Culture & Race

Where to start when you’re afraid to talk about race

It’s been another turbulent week for racial headlines in the US: yet another incident of police brutality toward black women at a swimming pool, NAACP President Rachel Dolezal is outed as a white person, and 9 African-Americans were shot and killed at a historic black church in Charleston.

Lord, have mercy. It’s only Thursday.

I’ve followed quite a few conversations on these topics and the general reaction (in addition to some shockingly racist comments) is dismay, shock, and sadness. As I’ve listened, I’ve also heard a sentiment from white people of not knowing exactly what to say or do. Blogger Jamie Wright pins down what I suspect many white folks are feeling right about now in her recent Facebook status:

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So, what’s a caucasian to do once this admission has been made? How do we move from “I care. I won’t ignore this.” to actually being part of lasting change? The internet has no shortage of excellent articles with tips on how to understand and respond to white privilege:

I love these articles – they’re incredibly helpful, practical, and get straight to the point. I need reminded and re-reminded of their truths: listen, learn, respect, challenge. As helpful as these tips are, at times I still find myself wrestling with how to handle the privilege I have, especially in light of the recent Rachel Dolezal coverage. Thoughts like these simmer beneath my surface, leaving me both perplexed and speechless in light of racialized headlines:

I have a degree in Multicultural Education, am multilingual, and have taught in communities of color for years. Do I disregard my experiences, my skills, my knowledge because of my privilege?

As a teacher, I still hold a position of power within the many communities of color I have known. Do I shun any association of power because of its association with privilege?

As a mother, wife, friend, and family member, I walk alongside the daily journey of people of color navigating a world of white power. Are these experiences invalidated in the wider world because of the privilege I carry?

Having grown up in a predominately white community and lived as an adult in many communities of color, I frequently see multiple sides to an issue that highlight misunderstanding from many sides. When do I use my voice and when do I keep quiet?

These are not easy questions;  but they’re real ones that churn deep down, rumbling as I go about my days. I read, talk, and think about race on a fairly regular basis, but there are times when I still feel at a complete loss because of the guilt I carry over my privilege. I know I’m not the only white person who feels this way.

While I agree that lying about her race is a poor choice, I also see the situation as far more complex than this. Truth be told, I identify with Rachel’s desire to don a different skin. I’ve often longed for a different appearance to disassociate myself from the harsh history of my race and to legitimize my passion for reconciling racial brokenness. Sometimes it feels like being white disqualifies me from a seat at the racial table. When I whisper this shame-filled admission to those close to me, they remind me that not having a seat at the table is no new feeling to people of color.

Ah, privilege. It blinds even those who want to see.

This conversation isn’t simple. It’s far – both literally and figuratively – from black and white. So where’s a white-person-on-the-sidelines watching all this pain, caring-but-not-experiencing, horrified-and-heartbroken to start?

As I sit with these questions, I find myself contemplating who I need to be in addition to what I should do to live in a culturally humble way. The lists of how-to’s and to-do’s are undeniably helpful, but they’ll go nowhere without a fundamental shift in our way of being.

In light of this, I ask myself harder questions than the initial ones above that were likely born out of defense.

  • How do I cultivate the type of character that consistently acknowledges my privilege and promotes a good greater than myself?
  • Who do I need to become in order to more deeply understand the lives of those who live and think differently than I do?
  • How do I seek understanding when I simply do not understand? 

The answers that surface are less to-do list, more lifelong goals:

1. Be ok with messy. 

I’ve read a lot of coverage on Rachel Dolezel and the one firm conclusion I’ve drawn is that it’s messy. There are good points on conflicting sides and so many speculations on her intent.

  • Could it be that a person who has been immersed in a culture for years would identify more strongly with that culture than with their own? Sure.
  • Does that make that person actually a part of that culture? Not exactly, but third culture kids have struggled with this balance for years. 
  • Is our society brutal in the way we draw lines between the haves and the have-nots, the ins and the outs? Definitely, especially when we only have 140 characters to do so.
  • Do Rachel’s choices exist in a larger social and historical reality of race and power that cause others to respond harshly to her story? For sure.

Voices from all sides throw ‘truth’ at each other without acknowledging that sometimes the truth-in-the-realm-of-people’s-experience is anything but clear. We operate only within our own skin and this limits our ability to understand others.

Heather Plett explains an idea called “holding space” that could close some gaps between these two gaping cultural realities. She explains holding space for another person as a willingness to be present and available in the difficult moments of life. When part of life carries such pain that it’s difficult to imagine the next step, those who hold space for others don’t judge, try to fix, or make them feel inadequate. Instead, they come alongside and offer warm hearts and open ears.

What if this response had been our measuring stick for Rachel Dolezal, the recent police pool beating of young black women, or the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson? How would the conversation shift if instead of jumping to immediate conclusions to label sides as right/wrong, we looked first to where we need to ‘hold space’ for the brokenness that exists on both sides?

2. Lean toward pain.

One way I’ve grown more comfortable with mess is through the practice of walking through pain – both my own and that of others. While it would often feel easier to just close my eyes and turn the other way, digging into the deeper reasons for what causes pain strengthens our ability to understand it. In our broken places, we experience how insincere gestures like offering platitudes or dismissing pain can hurt far more than they help.

Externally, this might look like actively reading on many sides of the headlines or practicing principles offered in the articles I mentioned at the beginning. Internally, however, it means sitting with a whole lot of uncomfortable. Theresa Latini explains this idea further in her article I am a pastor. Here’s why I don’t want you to pray for me:

Please do not pray for me unless you are willing to walk with me.

Know me. Hear the depths of my fear or anguish or whatever it might be and let it affect you.

Then let us bring our (not just my) most profound needs vulnerably before God. Please do not try to escape that vulnerability. Because if you do, you have left me, and that is not prayer. It is not communion with God through Christ by the spirit.

And if you have no words, that is okay — more than okay, in fact. It’s an invitation to sit with me in the awfulness of my predicament and silently wait upon God together.

I would imagine that a whole host of similar prayers are being breathed from the mouths of many in Charleston today. May it remind us of our need to simply walk alongside and hold space for those in pain today.

3. Seek first to understand, and admit when you don’t.

One of Stephen Covey’s classic principles of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,  this notion definitely needs revisited in our short-tempered and knee-jerk Twitter age. Seeking first to understand means that rather than constantly throwing out my own opinions, I ask questions and listen to the opinions of others. It means I don’t quickly dismiss those with whom I disagree but rather look for ways to understand why they might think that way. It means that I spend time reading, listening to, or seeking out perspectives of those with whom I disagree to understanding the what and why of their reasoning.

The hard part about seeking to understand is that sometimes we simply don’t. When someone’s experience extends beyond our ability to grasp it, we’re apt to throw our hands up in frustration and label them idiots. Sometimes, we feel embarrassed by our ignorance so we don’t say anything at all.

When I run into a racial situation I don’t understand, my first response is usually defensive. I like to play devil’s advocate, so it’s easy to dismiss my defensiveness as just being “who I am”. However, I’ve come to recognize that when I grow defensive in race/privilege conversations, it’s usually a sign that I need to stop, reflect on what triggered my anger, and revisit the conversation to listen some more. The phrase “help me understand” comes in really handy at this point because it focuses my attention on something besides my own (strong) desire to be right and maintain control.

4. Acknowledge both single and collective stories.

Many white Americans are accustomed to practicing an individualist perspective. We think about ourselves over the whole, elevating individuals over communities. One way this shows itself in many white churches is their harsher response to individual sins relating to individual sexuality (abortion, pornography, infidelity) than to communal sins like neglect of the poor, consumerism, or gluttony. In contrast, many cultures cultivate a more communal view where individuals consider how their personal actions impact the community as a whole.

In discussing the Rachel Dolezal situation with others, I’ve learned that I see it through an individual lens – she is one individual with specific details that impact her personal choices. In contrast, others see it through a collective lens that include painful realities of repeated power and race abuse through history. Do we both have valid points? Yes, we’re just processing through different lenses.

5. Create space to listen.

The breakneck speed of our culture robs us from time to consider both our place in the world and our impact on those around us. Throw the smartphones-glued-to-our-eyes in the mix and its a wonder any of us think for ourselves at all. Finding spaces to pause and sort through our thoughts, feelings, and experiences is crucial if we want to incorporate any of the above goals effectively.

Pausing looks different for everyone. Some people listen to podcasts or sermons that inspire. Others retreat to nature and quiet space. Some prefer to write, read, or chat over coffee with a friend. Whatever the method, intentionally creating space to allow ourselves to reflect deeply is key to long term and sustained internal change.

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“Let him that would move the world first move himself.” -Socrates

May these timeless words remind us of the need to act beyond the horror of the headlines by starting with the one thing we all have the power to change: ourselves.

Further Reading

A relevant and timely place to start listening is this post by Osheta Moore: What I Need You to Say in Response to the Shooting in Charleston and this post by Austin Channing: The Only Logical Concluson.

Here are a few other helpful resources for those seeking deeper racial understand to move beyond “I don’t know what to say, but I care.”:

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