I expected I’d sit down to write sometime today. I got up with my kids, drank coffee, and worked on reading John Walton’s book about Adam and Eve. I thought I’d work on a blog post about that topic since related issues have been on my mind.
Then I checked facebook and saw that a friend had brought up the topic of black hair styles and cultural appropriation. And so my morning reading took a totally different turn. This post caught my eye because I’d been thinking for awhile about getting braids. Every time I see a black woman with those million tiny braids, I think two words: “beautiful” and “want”. On the other hand, when I hear the words ‘cultural appropriation’ I think “blackface” and “offensive Halloween costumes”.
So, unsettled after reading that facebook post, I asked my friend Tracey what she thought about me getting braids. Tracey is one of my go-to people when I need a black perspective on, well, any thing. She shared her thoughts and a couple of links about cultural appropriation. I spent the morning reading and parenting and suddenly it was lunch time.
Pursuing a deeper understanding of racial issues has been an 6ish year journey for me so far (and will surely last me until die). Up until 6 years ago I’m someone whose understanding of modern American racial issues would have been summed up with phrases like “well, injustice used to exist in America, but now the problems regarding the black community are just cultural”. Read: “The problems the black community experiences are because of some real cultural problems they need to deal with. End of story.” Also, to add another layer, I was someone who wept for joy when Barack Obama was elected, despite having not voted for him, because “look how far we’ve come… maybe this will help heal the hurt that lingers”.
I grew up in a diverse town, but never really had any black friends. I went to a Christian (white evangelical) school and went to a mostly white church. I ‘knew’ black people, but didn’t really KNOW black people… not enough to talk openly and honestly and CURIOUSLY about racial issues.
About 6 years ago I began a friendship with Petula, a young black Bajan woman who had recently moved up here after marrying an American from the area. Our friendship and her feedback on being a black woman in our part of the country pushed my white fragility buttons. I pushed back. She pushed back. I began to consider that maybe my perspective on what a black woman in America “should” feel wasn’t necessarily solid. Maybe. So I started doing some mental exercises, imagining what it would feel like to be black in America in light of the cultural and historical context. I started reading and thinking about it more. I met Tracey. She pushed (pushes) my white fragility buttons even more. I read more. (A whole actual world of perspectives open before you if you are willing to go read them.) I ask more. I still push back sometimes. Meanwhile we have racial injustice and tensions coming more and more to the forefront of our national dialogue.
There is no end to this story. I mean, there is, but I don’t know the details. “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, said Dr King. My effort, in light of this great hope, it to bend towards justice myself.
How do I bend towards justice though? How do I move in the direction of being a healer in our broken world where injustice is so woven into our stories?
1. As a white woman, I have to admit that there are many ways in which I am blind. We are all blind in some ways, to be sure, but I’m in charge of me. I have to be willing to admit that there are things I’m conditioned to notice, and things I’m conditioned not to notice. There are things I know about our racial history, and so many things I’m still learning… and so many things I don’t even know I don’t know. There always will be. If there is one thing that stands out to me in my study of theology, it is that context matters. Our context and our worldview frame how we see ourselves and others. Our context and perspective shape the many subconscious assumptions we make. I had to realize that being white in a world where white men have long been at the top of the food chain has shaped the way I see things and the way I don’t see things.
2. I have to embrace some conflict and discomfort. Look, my biggest breakthrough moments in gaining more empathy for and understanding of my black friends came AFTER I got really pissed and/or pissed them off. I had to ask myself if I was honestly open to the idea that maybe oppression is still real and that I’ve been quite blind to it or even participated in it through my attitudes and actions. And really, the more familiar I get with these issues and the injustice others face in our world, the more that discomfort seems not worth mentioning. Still, it is a genuine hurdle when I’m in the midst of it.
3. Which brings me to this: I have get teachable and curious and humble in the arena of racial relations. That humility part sounds nice and Christiany I guess, but healthy humility is incredibly difficult. Side note: healthy humility exposes our weaknesses and vulnerabilities and leaves our value and essence intact. But it still is painful because our default is to wear pride like invisible protective scales. Humility requires I shed those scales and that hurts. Teachability means I admit I don’t know, but also that I want to learn… and curiosity is what drives me to want to learn.
4. Also, I have to embrace nuance and shades of gray. While I aim to be humble and teachable, I refuse to give up a healthy dose of skepticism. I don’t believe things easily, and when I change my mind about something, I want it to be because I SHOULD change my mind, not because I fully trust every new opinion or perspective I hear. My mother-in-law calls me a ‘late adopter’ because I’m quick to doubt and poke holes in new (and old) ideas. It’s true. So on this issue it leaves me with a lot of gray area- places where I feel I have bits and pieces of the big picture but don’t feel like I have it all figured out or know exactly what the big picture solution will look like. For example: tensions between cops and the black community. There are so many angles and people involved here and I’m simply not willing say I think this is cut and dry. It looks very pixelated and 3-D to me. To get to the completely clear cut bits of the story we have to zoom in so much that we discover each person himself is pixelated in some way. Make sense? I suppose I’m just saying I think that if we want to bend toward justice then we must bend toward truth, even when that truth has layers and nuance.
5. Lastly, while I love to speak and think in the world of ideas, nothing substitutes for our individual relationships and actions. Whether you are an ideas person or a hands on ‘what about the practical, real life stuff?’ person, we must live out justice in our day to day life. We must be open to people who are in some ways unlike us: our neighbor, our schoolmate, our landscaper, our boss. We must commit to allowing our eyes to be opened to our own assumptions and attitudes and actions. We must commit to ‘doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly’- before God and others. I don’t exactly know the ‘big picture action plan’ for combating injustice, but I do believe it will look like people everywhere doing the next right thing that’s set before us.