As I sat down to write my contribution on the topic of race and violence for this month’s Synchroblog, I stared at a blank screen for what felt like hours. It is rare that I have nothing to say, especially on a topic of such significance. This state of silence has been my posture throughout the Ferguson ordeal. This is not something I am proud of, but I want to be real with you.
These past few months, I have been engaged in countless conversations on the topic of race, both in circles where I have been in the majority and in conversations where I was a minority. I have asked my spiritual director, a very wise African American woman, to help me process a number of these conversations because I simply don’t know how to best contribute to healing and reconciliation which is my heart’s desire. Since I don’t have the “right” words to say, I say nothing. It’s a cop out and I am confessing it to the world.
After the events in Ferguson, I saw a number of posts pointing to the silence of white America. In her podcast with Luke Norsworthy, Austin Channing Brown was asked why she thought white Christians were silent. She gave a thoughtful answer but stated, “I don’t know, I’m not white.” I have been pondering the question and I want to try my best to articulate why “I” as a white Christian have remained silent. I cannot speak for all white people, only for myself.
It is not because I am unaware of what is going on. It is not because I don’t care. It is not because I fail to see the injustices perpetrated on my black brothers and sisters all across this nation. It is not because I am afraid of what other white folks will say. It is simply because I don’t know what to say.
I was recently in a reconciliation meeting that was designed to help a mixed race group heal from some recent woundedness. I deeply desired to be an active participant in that conversation. When the facilitator asked the group what we needed, one African American participant stated, “I need to be able to be me. As a black woman, I am unique and I need to know this group can accept all of me.” I felt her deep desire to be fully heard and accepted for who she authentically was. I shared that I too needed a “safe space.” Which to me was simply echoing her desire to share openly from the heart without judgment from others.
What happened next, both shocked me and woke me up to just how difficult open and honest conversations can be. An African American male participant responded to my need for a “safe space” by asking in what felt like an aggressive tone, why I felt “unsafe.” He shared that in his world, safety was a physical thing and that if no one was threatening him with bodily injury, he was “safe.” He assumed that my loss of a sense of security was because there were black participants in the room and that I somehow considered them a threat to me. I never dreamed asking for a “safe space” to share could make me feel so unsafe and insecure. I realized in that moment that we were speaking different languages.
Safe space for me was about emotional safety. It was about respect and the ability to be vulnerable without being verbally attacked. After this exchange, I sadly realized that this was not a safe place for me to speak because I had no idea how my words would be interpreted. From that point on, I measured every word I said as best I could and often held back out of fear of my words being misinterpreted.
I know my black friends will likely read this and think I am selfish for putting my own comfort ahead of progress in the race dialog. They are correct to judge me in this way. I am not proud of the fact that I am pretty thin skinned. I want to be tough. I want to have a “don’t give a s…” attitude, but that is not who I am. Like my black sister who asked to be accepted for who she is, I need to be accepted for who I am and sometimes I am a wimp.
I have a lot of black female friends and what I admire most about them, is just how fierce they can be when they have to be. I realize this fierceness is literally beat into many of them by our often cruel society. The level of physical aggression most of my black friends have encountered or witnessed in their life is a thousand times the level of most white folks that I know.
I have never been physically assaulted and I have never physically assaulted anyone. . I have only seen one physical altercation and that was during high school when a bunch of girls started beating up another girl. I was traumatized by that experience.
When things get heated in a conversation, I run for the hills. This ability to disengage from difficult encounters is a privilege that those of us who are white have. We can choose to remain silent. We can choose to walk away. We can elect to simply stay home. Our black brothers and sisters have no such option. Their children are literally being gunned down in the streets of our country. For them, this fight is one of life and death and yes, they are angry. And yes, white folks are going to have to be willing to enter into “unsafe” territory if we want to join them in this struggle.
I have been working in the inner city for a decade now and I have heard enough stories of police brutality, witnessed enough aggressive behavior, and encountered enough unjust sentencing to know that the violence being perpetrated upon our black brothers and sisters is real, sinister, and devastating to the black community. Police are not a trusted ally against crime in these communities, they are instead to be feared and avoided. I think it is hard for white middle class America to understand this reality which is so radically different from their own experience. We teach our children that the police are there to protect them but many of my black friends were taught the police are there to hurt them.
These differences in life experiences make it even more difficult for white America to believe some of the atrocities that are happening in black communities. Trusted friends tell me of violence against my black neighbors, while most of what America hears is from TV reporters whom they assume are simply trying to hype it up for the purpose of increasing ratings. Some remain silent because they truly don’t get just how rampant the problem is. They think Ferguson is an anomaly and that the black community is blowing things out of proportion. The silent white majority are not evil people, they are simply ignorant of the reality within the black community.
So what is it going to take for white America to truly come to the table and engage in the conversation of race and violence? We have to be willing to get out of our comfort zone and accept this is not about us personally. It is way bigger than our little egos. We also need to build authentic relationships with our black brothers and sisters and try to see the world through their life experiences, not our own. This will require that we leave our homogeneous middle class neighborhoods and go into places where we feel “unsafe.” It will require that we shut up and listen deeply to the victims of our current systems that are often racist, even when it flies in the face of our own reality. It will require that we stop focusing our efforts to “help” with Band-Aid approaches that simply address surface issues, and go to the underlying causes of powerlessness and voicelessness being perpetrated by racist systems. It’s time to grow up White America and stop pretending that this is not our battle to fight. We have to put down the remote control, get off our butts, and join hands with our fellow Americans who are simply battling for a more just America.
If you don’t want to listen to me, then perhaps these words from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written more than 50 years ago will awaken us to the sinful nature of our silence:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.
I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.
But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. ..Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.
May God grant us the courage to no longer remain silent.
Other bloggers writing about Race, Violence, and Why We Need to Talk About It:
- Jeremy Myers – It’s the White Man’s Fault! It’s the Black Man’s Fault!
- Wendy McCaig – Race, Violence, and a Silent White America
- Glenn Hager – Can We Even Talk About Racial Issues?
- Carol Kuniholm – Who is Allowed to Vote?
- Sarah Quezada – Race, Violence, and the Airport Immigration Agent
- Wesley Rotoll – Race, Violence, and Why We Need to Talk About It
- Kathy Escobar – We Have a Dream