Over the last couple of weeks, I have become increasingly hopeful and increasingly baffled. I’ll start with the baffled. Over the years, I would talk with my White friends about racial challenges I had heard or knew about personally.
Despite monitoring how much I shared, sometimes a friend would comment on how much I talked about race. So like millions of Black people all over the country, I was fairly open with my White friends, but not nearly as frequently as with my Black friends. With Black friends, it is rare to get through a conversation in which someone does not bring up race.
I’ve been fortunate. Because of my type of work, most of my White friends are sophisticated enough to understand systemic racism. They understand voter suppression, unequal access to health resources, the school to prison pipeline, unequal educational opportunities. They had heard my personal stories and other stories from people of color. So I thought they “got it.”
In hindsight, I realize that monitoring what I shared was a clue that I knew they really didn’t.
Then George Floyd’s agonizing, slow death shook up the nation. And suddenly, White friends whom I thought “got it” were telling me that they were seeing with new eyes. By reading Facebook posts and seeing the news on TV, I became aware I was witnessing a sea change in how Whites, some of my friends included, were understanding the daily lives of Blacks.
With some friends, I have been blown away. I thought they knew already. They are my friends. I thought they knew. The social scientist in me wanted to understand it as a phenomenon. What do they know that they didn’t know before?
What also happened was I was beginning to feel a level of hope I hadn’t felt since the 1960s.
What deeper awareness were they describing? Here are two examples:
Carole: America was founded on racism, prospered on racism, and supports racism. I knew these things. I have always known and have always objected. I was pleased with myself for being on the right side and thought it was enough. I was wrong. I didn’t want to feel the pain and had the luxury of being able to look away. The monstrosity of George Floyd’s public murder forced me not only to see but to feel the pain, which forced me to feel the pain of years of murders and silence and complicity. I cannot unsee or unfeel, nor do I want to go back to living an unjust life. I knew it before. What’s different is that this time I let it in.
Amy: What I perceived to be me moving towards solutions and making progress, my Black friends felt was me being dismissive of their experience and unwilling to hear their truth.
My Black friends were right. I did not really want to hear their truth, I, quite arrogantly, figured I knew enough about racism in order to move towards solutions.
When I think back to those moments… I remember feeling like a dark wave was growing inside of my body. Like my devastation, grief, and guilt would take over, and like I might never come back. I remember feeling as though it was not necessary for me to feel so bad in order for me to be an effective change agent in the world.
As a White person of privilege, I was accustomed to feeling good. I felt good so often that I had not learned the value of experiencing negative emotion.
And Friends, - I BOUGHT INTO THE LIE OF MY OWN FRAGILITY.
I sincerely thought that if I felt the shame and devastation that I would feel while learning of racism in America, that I would never be motivated to take action. That I would get burned out and never come back.
But I am not that fragile.
There is no conversation I am not willing to have, no emotion I am not willing to feel, in order to bring more Truth, Love, and Equity to a situation.
To be honest, I’m still somewhat stunned as I write this. I’ve spent my life on issues of inequality and social justice. I’ve known Amy and Carole and others for decades. How could they not have known, and how could I not have known that they didn’t know?
Then last week, Rev. Karen Tudor wrote a Facebook post that moved me to write this blog. Her realization came four years ago. Her words moved me to tears.
“Waking up” isn’t really just a night/day snap to a new awareness. It is actually a process that has been going on at the edge of awareness for some time. Indeed, there can be sentinel events that have memorable and lasting impacts, that trouble us, that while we still don’t know what is ours to do, we can’t unknow or unfeel. And yet we continued on in status quo, waiting for something else.
And then for me…[another] shooting happened. And I cried…And then [another shooting]… For how long have I been seeing these kinds of events and being content with just figuring out my own answers to those questions before moving on with my day!? I was bewildered and saddened and suddenly, I had had too much of blood in the street. Like a movie reel spinning images backward in time, my mind that had subliminally or momentarily noted deaths by police, began running the load of death I had been willing to tolerate, momentarily saddened by, but trusting that justice would out - and I had gone on with my life, because I didn’t know what else to do.
And then, in the summer of 2016, at a silent retreat here in Houston, after the Dallas shooting had happened, my heart was broken open. And suddenly, I had skin in the game. I began to ask myself questions I hadn’t asked before… How much death and inequality and all the everyday injustices that I knew were happening can I tolerate?? How much longer can I live on the backs of others?...
And then I knew.
I have power. I have privilege. I am a citizen of a country that is sick and dysfunctional and built on fallacy and racism and inequality in every single system and law and institution and policy. Because it is written from the perspective of White people who feared losing power almost as much as they feared the righteous anger of truly freed people of color.
And my ministry and any power I have or authority I have been given MUST be dedicated to speaking out about this. Not because it is “us vs them” and I am choosing sides. But because it is affecting ALL of us and disempowering even the privileged White people to remain as sheep and stay asleep and untroubled lest they upset the apple cart and rouse the sleeping giant of our conscience, at long last.
It’s time everything changes. We cannot stop until every bit of it is coherent with the principles we say we live by.
I dedicate the remainder of my life to this focus. Because I have skin in the game. I cannot look away. I will not go back to sleep.
And so there it is. Unequivocal commitment to “the principles we say we live by.” Karen’s words felt like an answered prayer.
For the last year or two, my Black friends all over the country felt something boiling underneath.
We work in organizations where Black professionals feel ignored and underutilized. We have family members sent to prisons for crimes for which Whites receive lighter sentences.
We have friends who make no connection between the festering trauma in the country and who they vote for, yet we say nothing.
We listen to friends and colleagues discuss racially charged situations in a way that we know they do not know, do not feel, yet we cannot tell them so because they won’t believe us; they will think we are just self-interested or too sensitive. We value the friendship, so we stay silent.
We also understand how people change, and we know that telling people off will just drive them underground or away. So we do our work in other arenas, leaving our friends to their beliefs, and valuing them for their own sakes.
For over a year, Karen and another White friend3 have been telling me that White people’s hearts need to be broken open before change would occur. I would ask, “Really? Who will be up for that? We have to come up with another solution.”
Then George Floyd was casually murdered in plain view, after a string of similar murders. And something finally cracked through. Hearts were broken.
In Carole’s words, “I cannot unsee or unfeel, nor do I want to go back to living an unjust life.” In Amy’s words, “I sincerely thought that if I felt the shame and devastation that I would feel while learning of racism in America, that I would never be motivated to take action. That I would get burned out and never come back. But I am not that fragile.”
So now I have a stronger sense of what has happened. My friends understood intellectually, but they had not *felt* it. They had not “let it in.” They thought they “knew enough racism to move toward solutions,” yet a critical step had to occur first. Their “hearts had to be broken open.” Now that this has happened – to them and untold numbers around the country – they are no longer willing to overlook what is happening.
That’s why Karen’s post was so moving. I felt heard in a deeper way than before. After reading Karen’s post, I sent her a note saying, “I didn’t know how much I needed you to exist until I discovered that you do.” I meant this not just for her – but for the thousands and maybe millions who are reassessing their complicity in systemic oppression, who are taking to the streets in protest, who are agitating in their organizations for greater inclusion, who are organizing against voter suppression, who want this country to live up to its ideals.
White privilege allows people to overlook injustice, not allowing themselves to feel it. It is insidious because it diminishes a person’s humanity. If we don’t think we have the stamina to bear witness to another person’s pain, we reduce our humanity. As Amy says, there is value to feeling negative emotions and not buying into the lie of your fragility.
At the beginning of this post, I said I was more hopeful now. I tend toward optimism, but this level of hope is a strange feeling for me. I didn’t have this much hope even when Obama was elected in 2008. The hope I feel is that some White people’s hearts have broken open. They know this is their work to do. They are willing to bear the discomfort. They can reach their relatives and friends and work colleagues in a way that people of color cannot.
My hope comes from realizing how lonely I have sometimes felt in predominantly White settings. Carole, Amy, and Karen are not saying racial injustice is now a place they visit to help out. As Karen said, they now have skin in the game. They have joined me and others in this arena. All over the country, I see this happening. We are becoming a multitude. I am grateful and hopeful.
Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:
#WhitePeoplesWork #BetheChange #BridgingDifferences #ChangeStartsWithMe