“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” – Arundati Roy
Theme for the Week – Growth Mindset: One of the “good guys [gals]”
As those who regard themselves as “good people”, how did we get here and how can we be made new? That is the over-arching question we want to ask with our summer book study that is a part of the larger work of the Presbytery as we consider ways to continue to grow into our anti-racist stance and leadership.
- The Person You Mean to Be – Chapter Five
- For those who want to dive deeper: Emergent Strategy – nonlinear and iterative: the pace and pathways of change (pgs 103-121)
“Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” -Mark 2: 13-17
This week’s video is a conversation with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi with the Aspen Institute. Here he talks about what antiracism is, how to be an anti-racist in your life, and about his writing and research. Dr. Kendi is also offering a livestream next Monday, you can find out more information and sign up here: https://www.facebook.com/events/2747571258852003/
This week’s chapter focuses on the theme of “Ordinary Privilege”. The last few weeks, I have been giving you some action prompts to help you consider the privilege in your life. We all swim in the sea of white supremacy culture and in that, also in privilege. Dolly Chugh begins the chapter with a story about what is called “emotional labor,” expecting persons of color to deal with the emotional toll of macro and micro aggressions, when in fact, those of us who are white (the majority of those in the Presbytery and the vast majority of those in this book study), should be stepping in first.
Let me speak plainly and honestly: I would bet my house that every single person reading this week’s blog and devotion has at one point or another (probably multiple points) in their lives heard someone white say something racist and let it go.
Perhaps it embarrassed you, or surprised you, or caught you off guard, or you didn’t know how to respond. Maybe no one heard or witnessed it who was a person of color so you decided to let it go. Or perhaps, someone who is a person of color did, but you froze in place and didn’t say or do anything. Sound familiar? Perhaps as a leader someone brought something to your attention and you didn’t do anything about it because the price to pay was perceived by you to be too steep or the potential conflict it might invite. Sound familiar?
I confess to have done these things many times over the years. I am getting better at stopping that behavior in myself, but I also have been avoidant at key times. White silence and silencing is a huge part of what we need to deal with.
Two stories from my personal life I remember. When I was a junior in college, I was working in Camden, NJ at a group home for children and teenagers who were being placed into the foster care system. This was the group home before they got to their placement. Nearly every staff person in that agency was African-American, nearly all the children in the home were persons of color. One day I was walking with some of the teenagers to the local convenience store to let them get ice cream. As we walked into the store, the store clerk, a white man said that he wanted these ______ out of the store. I had been raised by my family to know this was a terrible racial slur, 100% unacceptable for use. But I had never heard it spoken in public like this. Something in me snapped and I yelled at the clerk in the store. We left and the teenagers were surprised that I “lost it.” Apparently I did, and not all my words were printable. I had a visceral, knee-jerk reaction. And then I had a lot of unpacking to do (as this was an internship), about why I reacted that way, what it brought up for me etc.
The second story was in the last few months of my second call in ministry. We had students that I supervised as interns from Princeton Theological Seminary. One was working on some church records and going through some information about the church. He found a photo from the 1960’s of a church school play of the children who were in the cast. Most of them were in blackface. He was horrified and noted that some of the children in the photo were the longtime, older members of the church today. Before talking to me, he took the photo to one of them, showed him the photo of himself as a child in blackface and asked him about it. Did you know then that this was offensive and wrong? Why did you do this at the church school play? The church member shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s no big deal.” And then gave my intern the “look” of a longtime church member who doesn’t want to be challenged. (To the readers: I know you know what that “look” looks like.) The student brought me the photo to his weekly supervision meeting. He also brought his concern, rightly, that this was part of the racial history of the congregation. Might be why we had many members who were persons of color, but hardly any were African American? What should we do about this member of the church who wasn’t sufficiently willing to understand the problematic nature of his behavior, and was potentially signalling to the student who asked him the question to keep quiet? I look back on that encounter and wish I’d done differently. I talked with the student in supervision about the racial dynamics at the church, even sharing in that conversation that this was some of what was driving me to look for another call. But I didn’t address the situation with this longtime church member. And when I left the church a year later, I didn’t tell them the truth about some of my concerns about racism that was part of what drove me to leave as a pastor and as a wife of an immigrant. I knew the price would be high, I already had one foot out the door emotionally, and I stayed quiet. I should have been a different sort of a pastor in that moment, and I bailed on my responsibilities.
I tell these two stories about my life, not to put myself up on any pedestal, not to engage in self-flagellation. I tell these stories because I bet you have stories just like them in your life. Stories where you feel like you did the right thing, and stories that are embarrassing and you know you failed miserably.
In the video for this week Dr. Kendi talks about how lots of people say they are “anti-racist” but it’s situational, episodic. It’s an enormous amount of privilege just to be situational about these things. And that sure does resonate for me. Does it for you?
I had a conversation last week with a good friend of mine who is a significant leader in the PCUSA. As we talked, I shared with him some recent stories about the intersection of race and gender, harm that has been done to colleagues and friends of mine. I told him about some recent things that have hurt me, a white woman, which has been sexist and in one case bordered on harassment. He said to me these words, which fit in well with our chapter, “Sometimes I think I’ve heard it all in the church. And then I have a conversation like this one, and I realize there is still so much I do not even see. And I realize that most people never tell me the truth.”
At the end of the chapter Dolly Chugh talks about how when you step up and stand up it gives other people the courage to stand up. Years ago my professional coach told me that when I stood up “in system” to some things that were unacceptable, it would then empower others to as well. A question this week is where is God calling you to stand up or step up?
My takeaway this week is that the privilege you and I have as white people might be normal in our culture that swims in white supremacy, but it shouldn’t be considered “ordinary.” That’s not what I think God wants us to do with it. God wants disciples. And discipleship is very, very hard. I would have been a better pastor and a better disciple if I had taken the very important information my seminary student had shared with me to a Session meeting and invited a conversation about the history of our congregation. If I had sat down pastorally with those older members to talk with them about the past, and how to faithfully confront it. If I had spoken up more, perhaps even stayed a few years longer, or in my exit interview, shared these noticings with the Committee on Ministry. I have lots of ideas about what I could have done. In my first call I did have some of those hard conversations with other white people who shared racist thoughts with me, but in that situation, in my second call, I froze and chose inaction. Years later, I am in a different place in my faith-journey, and I would make different choices. It is OK to go backwards to look at who you are, where you have been, what you have done, even if it makes you cringe. How else can you grow, how else can you work on your own self and your own anti-racist identity? We are called to share the “good news.” Telling the truth about ourselves is a big part of that.
This week I encourage you to listen to the podcast episode, “Christian Racist Complicity: American History, Monuments and the Arc of Justice” which is part of the Yale Divinity School’s series, For the Life of the World. This episode features Jemar Tisby, who wrote an excellent book titled, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. You can learn more about this book (which I recommend to everyone to read) at its website and if you are an Amazon Prime member, there is also a docu-series you can watch that goes with the book (I know….Amazon is a problem.).
Take some time this week to journal.
- What are things in your life you feel good about when you consider your personal racial identity or your own anti-racist action and/or activities?
- What are things in your life you do not feel good about when you consider your personal racial identity or your own anti-racist action and/or activities?
Commit this week to sharing those stories with at least one person. Watch out that you are not adding emotional labor to anyone with this exercise. Check in first to see if they would talk with you and keep your conversation with someone of your own racial identity. Allow your testimony to be an opportunity for them as well to consider their own.