Words for anyone, of any gender, asking that question.
In January, my District Superintendent gave me a copy of the book, How to Be An Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi. I serve on our District's Anti-Racism team, and we were asked to read the book prior to our late April meeting. I had 3 months.
The first month, I put it off. I don't want to forget what I read by the time we discuss it, I rationalized. Plus, I was in the middle of other books already.
Then in March, COVID-19 shut down everything. Is this the most important thing right now? We're in a global health crisis, and I need to focus on adapting to this disruption of life and ministry. That anti-racism book can wait.
In April, with limited time and meeting only online, the Anti-Racism team shifted focus to completing a video project with a deadline, and put off discussing the book. Well, definitely no need to read it now, I thought.
Then in early May, the video of the Feb. 23 murder of Ahmaud Arbery surfaced. A few weeks later, George Floyd was suffocated to death under the oppressive knee of a police officer. In between, few people noticed the headlines of Breonna Taylor being shot and killed in her own apartment in Louisville, KY, back on March 13.
You know what happened next. This past week has been another shameful moment in American history. As a friend said to me last night, the violence and civil unrest we see right now is not un-American, as some suggest. In fact, it's so American it hurts. The history of our country is littered with ugly violence erupting from tensions that could no longer hold: The Stonewall Riots in 1969 (LGBTQ+ Rights). Bloody Sunday in Selma in 1965, followed by the 1968 killing of a non-violent protester named Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Civil Rights). The Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Haymarket Affair of 1886 (Labor Rights). We fought a Freakin' Civil War from 1861-65 over whether it was okay to enslave other humans. And let's not forget the violent riot in 1773 that started it all: the Boston Tea Party. Property was destroyed while sailors for the British East India Company, innocent people just doing their job, were attacked on their ships. If King George wouldn't listen to reasoned arguments about colonists' rights, maybe a riot would get his attention. And it did. The Revolution was on, a new nation was born, and we celebrate the rioters as courageous patriots.
To be clear, I don't condone protests that turn violent, whether by the actions of protesters or by those being protested against. There's also the reality that most protests across the country this week have been primarily peaceful, and in some places the violence and rioting was allegedly incited by people who were not part of the protests and seemed to have no purpose aside from creating chaos.
A few years ago I engaged in a series of conversations about race and racism with clergy colleagues. At one of those meetings, an African-American pastor addressed the white pastors in the room directly. He said:
"When you all leave here today, you'll put away the book we're reading and go on with your day and week. And you probably won't think about race and racism again until we meet next week. But people like me don't have that luxury. Racism is something we think about and deal with constantly. We don't get to choose when to confront racism. It is our life, every day."
That luxury and privilege is what let me ignore the Ibram Kendi book for 3 months. As a white person, I get to decide when and how much I engage with the problem of racism. People of color don't get to do that. That's why many white people (myself included) stay silent while our siblings of color do the heavy lifting. By our inaction, and sometimes by our words, we say it's not really our problem to fix.
But it is. Consider the powerful words of our Bishop, Cynthia Moore-Koikoi:
"While African Americans and other people of color can help identify issues of racism and white privilege, it is not our work to address those issues or dismantle those systems. The only way for this violence to end is for members of the white community to rise up and do the work of dismantling racism and combating white privilege." Read the full statement
So, what's a white guy (or person) to do?
Two friends asked me that question over the weekend, and you may be asking it too. The protests did their job: we're paying attention now, and we do want to help, but we don't know where to start. We feel helpless in the face of a 400 year old problem, one that's been systemically woven into American society with racist policies, laws, and attitudes, many of which continue today. And as the headlines and protests go away this week, we'll be tempted to turn our focus to other issues until the next time racism is forcibly pushed into our consciousness.
We're also confused. We hear calls for us to "speak up" as white allies, but worry that when we do might be chastised for using the wrong language, "whitesplaining," or making it about us and how "woke" we are. These mixed messages, and our defensiveness, make the white moderate less likely to speak up the next time. This is white fragility: our discomfort with any conversations about race, even if we are well-meaning white people, because we're terrified of being labeled as racist. So the book stays on the shelf, along with the problem of racism. We do want to take it seriously. But we have other books to read and other problems to solve first.
Racism has always been a priority for people of color (POC) - not by choice, but by necessity. And many of them are asking us to make it a priority beyond this week. This is bigger than George Floyd and the protests that followed. And it's going to take more than a weekend of social media posts and protests. It's time that we who are white hold each other accountable to keeping racism at the forefront of our consciousness for the long haul.
How can we do that? Here are a few places to start:
Listen to people of color. What are they saying? Why are they angry, justifiably so? What hurts their heart? And what do they need from us? Read their books and posts. Tune into their press conferences and protests, and show up when you can! Push past your initial defensiveness and discomfort until you hear what they need us to hear. Ask questions about things you don't understand.
Check in with people of color in your life. They're experiencing all of this very differently than white people are. The people I've reached out to have expressed feeling overwhelmed, angry, heartbroken, and weary. Now consider that they feel this way in response to a national conflict over a core aspect of their identity. It's not just that this could happen again. It's that next time, it could happen to them. In the meantime, they're being told how they are supposed to act, with little regard for what they think and feel.
So reach out with the simple message that you see them, you value them, and you're thinking of and praying for them. Don't ask them right now to help you become a better ally. They're tired of explaining it all, and besides, the purpose of checking in with them is for their care, not your growth. They'll probably help you anyway, but let it be on their time and terms.
3. SPEAK UP
A few years ago I asked a colleague and friend how I could be an ally for him as a person of color. I wanted to be vocal in support of him, but often shied away from doing so for fear of being perceived as a "white savior" and not letting him speak for himself. He acknowledged this challenge, but said that I should trust my instincts in such situations, and be willing to receive correction by him and other POC when my instincts lead me to accidentally say or do the wrong thing. One cannot be an ally and be afraid to fail, because it's going to happen. Accept the correction and learn from it.
Is this enough? Yes and no. I'm the kind of person who wants a detailed plan of action. Say this. Do that. Vote in this way. Problem solved. But Anti-Racism isn’t that simple. Racism in America is layered, nuanced, complex, and will not go away with just a week of protests. Decades of Civil Rights tension couldn't move us to complete racial justice and equality; what makes us think a couple of Facebook posts will?
And if you're a pastor or a community leader in some way, be the person who starts conversations where you are able to do so. Make sure you’re addressing racism locally, in your city and in your workplace or school, by pushing for the conversations that need to take place. I say this as much for myself as for the reader. My own efforts at anti-racism have been in fits and starts. I attend a training here, lead a conversation there, preach a sermon once in a while, and then retreat to the safety and comfort my whiteness affords me. Most days, I let the book of racism sit on the shelf because it's just not that important to me with everything else going on.
I did start reading "How to Be An Anti-Racist" last night. I'm ashamed it took me this long to crack it open. I also want to extend an invitation to anyone who wants to read it and discuss it in a small, online group. I’d be glad to start that. Just let me know.
Is this enough? Again, no. But we have to start somewhere. We have to take the book off the shelf and start reading. Now. Not next week or month or when we finally feel like it. Today.