Saturday, January 24, 2015
About That Race Thing
We went to a museum on our honeymoon. If that earns us serious geek status, so be it. Another guest at our bed & breakfast told us we absolutely must visit the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and marvel at the massive dinosaur skeletons. And marvel we did. Few things remind a person that our species is a tiny part of Creation like peering up at an ancient creature whose femur is nearly your height.
Nearly every exhibit had that effect on us.
Not the least of such, an exhibit on race. We consider ourselves fairly aware of racial realities and decently adept at navigating discussions on their complexities, but seeing stacks of actual money marking the drastic disparity between white and black earnings and hearing videos of young people talk about how they're perceived and treated as minorities was deeply humbling. Particularly powerful was a wall of portraits, a section from the '60's and a current section, with quotes from that person, describing how they felt they were treated as a person of color.
Perhaps the most formative, humbling aspect was this:
For once, we were the ones who didn't know. The ones who needed to listen and to be taught.
For a Caucasian, even one like me with a culturally diverse family, a diverse friend group, and experience living in a neighborhood with a vast majority of African-American and Latino ethnicities and being a minority myself, that not-knowing smallness is terrifying. Like it or not, aware of or blind to it, we're home in a culture that has given us countless preferences since its very birth. That shapes us. Makes us blind to ourselves and to those whose experience in our shared culture is unlike our own.
Humility, for us, is being aware that we're shaped into blindness and lack of empathy. It's being aware that even our motivations for correcting the existing and historic injustices can be rooted in supremacy. We still need to be the right ones. The ones who know. The saviors. Unless we make peace with the realization that we see ourselves as supremacists, exemptions, favorites, and inherently privileged in ways we are completely blind to, we're going to keep acting out of that paradigm. We're going to keep treating other humans with a lack of respect. We're going to keep extolling Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, now that they're safely in their graves and not challenging our assumption that our perceptions are The Way Things Are and that people that challenge our normalcies are overreacting to trivial things and should just "keep peace" by not insisting that we listen to what it's like to be them. I see our reactions to the protests and the mounting evidence that the protesters are indeed telling the truth about what it's like to be them and wonder why we are so afraid. I wonder if admitting that they may be right about something like their very own stories is so frightening to us because it means we Don't Know. And we're so used to being at the top of everything that we don't even realize it.
We need to be intentional about reshaping our assumptions, developing our awareness, and dismantling our paradigms. No person can reshape themselves, and unless we humble ourselves into the posture of learning from those whose stories are different from ours, we will continue being defensive... And staying in the patterns that put us on the oppressor side of oppression.
Be aware, there is no neutral position to be had. Our reactions to the ongoing protests in our nation will go down in history as the reactions to the Freedom Riders and the march on Washington. There were plenty of good Christian whites who, some violently and some passively, opposed in the name of "keeping the peace". But peace that is merely a preservation of a deeply broken cultural equilibrium is not a peace at all. Is our chapter of the Church's legacy going to read like too many of the ones before it, a frustrating and frankly embarrassing lack of empathy and basic belief that God loves us all equally and cares about how we treat each other?
How are we to become, individually, and as communities, the sorts of people who can enact change and embody justice by how we treat each other on a very daily basis? We put ourselves in the position of learning. Read the books of African-American authors. There are many, but they're not the ones most easily accessible. Because, remember? We live in a culture that tells us without words that we're the most intelligent. Start with Frederick Douglass and keep discovering. Take a class from an African-American professor. Support and learn from organizations like Blood:Water that, instead of, through pictures and rhetoric, portray the people of Africa as simpletons in need of your white money and white savior complex, say, "The people of Africa are creative, intelligent, and tenacious. They aren't lacking in intelligence; they're lacking in tools. You can help us provide them with the tools to help them rebuild their communities' health and resources." (-Dan Haseltine) Wander outside the boundaries of the social circles handed to you, become friends with people who do not share your ethnicity and version of reality. And in everything you hear, above all, do them the dignity of believing them. You'll start to change, to see yourself as equal, as friends, as co-workers in bringing the Kingdom of Jesus, with its kindness and justice, to our neighborhoods and cities.
Oh, and listen to this interview Relevant did with Christian hiphop artist, Propaganda. Prop is incredibly deep, wise, and honest in an unreactive manner I have much to learn from. He talks from experience about what it feels like to be told that your version of the reality of something as personal as your own life isn't valid. Isn't true.
This lack of empathy and humility, I believe, isn't who we want to be. It's certainly not who we were created to be. Let's be brave and humble enough to listen to those who are brave enough to talk about what it's like to be them. Let's start walking in the path of a peace that doesn't rely on the preservation of our sense of superiority. And then see what canyons and rifts God has been preparing you to bridge.
"Peace is a path that comes into being as we walk in it."