long and acutely understood by People of Color.
Understanding, Owning, and Change
None of this is about White Guilt. Writes Bolz-Weber: “White guilt leads to me try and figure out how to relieve my white guilt and once again it’s all about me. So let’s let white guilt go. It doesn’t work. It only keeps us silent and immobile.”
It’s not about guilt.
Instead, it’s about first: understanding, second: owning, and third: change.
The first is captured so precisely in this quote from Republican leader Newt Gingrich in the Netflix film 13th: “The objective reality is that virtually no one who is white understands the challenge of being black in America.”
The same film guides us into the second, owning (and not denying) where we came from: “History is not just stuff that happens by accident. We are the products of the history our ancestors chose [pause, take a breath], if we’re white. If we are black, we are products of the history that our ancestors most likely did not choose. Yet here we all are together, the products of that set of choices. And we have to understand that in order to escape from it.” — Kevin Gannon, History Professor at Grandview University, emphasis mine.
The third calls on all of us: This is not a problem to be solved by People of Color while White People sit by saying, well good luck with that.
We cannot sit back thinking Dr. Martin Luther King already solved it all ( as I grew up thinking ), because we’re living in between the Already and the Not Yet. As Christians would say about the notion of sin, Jesus already solved the problem, and yet are still awaiting the day when it will be ultimate. In the same way, Americans are living as if we were inside a cardboard box labeled “Peace” that was Already sent but Not Yet arrived.
“But it’s already sent,” I say from my comfortable couch, instead of going out to insure its delivery.
It seems this wake-up moment finds millions more clicking on the Peace Package’s UPS tracking number and furiously dialing the customer service center.
The preamble to the US Constitution paired these two goals: “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility…” The two go together. If we want domestic tranquility, we must Establish Justice. And need I add, “justice for all”.
To find the change, we need to stay focused. My goal is not to get so distracted by the news of the day that I forget the news of the centuries.
To understand this, think of Colin Kapernick’s taking-a-knee during the Star Spangled banner. How much did the responding conversation talk about whether we should take a knee during the National Anthem, whether it was patriotic, whether he lost his quarterback spot because of it? Distraction. Instead we could have been talking about the conditions he saw that led to him taking the knee.
Today there is a lot to talk about: protesters in the streets by day, looters by night – are they local? Organized? Opportunistic? There are scape goaters and scape goats. Voices calling out to dominate, to unite, to vote, to calm and soothe. There is pent-up frustration from quarantine and evidence of its acute, disproportionate effects.
Exasperation on all sides.
Remember, all of these things will come and go – the virus will be vaccinated, the looters will lull, the president will put out to pasture, as all presidents are.
But the deep and long running inequalities have been there all along and will remain unless change occurs. And people of a White color must be a part, if not all, of that solution.
I suspect many of you identify with my wordless heart, feeling your tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth. ²
Keep reading, keep listening, watching, and marching. If the first step is understanding, the second – owning – is mostly admitting we don’t understand. Which can lead back to the first step.
That cycle of learning could take a lifetime, but can only matter if we move into the third step of change. I’m trying to find my footsteps forward. Lose the fear. Find the words. Track down that UPS Peace Box and make sure it is delivered.
♦ weekendswell ♦
Footnotes and next steps
Read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastoral Letter, which provides a ton of resources. And this suggestion: “When something happens in our world and you have a different reaction to it than Black, Indigenous and People of Color, have some curiosity about why that is.”
Watch the Netflix film 13th. One thing it accomplishes (among many) is snapping the bits and pieces of 150 years of history into a single timeline – how one thing led to another led to another led to where we are today.
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Featured Artwork “Moving Day” by Norman Rockwell. Says the Norman Rockwell Museum, “Moving Day depicts the integration of Chicago’s Park Forest suburban community. The children examine each other with curiosity and it appears likely that they will soon be friends. However, the face appearing from behind a window curtain make us wonder how the adults will react.”
¹quite apart from the meaningful quotes above, there’s also a corporate communication channel where everyone has always stood for equality. My personal favorite: Sleep Number beds tried to connect to the social moment by writing that they were “built on individuality”. (Which when you think about it more exemplary of the problem – everyone to their own sleep number, not having to accommodate each other)
²See Psalm 22:15