Glimpsing the Racism Within

Some of us white people have been moved to lament by the obvious racism in our land. It’s happened before; it will happen again.

Whenever we feel pain, something inside wants to run from it, to get away. Perhaps that’s how we’re made to respond automatically to pain — a defense mechanism that’s pretty useful for survival in some contexts. But in other contexts this instinct, or subconscious tendency, to try to escape pain as quickly as possible can be unhealthy. Some kinds of grief teach us this truth. Grieving a deep loss is a process; you can’t escape it even if you want to. It comes back no matter what, in unexpected ways until its grief work is done.

I’m wondering if those of us in white culture who are lamenting the racism of our land right now are willing to engage in deeper grief over our endemic national racism — the kind of grief that doesn’t go away in a few days or a few weeks. The kind of grief that hangs around until it does its work. Since lament over racism is a disembodied reality for white people (our bodies are rarely if ever the targets of racism), we have to be intentional about getting to a place where the lament can begin to coagulate into some kind of deep grief within us.

That requires really seeing the pain that will not go away. Instead of moving on to the next national or global crisis, what if we keep looking at the acts of racism until the images are imprinted on our brains and the reality is hard to escape? We have to listen to the stories of racism, listening in a way that sets aside our white tendency to orchestrate the conversations, setting boundaries that can’t be crossed, rules that can’t be broken about what the black man or black woman can say and how it can be said. Perhaps by suspending our white defense mechanisms we can glimpse the racism that our privilege exempts us from.

What I’m trying to lean into is empathy. But it’s hard. Something in me wants to move on to something else and away from the pain that the other feels. Yet we know from the great mystics that pain is one of the most powerful teachers of the spiritual life and that we must hang around it long enough for it to teach us what it can — what we can only learn in the middle of the pain. Maybe we privileged white folks can get a bit better about staying at least near enough to the pain of racism, and long enough to that pain, that we can feel some of its destructive power, at least vicariously, and in that place of pain find empathy.

It’s a personal experiment. I don’t know if I can actually do it. To be honest, I don’t know if I actually want to do it, to intentionally place myself near the pain of racism and stay there. But I’m suspicious that if white followers of Jesus want to be a part of the divine plan to dismantle this evil, we have to try.

Let us lament. Let us grieve. We white folks must not run from seeing the pain of racism. We have to stay beside that pain long enough to let it work its spiritual power within us, moving us to the kind of deeper grief that doesn’t evaporate, the kind of pain that will not leave us alone in our privilege.

If we are brave enough, perhaps each of us white folks could honestly say to a black friend, “Tell me about the ways I have been racist toward you.” Those of us who are white progressives can imagine ourselves enlightened about the racism that’s out there in “uninformed” white culture. Perhaps we even think of ourselves as “woke” on the issue. Maybe, just maybe, we can find the courage to wonder about the racism that is so deep inside our privilege that we can’t see it in ourselves, or imagine it. How easy it is to objectify racism as something “over there,” and miss the reality of the racism that is within.

We have a lot of work to do if we want to make any progress. We have a lot of listening to do. We have a lot of pain to see, and to feel. Until we get near enough to the pain and stay there, we will never grieve deeply enough to glimpse the beast of racism that is within.

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