Today, as you know is the celebration of Juneteenth. My CEO gave every one the day off, but encouraged us to use it to learn, educate, reflect, and most importantly take action.
Since the death of George Floyd, I’ve struggle with the best way to publicly engage in this work. As a white man, I’ve contributed to the systems that have perpetuated black oppression, and the oppression of all of people of color for that matter. Beyond that, I’m working through a bit of a white savior complex, which has made me take pause, and really be careful how I chose to engage in this work, especially in this moment in time.
My first reflex when I saw the news of George Floyd and the ensuing social activism was to take to social media, and make sure that everyone knew how I felt, that Black Lives Matter and that I stand with and for Black lives and all People of Color. To double down on my commitment to support my LGTBQ neighbors during Pride month.
But I resisted that urge, I resisted the urge to clarify with everyone where I stood so I could get my “woke” badge, resisted sharing my opinion assuming that my hot take on this current moment in history is somehow helpful.
And for the first time in a long time when it came to social justice, I assumed that I didn’t have the best answer, and I really stopped and listened. I absorbed, I learned, I leaned in to the voices that were saying the hard truths I needed to hear, and I did some internal work. I pushed through that reflex-like white fragility hiding just beneath my seemingly thick skin, and let some really uncomfortable realities wash over me.
On the other hand, to paraphrase Dr. King, there comes a time when silence is complicity. And so I don’t want to remain silent forever, but I also don’t want to assume that my voice is somehow extra-relevant, or needed, or important.
Rather, I want to offer a small snapshot from my reflections over the last few years and months. Some thoughts from doing that work of owning my place in society, how I got to where I am, and really, how we all got to where we are.
Before I break open this top 3 list, I think the most important thing I could say now, is that people like me (I’ll leave that for to decide where you fit in that metric) need to listen and respond more than ever.
And there is no shortage of means to educate yourself, if you’re willing to do the work, and not fall prey to the knee-jerk white fragility that for years, kept me from being my best self, and my best neighbor.
Top 3 Lies I Believed About Racism
- Being racists is about how I “feel” towards people of color.
This idea for me was a huge barrier to growth. I grew up in the hyper evangelical/conservative Christian movement that emphasized, above all else, the current state of one’s eternal soul.
Saved or not. In or out.
I lived most of my childhood toggling between an inexplicable conundrum: that I was totally covered by Jesus’ grace on one hand, and that I could slip up and be eternally damned at any moment, like if I didn’t get the prayer at the end of the day right, or thought a “bad” thought, or treated someone unkindly. Or maybe I’d still be saved, but God would be disappointed and I would start losing “favor.”
So much of my life for so long has been about this ego-based reflection of my “soul” against an amorphous set of principles, that in retrospect, were in large part white, heteronormative culture cues. So long as I didn’t stray too far, I’d be good.
Being racists would fall into the category of hating someone, so there was no way that I was a racist. “You don’t know me!” I’d think (ironic, right?)
It wasn’t until college where I became very close (for the first time, and this was the major issue in my life thus far) with People of Color. It was in those friendships where I learned I was racist. Not because I hated people who were different (I was actually exceptionally tolerant considering my faith background) but because I was ignorant of the history, the systems, and my contribution toward the systems that kept people oppressed and marginalized if they weren’t like me.
The fact that I couldn’t see that life was different for my Black, Immigrant, Muslim, and even LGBTQ friends is my biggest point of transformation, and my largest contribution to systems of oppression.
2. People (social activists) shouldn’t be angry, anger is a negative emotion.
This was another social cue that carried on much further into my evolution that I care to admit. It wasn’t until two of my Black friends broke through my “niceness” gene and connected me to the historic, vibrant, alive, prophetic, and creative energy of anger as a response to systemic oppression that I understood what to do with it.
I had been socialized and educated to see anything other than what I call, “southern niceness,” as unacceptable. The classic, “can’t we all just get along,” sentiment. Ignorance really.
Part of my education was realizing that, the fact that I didn’t like the anger of Indigenous People, Black People, LGTBQ folk, was primarily because I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand it, because it didn’t effect me.
In short, “don’t bother with me that, because I don’t understand it and it doesn’t effect me and makes me uncomfortable.”
My ignorance, my silence, meant that I was hating my neighbor, while preaching to others that we should all love our neighbor as ourselves.
Because love meant that I didn’t carry hostility toward others, because I don’t see color, right? (As an aside, this is a great time to recommend to anyone James Baldwin’s article Letter From a Region in my Mind.)
Learning to see color, not as a means of oppression, but as a tool of awareness, of education, and understanding, was a skill that transformed my lens to life.
Suddenly, I was angry too.
3. Racism is a problem that belongs to the Black Community
This final piece of ignorance is potentially the most destructive. I was raised on the idea, again, that racism was really about people hating others, and the primary solution was that we all just needed Jesus, and to come together under that united banner.
I was conditioned to believe that peace and harmony would only be found when every one accepts Jesus, well at least the Jesus that ordered and demanded allegiance to my particular faith dogma.
In retrospect, these beliefs predicated that racism would be fixed when extreme, violent white people stopped hating People of Color, and when, and this is the hardest line to write, when People of Color started acting and believing like me.
In short, racism would go away when everyone started acted white. Oof.
Now I read this line and cringe while cry-laughing uncomfortably really hoping this was someone else’s life, but back then, I couldn’t see beyond my own nose.
When I realized that 1) there was such a thing as white culture, 2) that this culture consumed and appropriated everything in its path mercilessly, and 3) my particular flavor of theology was tyrannically adept at perpetuating this destruction, I broke.
I was a capital “R” Racist.
And so now, I’m trying out this measured, quiet deconstruction. Not one where I get in online fights with far-right trolls to assuage my conscience (tried that), not one where I scream at the world that I’m changed now so my fragile ego gets stroked (tried that too), but hopefully one where I just do the damn work.
And every now again, on a day like Juneteenth where I’ve been given time to reflect, I can break into strategic discourse and offer up a small part of my journey. Because maybe you’re struggling with your fragility or ignorance, maybe you wonder if you’re racist, or maybe I personally offended you with my past ignorance, and here I can say truly, I’m sorry.
Whatever the case, I hope that these words somehow soothe a wound, inspire change, and meet you where you read this today.