Kate did an excellent post last month called A Beginner’s Guide to Anti-racism for White People and from the looks of things, it’s getting a lot of reads. It’s a terrific resource for learning more about the fundamental definitions of race, racism, white privilege and for discovering the vast amounts of reading material on the web and in print. I would also remind our readers (especially those new to the blog) about our Reading List tab at the top of the page. We’re constantly adding to that page, so if you have recommendations or want to find out more about what we’ve been reading, check it out.
Family business aside, I wanted to address a couple things I’ve been thinking about lately on the issue of white identity development. So many of us white folks don’t really think much about race. We know there are racial issues and tensions, but we can generally avoid most of that messiness because it is possible to live lives that are, at least at the conscious level, unhindered by societal racism. But once that veil of “colorblindness” has been lifted, we start to see and feel the pain that our own privilege has cost others, namely people of color. And that awakening can be a painful prospect.
We’ve already talked a little about white guilt, but let it be said again that guilt is not the goal. The goal is genuine repentance and contrition. Beverly Daniel Tatum puts it this way in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
These feelings of guilt and shame are part of the hidden costs of racism. (p. 94)
Moving from a place of ignorance or indifference into a place of awareness and activism is a challenging process. For me, it’s reminiscent of the call that all Christians are given, to join in suffering for the sake of the family-building work of the Gospel. If we as believers plan to be a part of real racial reconciliation then there will be a cost. And as white people, much of the cost will come in the form of unsettling, discomfort and an overturn of the status quo. For people of color, the costs are still there (like having to trust white people’s efforts toward anti-racism), but many of those costs have already been imposed by society in one form or another.
For those of us white people making the journey into anti-racist activism, we have to honestly assess if we are prepared to take these steps. For some it will be a no-brainer. They have intimate relationships (friendships, spouses, parents, children) that depend on their willingness to endure racism alongside a person of color. But for many of us, it has to be an act of the will. We have to choose to engage and to step away from the dominant influence of our culture. It is at this point that we may experience a deeper level of internal conflict. Tatum again:
This new awareness is characterized by discomfort. The uncomfortable emotions of guilt, shame, and anger are often related to a new awareness of one’s personal prejudices or the prejudices within one’s family. (p.97)
True repentance always requires some sense of grief over the wrongs committed. This may be more intense if we realize we have been perpetrators of racism. But the way to move through this is to lean into it. To seek forgiveness. As Christians we hold tight to promises like that in 1 John 1:9:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
However, humans may be less open to imparting forgiveness. People of color may be less trusting of well-intentioned white people because of past disappointments. Lois Stalvey writes about these obstacles to forgiveness in her memoir:
I could never resent the tests [of trustworthiness] as some white people have told me they do…to me the longest tests indicate the deepest hurts…At times the most poignant part of the test is that black people have enough trust left to give it. Testing implies that we might pass the test. It is safer and easier for a black person to turn his back on us. If he does not gamble on our sincerity, he cannot be hurt if we prove false. Testing shows an optimism I doubt I could duplicate if I were black. (quoted in Tatum, p. 105)
Obtaining forgiveness will likely require time and commitment on our part in order to withstand the scrutiny of those who may be distrustful of our motives. Nevertheless we must ask for forgiveness if we have insulted someone or otherwise inflicted pain. The cleanest way to get through the discomfort of being wrong is to admit it, apologize, try to make right, and move on.
At any of these points, there will be temptation to turn back. White privilege is called privilege in part because it makes life easier for white people. Even if we are members of an alternatively oppressed group (women, etc.) we still enjoy the advantages of white privilege. Paul Kivel states in his article entitled I’m Not White I’m Jewish
To some extent my gut-level response as a Jew is similar to the “I’m not white” response of other white people. When the subject is racism nobody wants to be white, because being white has been
labeled “bad” and brings up feelings of guilt, shame, complicity and hopelessness.
Yeah, who wants any of that? Tatum illustrates the level of sacrifice white people may be asked to make and the pressure for anti-racist whites to regress and assimilate with a story from one of her students. This young man is hopeful that he can make a difference but is also plagued by persecution (from close friends, peers, and family members) and fears he may not have what it takes to stick with his convictions in the long run:
It’s easy to see how the cycle [of racism] continues. I don’t think I could ever justify within myself simply turning my back on the problem. I finally realized that my position in all of these dominant groups gives me power to make change occur…It is an unfortunate result often though that I feel alienated from friends and family. It’s often played off as a mere stage that I’m going through…By belittling me, they take the power out of my argument…I don’t want it to be a phase for me, but as obvious as this may sounds, I look at my environment and often wonder how it will not be. (p. 100-101)
It’s not hard for me to sympathize with this guy. Bearing witness to injustice and working to rectify that is a high and difficult calling. With every, “lighten up, we’re just playing” or “don’t be so sensitive,” we can be discouraged. And we should be realistic about our own potential for failure here. There will be times when we wished we’d said something. Or wished we hadn’t. There will be times when we let ourselves or others down. There may be times when we feel like we’re fighting a losing battle and the whole world is against us. So why not give up or just go back to the other team?
At those points in my life when my own fortitude has faltered, I am compelled to return to the strongest example of courage and love I’ve known:
[Jesus told them:] In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. John 16:33
It’s also important to keep our struggle in perspective. Most of us will never be martyrs over this (though there have been white folks who lost their lives in these battles, too). Many times I’ve heard it said in a church or among friends that it would be easier to die for Christ than to live for Him. I don’t know if that’s really true (I personally don’t have a death wish) but sometimes it can feel true.
There are white people who have gone before us. And there are white people working with us now. White people can join people of color in this good work. Beverly Daniel Tatum encourages us again:
Though it can also be ‘complicated and lonely’ [for white people,] it is also liberating, opening doors to new communities, creating possibilities for more authentic connections with people of color, and in the process, strengthening the coalitions necessary for genuine social change. (p.113)
I would add that for those of us who are believers, there is also reward in knowing that we are participating in the invitational work of building God’s kingdom: a kingdom where, when all these struggle have come to fruition, great multitudes from every nation, people, and language will live peacefully together, accepting and loving one another and joyfully worshiping God.