As promised, my friend Chris Burton responded to my request to answer his own question, “What would it look like to hold white people accountable?” Read more about the origins of this conversation in my post, “Holding White People Accountable.” Below are Chris’s insights. I am so thankful for his honesty and his willingness to both challenge and educate me in how to be a more helpful voice in conversations on race and racial equity.
“I want to start by acknowledging that I love and respect Wendy enough to break a rule I had written for myself at the end of 2015. I had found myself wearied in the war against white supremacy and said privately that I was finished with educating white people about racism. I have been blessed to encounter, co-labor and dwell with many white Americans who I count as friends and family. Nevertheless, the political landscape at that time was toxic enough for me to concede and find solace in the proverb, “you cannot wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”
Enough work has already been done to make every claim of ignorance ring hollow. When I talk about the plight of black people in this country and receive a shocked response, I know I am speaking to someone exercising their privilege. Their ignorance takes me back to my first year in seminary when I first discovered how white supremacy is a religion unto itself. I remember standing in the bookstore, furious because books that talked about me and my experience in this country were not required for core courses. One could matriculate and graduate from my institution and never encounter the black experience much less contemplate their complicity in white supremacy. My rage was in the reduction. I loved myself enough to know I could never be an elective.
The betrayal grew deeper when I realized how intertwined white supremacy and cheap grace are. People cannot see themselves complicit in white supremacy, structural racism and the systematic destruction of black bodies because they view themselves as inherently good people. White supremacy at best became Keyser Söze; no one dared to speak of it much less reveal its true nature. Black bodies could be miseducated, imprisoned and broken but accusations of complicity were impolite.
In my final year of seminary, I worked with a group of students to create a letter confessing as an institution for our complicity in white supremacy. When I spoke with Wendy about holding white people accountable, this is what I believe is the first step. One cannot take the first step in this work without confessing that the abuse of black bodies in America is not a foreign concept or alien enterprise. It is a sin that has festered and whose compound interest has fueled the American myth of individualism.
The white people who I see doing this work understand that power must be redistributed. They cannot do this well if their hubris requires them to be in the center. No one is waiting on white people to save them. As I phrased this in seminary, justice is the act of receiving the invitation to participate in God’s life. I pray that these rich young rulers also have an encounter with Christ and are not dismayed when the Master requires them to forsake their privilege and redistribute their power. “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)”
I spent a few days reflecting on Chris’s words and asked him to elaborate on two insights that I found particularly challenging and informative – “the myth of individualism” and “the invitation to participate in God’s life.”
I was particularly drawn to Chris’s comment about the “myth of individualism” because I had run across similar statements both in Block, McKnight and Brueggemann’s book An Other Kingdom and TaNehisi Coates book Between the World and Me. Here is an excerpt from An Other Kingdom. You can read more in my post, “What Disciplines Affirm Faith and Community?”
“What sustains the class system, the empire, and the free market narrative is the myth of individual development. We cling to the hope that it serves the common good. It doesn’t. It does serve the individual. Beautifully. Community is the reconstruction of individual well-being through the well-being of the whole. This is very different from beginning with individual self-interest and believing that the invisible hand of the market will create communal well-being.”
I also found similar insights in TaNehisi Coates book Between the World and Me which is a powerful look at what it is like to be black in America and the lie that sustains our system fueled by the American Dream and the myth of individualism. I hope to share more from Coates in a future posts.
My friend Chris confirmed this link between individualism and racism stating:
“I’m convinced that racism is deeply sinful and believe that sin stems from a desire for self above all else. The myths of the American “dream” and individualism are used to control us. We’re all just one powerball ticket away from making it right?”
I found it interesting that Chris concluded his comments about holding white people accountable with a call to redistribute power and this definition of justice, “justice is the act of receiving the invitation to participate in God’s life.” I asked him to say a bit more.
“The invitation does not come from us (people). I’m saying that God invites all of us, the great standing at the door and knocking described in Revelation, and that we must respond in kind by participating in justice.
And I can’t let anyone off the hook for ignorance. Grace abounds but we can’t unsee what we’ve seen. Once we know, we’ve got to move.”
I am so thankful to Chris for sharing his insights and breaking his vow to give up on educating ignorant white people about racism. Not all of us are pretending to be asleep. An for those who are awakening we know we can’t unsee what we have seen. We need brave people like Chris to guide us into a fuller understanding of our nation and the myths that we are all blind to.