My socialization and the presence of race-based violence demands for me to believe that my life as a black person doesn’t matter. I haven’t been shot at or harassed by the cops yet, but I have friends who tell me that I am not as scary as other black people. I have colleagues who compliment me on how articulate I am and are genuinely shocked that I went to college–and graduated, twice. I am even ridiculed for the ways in which my progressive thinking clashes with the stereotypical “hood” mentality where we know our place and stick with our own “kind”. Unfortunately, as a result of institutional oppression, a large segment of our population has been conditioned to accept racism and the belief that it will forever permeate the American landscape.
As a pastor, however, I am inclined to take a different position. You see, not only do black lives matter, but brown lives matter, white lives matter, and all living things matter. I am sorry that for some, Ferguson joins a centuries-long list of institutional attempts to dis-empower the “other”. I am sorry for the families of all the Michael Browns and Emmett Tills whose laments echo through the pages of history. I am sorry for the men responsible for killing them while their sons and daughters watched and are still watching. I am sorry for the people on all sides of this perpetual tragedy who want things to be different.
Many of my colleagues have written me in the hours since the jury’s decision to not indict the officer who killed Michael Brown and are unsure of what to do next because they know that the issues we face as a nation are much deeper than any of us want to comfortably engage. There are no quick fixes when attempting to address over 400 years of violence, distrust, and systemic oppression; and no one person or group of people have all the answers. The path ahead requires discernment and intention as leaders on all sides seek and offer ways to move forward; and in the mean time, here are 5 things we all can do to address the issues of racism and systemic oppression:
- Tell Your story. Whether you are white, black, or brown, you matter and your story matters. Be proud of who you are and where you come from. Embrace your strengths and nurture the parts within you that still need growth. You aren’t expected to have all the answers or to be able to see someone else’s perspective. All any of us can do is acknowledge who we are, where we are, and where we come from while contributing to where we hope to end up.
- Listen with the intent of hearing. Reality is relative and what this means is that what may be real for you may or may not be real for someone else. For those who grew up in the midst of violence, your violent reality can inform those who cannot imagine such conditions. Likewise, for those who had things a bit easier, sharing your story means helping those less privileged re-write their stories as they gain access to a new narrative. We live by example and when we see different and know different, we can live differently.
- Don’t blame. It’s not about the looting and vandalism–even if justified rage is not an excuse to be destructive. There are many factors that contribute to the social inequities many of us experience, and as a result, this pressure and injustice is communicated in productive and unproductive ways. We can blame the system; we can blame our parents; we can blame how a person dresses; we can blame “those people”; and we can even blame the “devil”. Blame gets us nowhere. No one chooses the color they are born or what environment they are born into. We are all products of our conditioning and reconditioning. Once we stop blaming, perhaps we can begin to address the underlying factors that contribute to this broken system and move toward reconciliation and intentional peace.
- Don’t live defeated. As scary as it is for me to go into the world most days as an African-American, queer-identified, effeminate, transgender man, I also know that in order to live my life I must face the fact that not everyone will like me and some people may want me dead because of who I am…or desire to harm me at the very least. Even without appearing to be threatening, I know that I am a threat simply because I am different. Having lived the life I’ve lived and having survived the things I’ve seen, I am not afraid to die, and because of this, I choose to live my life fully and abundantly as if everyday were my last. Sure, there are very difficult, and even terrifying moments, but if I don’t live boldly–dreaming, setting goals for my life, and daring to pursue happiness–then I can’t blame anyone but myself for not living my life the way I believe it deserves to be lived. Fear is to be expected, but we can live from fear and don’t have to live in it. Let your fear magnify your faith and power you forward.
- Embrace different perspectives. Your way isn’t the only way and what you went through is not everyone’s story. There is a way to honor your journey while allowing space for those who don’t share a similar experience. Not all white people are heartless racists and not all black people are ignorant and violent. In the same way that not all Asian people are smart, not all Muslims are terrorists, not all white people are rich, and not all black people are poor. The diversity of our experiences is determined by our perspective so when we broaden our view and open ourselves to seeing different facets of the world and human experience, we will begin to see ourselves and life differently as well.
As long as we vilify one another, as long as we are threatened by difference, as long as we point fingers and blame, this racially unjust system that we’ve inherited won’t change. The only way the system of institutionalized racism will change is if all of us–no matter the color of our skin–put down our guns, set aside our rage, begin to talk to one another and listen to one another with the intention of truly hearing one another…not listening with the intent to respond, fix, validate or invalidate…but hearing. Without hearing the sides of the stories associated with people who don’t look like us or act like us or perceive like us, we fail to acknowledge that the best way forward is through relationship.