In thinking about Charleston or any of the race-related tragedies recently, it seems worth admitting I’ve done a lot of emotional seesawing between defensiveness and guilt.
I see the news. I read the blogs. I hear the stories and they confuse me and make me anxious and stupidly, terribly sad. I hate the pain of it all, so I just go ahead and silence the pain and think about something else.
I get on with my day because I can.
I tell myself that I haven’t really done anything wrong, exactly, but I don’t know if I can say that out loud and so I say nothing. I don’t know what I can say out loud or who I might offend and what labels I might get if I say the wrong thing to the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t think I’m alone in this and it’s not a good place to be.
I get it. It’s truly horrible to consider that I played any role in the loss of nine precious lives at a church in Charleston, or that I benefit from a system that cost Sandra Bland her life. It’s easy to think, “I did not and would never,” because as much as I like to be less than seven degrees away from Kevin Bacon, I find myself willing to do anything I can to prove that I’m as far away as possible from Dylann Roof.
I’ve had all the feelings that I can imagine having about racism, and I’m not proud of some of them. It’s this shame that makes me defensive, but it’s not helpful when I get stuck arguing for my innocence and goodness. I can’t listen to anyone else because I’m so busy talking, even if it’s just inside my own head.
When I think about how I’ve worked through my defensive roadblocks with those close to me? My word, the relief that can come when one of us finds a way to say the words that everyone needs to hear.
Finding a way to say, “I’m sorry. I am wrong. How can I be better?” is really the only way any of us can live with each other in this chaotic world. This is terribly hard and totally real.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling defensive and afraid. I see it in my own friends and family. I hear it on the radio, read it in print, and watch it on TV. Our collective white defensiveness feels overwhelming and impossible to move.
As I listen to the arguments about race in the United States right now, I repeatedly find myself thinking, “SOMEBODY has to say, ‘I’m sorry.’” Somebody white has to stop being defensive and listen to the stories that make us feel defensive in the first place.
White people must do this. White leaders have to do it. In the end, a whole lot of white somebodies need to say, “I’m sorry. I haven’t listened. How can I be better?” if we ever expect to know and live the peace that we seek. And it shouldn’t have taken me this long, but I had the thought the other day, “Oh my God, I have to say it.”
Deep down I want to claim that I’m not at fault. It hurts to stand up, raise my hand, and publicly say, “I’m responsible,” because…what will people think?! Once I acknowledge the truth, then I have to deal with the guilt and that’s a whole decade worth of counseling that nobody has time for right now. The bottom line is I know that I’m guilty. I don’t fully know the extent of it, but it’s true and it has to be said out loud.
I’m realizing that not committing physical violence in no way means I can consider myself blameless. Being born into whiteness and a racist history that I didn’t choose doesn’t absolve me. Thinking myself mostly good and mostly nice doesn’t cut it anymore. White silence is white privilege and racism at work, and if we’re going to break through the things that keep us silent, I imagine we white people need a place to say out loud the thoughts and beliefs and questions that we’re ashamed that we have. If I never get these things out into the light, they will continue to control me and perpetuate my bad behavior to the detriment of us all.
As I’ve come to this conclusion, something has been made very clear to me: our brothers and sisters of color are NOT RESPONSIBLE for providing this place I think white people need to work this stuff out. In reality, more than a handful have done exactly that as I’ve stumbled my way through racist blindness and to them I will forever be grateful.
But expecting people of color to be responsible for making me feel OK about myself and my history is, yet again, privileged whiteness at work.
People of color have enough trouble finding safe spaces without having to provide any for my ignorance. It is not their responsibility to hold up my guilt-ridden, fearful, white psyche. I am responsible for my own beliefs, my own actions, my own complicity—no one else but me. Yes, that’s hard. It’s just as real.
I’m aware that my words are just my own. I know I need to start here. I also know there’s much more to do. Even so, I hope this might open a humble way for other white folks feeling stuck and defensive and afraid. I’m here to listen and to have the hard conversations if it will break the silence and begin the healing.
And so here is my hard and real offering.
My sisters and brothers of color: I want you to hear me acknowledge that you have been right. I have not wanted to believe you when you have shared your stories, so it is time for me to say, “I am sorry. I have been wrong. How can I be better?” I am sorry for the ways I have silently accepted the benefits of my whiteness without questioning how the system is hurting you. I am sorry I have not always worked for change because it’s just easier to stay silent. I’m sorry for living contentedly in my ignorance simply because I can, because I’m white, and because the system works for me. I am sorry that so many people of color have to live so many days questioning their worth and working to have others acknowledge it. I’m sorry you have had to do this work without my help. I have been so terribly wrong. I am sorry. I am learning to think better. I am working to live better. How can I be better?
I hope my candor about the ugliness inside begins to pick up the burden of responsibility that I have expected others to carry. Love can only win if we decide to raise our hands one by one and share the thoughts that keep us defensive and afraid. I do hope others will join me in saying and living into the terribly hard and terribly real words, “I am sorry. I have been wrong. How can I be better?”
May these few words of my own begin to contribute to the healing. May my actions stop perpetuating the terribly hard and terribly real pain.