White silence

I was recently at a major institution in my denomination, and the national headquarters of an evangelical Christian non profit. white-silenceAt both places, people of color were talking about the fact that when they passed white people, most of us were silent. They felt effaced by our silence. Their very existence was ignored. I feel pretty sad about that, because these are our brothers and sisters and neighbors.

So when I find myself inclined to being a silent introvert, I remember: Jesus was really clear that if we can’t love each other, we can’t pretend we love God. Making conversation is really not that hard, and it’s fun to find commonalities and make connections.

But we white people of good intentions are also often silent online. Now I recently read a stinging analysis of white anxiety and hate politics, and it was hard work to respond.

But we are also silent around tragedies.

Why are white people silent around racial trauma?

We read the news. We know black men are incarcerated. Black boys are being shot. Black women are underpaid and overworked. We know more Black and Latino people experience food insecurity, inequity in housing, education and employment.

I think we are silent because, we care…. We are silent because we do care, and we don’t want to say the wrong thing. Maybe I’m saying, we care but we are incompetent? We need a racial education. We need to build skills for cross-cultural and interracial conversations. If we can talk to people of color about other topics, we can express our concern and stand up for the right thing when it is needed.

We care, but we are ashamed.

Sarah Shin first pointed this out to me. Doug and I talked in our book about white guilt. Sarah’s critique was that really we have a bigger problem with white shame. If we feel guilty that we have done something wrong, then the solution is fairly clear – we can make amends and do our best to set the situation straight, and we can ask forgiveness, to begin the process of reconciliation. But guilt and shame are different. When we feel ashamed, we don’t want anyone to know. We hide from ourselves and others. Shame freezes us. To the extent that white people are aware of our privilege, we know we are complicit in systems of racial inequity.

Can you relate to that? Do you ever feel ashamed of being white? This is particularly challenging when other people perceive we need an education and try to educate us about race, justice and our complicity.

It seems to me a lot of our attempts to educate others about race come with urgency – it is urgent – and with anger -and they may heap on more shame. I have to admit I do that. I recognize myself. My son is black and he goes to college in northern Wisconsin where it’s mostly white. Sometimes when he leaves home, I feel afraid that he’ll have another “driving while black” incident. The last time I told some of my church folks about my fear and my prayers for his life and safety, they were not able to listen to me, or say anything. They froze. And I confess I felt angry. So I’m still trying to learn to talk about race in a committed way, but with a great deal of compassion for each person. Every person is a beloved child of God, and has the capacity for great goodness.

I’m coming to believe, what we need is empathy. Gentleness with our own growth process. And let us not forget, empathy for the violence that people of color face daily. We are growing, slowly; they are dying.

If you identify with any of what I’ve written, next time you witness racial violence or trauma, would you consider saying or writing something like “I care, I feel (….sad, or angry, or confused about why this still happens, or whatever your true feeling is), and I’m not sure what to say or do.”

You will be inviting an education. (That may come with kindness or it may come with some strong feelings.) But when people educate us, it is an opportunity to learn about the real situation for people of other races. And you may need to face your shame. Because ultimately, growing our empathy is important enough to lay aside our shame.

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Talking about racism, gently (part one)

Doug and I intend to approach this urgent topic with grace and gentleness, because we value mutual respect, and treating every person with dignity. Talking about racism is difficult because people have profoundly different experiences around race and so often, we mean different things when we use the word “racism.”

When we say “racism,” often white people mean racial bias, or prejudice which I have considered and acted upon: mean things I as an individual either said, or did against people of color. That’s why we often think or say, “but I’m not a racist.” We’re thinking of ourselves as individual agents. This idea can be extended to groups: think of fraternities singing racially offensive songs, sororities throwing “black face” parties, or uncles telling ugly racist jokes. If we reject those activities, we think we are not racist.

But actually racial bias runs deeper than conscious choice. Figuring out if I am this kind of racist is pretty easy: spend a few minutes taking Harvard Project Implicit tests on line and they’ll reveal our biases. After doing this, spend some weeks noticing my interactions, my thoughts, when I meet people of different races and genders. What are my assumptions?

Thinking about racism as acts of race prejudice ignores the presence of power and privilege. Wonder if you have privilege because of your race, or want to understand it? Take Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” or watch her TEDx talk “How studying privilege systems can strengthen compassion”.  But racism operates not only on an individual level, it’s also external, and institutional.

When white people came to this country, many of our families were given land – land taken from Native Americans and Latinos. I went to high school in Texas and learned a historical narrative about the brave settlers (some of whom were my family members). In graduate school, I went across the border and visited a Mexican museum where I learned the other side of the story: about massacres, and systemic displacement. I looked at historical maps showing Mexican territory extending across most of modern Texas, the southwest and California (circa 1820-1840.)    More than a century later, white veterans (yes, my uncles) got help with more education and a mortgage (through the G.I. bill), while Japanese Americans had their property systematically taken from them (look into Japanese internment). Sure, slavery is over, and the Chinese exclusion act overturned, but neither African Americans nor Chinese people received any financial or educational compensation for these systematic evils. These are only a few of the institutional and structural expressions of racism.

The systems which were historically created are now held together by simple structural arrangements System_of_Inequity_Graphic_624_450_90_c1_172_172_85_s_c1_smart_scalelike property taxes: our schools and their quality reflect the property values of our neighborhoods. Instead of slavery and Jim Crow laws, we now have the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration.

So these days when I hear the word “racism” I translate “a system of racial inequity.” The clearest way to understand this is the spiral from World Trust “The system of racial inequity has internal and external components, as well as institutional and systematic. It’s held together by money and power and embedded in history, culture and identity.”