Black folk have been targets of violence in the United States since the inception of our nation. There have been times were the bursts of violence are significant enough for national attention, mass killings, lynchings, church burnings, police violence and more have exploded in ways that interrupt the national (white) consciousness only to fade as we move on to the next (less disruptive to our lives as privileged folk) moment of national attention. But the black community never gets to stop thinking about it. The black community never gets to stop being afraid, never gets to let fear entirely leave their consciousness. The white community’s ability to forget, to not mention, to not think about racism is our privilege. It is our reward for simply being born with lighter skin.
I cannot imagine what it would be like if I knew that there were groups or individuals focused entirely on killing, say, white women named Elizabeth, or Lutheran pastors, or any other group of which I am a part. While, as a woman, I experience a low-grade fear when walking alone, it is nothing compared to what my brothers and sisters of color face every day. While I know what it is like to be talked down to because I am a woman and because I am young (at least in my career field), I don’t know what it is like to know that much of the society in which I live and the culture in which I work values me less because of the color of my skin.
These past few months have once again brought violence against people of color, primarily black Americans to the forefront. We have been having some necessary conversations about race and privilege in our world and in our church. Yet even with the media attention focusing on killing of African-Americans, even with my church body being intimately touched by the killings at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, we have the privilege to forget. That is privilege. And when that privilege allows a gathering of people for religious purposes to remain silent during a worship service of theoretically progressive allies, that is structural racism.
We can make excuses for our silence. We can say that it wasn’t the right time, or it wasn’t the purpose of our gathering, but if when we gather as a group to worship we reamain silent (as happened this past week at a gathering of my colleagues), we are perpetuating structural racism. Here is how one black woman described her experience of the event.
This is hard to face. As progressive religious professionals, we want to believe we are good allies. When presented with the pain and anger of members of a community reeling in grief and anger, when confronted about our willful blindness to the pain in our midst, we get uncomfortable. We want it to not be about us, about our behavior, about our privilege. But it is.
When we, as allies, are called out for forgetting, we are called to pause. To think. To consider what it might be like in the shoes of those who are in pain, who are being terrorized, who are straight up pissed off about something that looks and feels like being ignored. Again.
As I write this, I am nervous because I want the approval of my colleagues. I want everyone to like me. I don’t want to hurt anyone by putting this out there. But I also have to say it. Because I was disturbed by our silence. I was disturbed my some of the conversations I was a part of. The longer I think of it, the more it bothers me, & the more my heart hurts. And to not say anything because I want people to like me and because none of this directly affects me is just another way I engage in white privilege.
As privileged people, we have the power. Because of our power, we are called to slow down instead of react. We are called to love, to listen, to put our pride and our own concerns aside to hear the grief and pain in the voices and lives of those who are suffering.
We shouldn’t wait to be confronted to act. We need to always be remembering the marginalized in our world and constantly asking ourselves if we are working to perpetuate or dismantle the system. If a member of our community comes to us and says dudes, you missed that, we have not done our job.
We should never ask that someone aplogise for expressing that they are angry or hurt at being ignored or having something close to their hearts met with silence instead of prayer, lament and action.
When we ask those suffering to calm down, to wait, to find a more appropriate time or medium to express their feelings, we diminish their grief. We tell them that they are not important enough to be heard, that their pain is not important enough for us to listen to this minute, that they must wait. That’s the pastoral equivalent of having a student show up in our office reeling in pain and fear and telling them to hold on a sec, we have a bulletin to finish editing first.
Now is the time. Now is the time to listen. Now is the time to be intentional about observing the grief and pain and fear of the marginalized. Now is always the time.
Now is the time to measure our words carefully, to examine our systems and structures and ask who we are leaving out. Not later, not when it is convenient or appropriate. Now.
When talking to a colleague about events this past week, events in my church body at a conference I attended, I used the phrase progressive fragility. I don’t know if that is a phrase, but it definitely is a thing. Those of us who consider ourselves progressive and who want to believe that we are allies and/or accomplices get really, really hurt when called out on our -isms. More often than not, we react to these moments defensively, either attacking or deflecting so that we don’t have to look at the fact that we might have just been not-so-progressive. We don’t want to admit we have failed in our ally-ship. When we react, we diminish and silence. When we react we use our implicit power to perpetuate the system. I have seen this when I have called out men who claim the title feminist yet mansplain things to me, or when people expect me to be less competent because of my age and/or gender. I have felt my face burn when a friend has pointed out to me that I just asked all the guys in the room to lift the heavy thing and when my brain points out to me that I’m being racist. But for true structural change to occur, we have to put down the defenses and listen. Really, truly, deeply listen.
When confronted with the hurt of a (marginalized) member of the community, especially a hurt that was either directly or indirectly caused by you or your organization ask yourself:
1) Did you stop.
2) Did you breathe.
3) Are you listening?
4) Are you practicing grace, love, empathy and understanding. Be the Good Samaritan. Be Jesus encountering the woman at the well. Be the mother hen gathering in her children.
5) Instead of thinking about what the person telling you of their hurt could have done differently, can think about what you could have done differently?
6) Have you thought about how you might be able to act differently in the future, how you can use your voice to disrupt the system, and how you can tear down the structures that perpetuate racism.
7) will you continue engaging in conversation.
I love my church. This past week I engaged in and overheard some great learning and important conversations about structural evil. I know the people with whom I was gathered want to do better, want to be allies, want to fight racism. I also participated in some really disheartening conversations and observed structural evil at work. I know many people were hurt by conversations, by social media, by snide comments and by silence. We can do better, my friends. We have to. It is our call as ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as Christians, and as humans moving in this world.
Everything is sacred.