“How could someone film that video and not step in and do anything about it?”
“How did all this start?”
“That’s terrible. Everyone is from the same species, mom. It doesn’t matter what your skin color is.”
“This land we live in wasn’t even ours to begin with, was it mom? And we took it be force...”
It’s really hard to tell your kids the truth about their heritage.
I always wondered what it would be like to be the child of a murderer.
Now the truth hits: I already know.
When I contemplated how I wanted to share with my kids the uproar that was happening in response to the murder of George Floyd, I thought, well, “I need to reassure them that most police officers are good; I don’t want them to be afraid.”
And then it hit me harder’n that danged proverbial freight train: if my skin was another color, I wouldn’t have the option of reassuring my kids, “Most cops are good.”
I’d tell my kids to be careful, to be respectful, to stay out of the way of the men in blue.
As I have so often in recent months, I found myself staring directly into the hardened eyes of my own privilege...
...and then seeing I was still perched in that ol’ apathy-chair I’d already been lounging in for so long.
Because, cops murdering black folks in cold blood?
This is nothing new.
How many similar stories have been in my news feed over the past years?
Lots. Too many.
And I should have cared then, when the first video aired, when the first article was penned, when the first person of color cried out.
Hell, I shouldn’t have needed any nudging; I could have just paid attention to what was taking place around me.
Recently, I am scared of my own hypocrisy.
Do I only care about racism because of all the protests happening across the country? Is my only concern that I will “miss out” on taking a loud stance right now, when everyone else is?
Those are REALLY not the things I should be concerned about.
This is my time to face the realities of racism.
It’s time to listen to stories, to comprehend what it feels like to be racially profiled and abused.
To ask, “How can I help?” and “What can I do?”
And indeed, this has been going on for years...why has nothing changed?
Let’s not make celebrities out of those who suffer.
Let’s humble ourselves, tune our ears to this channel we're unaccustomed to listening to.
Author and political science professor Nicholas Buccola takes issue with white people’s attitudes in embracing being “liberal” or “against racism”.
He explains that so often we white folks will deal with people of color as a symbol while refusing to see them as fellow human beings.
He goes on to warn that the gap between seeing someone as a symbol and perceiving them as a threat is small.
Buccola writes about a letter author James Baldwin shared with his nephew.
In the letter, Baldwin urged his nephew to do this with white people:
The really terrible thing is that you must accept them. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.
Sit with that a while.
Have you ever learned something about a person you trusted that changed the way you saw them? Like, you learned they carried a dark and horrible secret, or had done something really heinous?
When I was a youth, there was a gentleman many of us looked up to. In fact, when we went on school outings, we would sometimes spend the night at his house.
Then one day, it came to light that this man was actually not the spiritual hero he (and we) had taken him to be. Instead, he was an evil predator: for years, he had been abusing young boys under the guise of “missionary”.
I remember feeling like the world I knew was shattering.
And indeed it was.
My reality assumed this man was good, a spiritual leader, a worthy mentor; since that wasn’t true, what else wasn’t?
As I have grown older and faced similar revelations, I have learned that it is okay to have your perceptions of the world fractured for the sake of truth.
The horrible disorientation you initially feel is the gateway to true freedom.
This is the parallel I drew as I read Baldwin’s letter.
Maybe you are more enlightened than me, and I hope you are. But in my universe, racism really wasn’t that big of a problem anymore, and I lived in a relatively just and equitable society.
Now, I am seeing that is so very far from the truth.
I’m facing the times I’ve behaved insensitively and unjustly.
I’m examining the places where my thinking is fucked up.
Baldwin continues talking about us white folks:
Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
And I say, let the universe shatter. It’s worth it. You are worth it. He is worth it; so is she; so are they.
As I’ve engaged in self-examination, I’ve drawn a few conclusions about why it’s so fucking hard for me to listen.
Who knows? Maybe some of these apply to you too.
1) Spending all of my time in one “camp”; hearing only one perspective.
For example, I used to think that all Christians believed in a literal seven-day creation. As I wrestled with the impossibility of all of the Genesis account being literal, I believed I was a lone questioner. I wondered if I could even still be a Christian. Once I opened up and stepped out of my smaller circle of church goers, I found that in truth most Christians did not believe in a literal Genesis account and that in fact those who did were part of a relatively new sect of Christianity, historically speaking. Learning that there were more viewpoints than just one set me free...
2) Community and friendship are so important. Sadly, I have found it to be true that close circles of friends have a tendency to develop their own sets of unspoken rules.
What does this mean for you, a member of said community? Well, once you step outside of the rule-defined boundaries, you are “out” of the group. And, sometimes, thinking for yourself, changing your mind, involves going against the rules of your given community. In order to think for yourself, or change your mind about something, you have to be willing to face rejection. Are you willing to do that, for the sake of those whose voices are not being heard? Am I?
3) Black and white, either-or thinking.
Richard Rohr calls it “dualistic thinking”. There are certain issues which cannot be understood in an either-or sort of way. Mystery is one example; so is grace. When we are dealing with systemic racism, and when we are hearing folks cry out for justice, in order to stay in our “camp”, we often try to label “sides” and then call them either good or bad.
Here are some examples:
We fear change. We like sameness; the status quo. The antidote? Imagine life without the privilege you have. As you listen to stories, imagine yourself in the position of crying out for justice and never receiving it, knowing your voice will be ignored or belittled. Imagine the frustration and helplessness.
5) Believing we aren’t responsible, that racism is not our problem.
“Well, racism isn’t my fault. I love all people.” I think it’s becoming pretty clear that systemic racism exists, my friends. As James Baldwin put it, “I didn’t do it either. But I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it too, for the very same reason.”
So where do we start, with the listening?
Here are a few places:
After we listen, we cannot be afraid. We must act.
In Baldwin’s words, “Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger.”
Here are a few ideas: