This past weekend I participated in a training for those who are interested in facilitating conversations on racism and race, specifically within faith communities, particularly Christian. No, I didn't need to be educated on what racism is and how it operates in every realm of society and a person's life. My entire life has been all the tutelage I could ever need. Furthermore, I am also very much a student of history and observer of societal function. The training didn't teach me about the subject matter, but it gave me invaluable tools, methods, resources, and hands-on experience with facilitating what I consider to be the most difficult conversation in the United States, western world, and, arguably, the world.
Why is this such a difficult conversation you ask?
The answer to that question is not a surprise to most people, but it is one that is danced around, so to speak, or flat out denied. That answer boils down to one phrase - white fragility. White fragility refers to the feelings and reactions of white people whenever the topic of race and racism is being discussed. Fragility is a word that is derived from the word fragile, which literally means easily broken or damaged. In this context, I would associate this type of fragility with a bruised ego. In other words, someone with an inflated sense of themselves, exhibiting arrogance, is easily offended if anything challenges that inflated sense of self. They enter into the fight or flight duality, in part because that inflated sense of self is a mirage. The mirage often masks insecurities.
This bruised ego is analogous to white fragility because it comes from a place of never having to confront reality. Unlike Black people, who are faced with the fact that we are Black each and every day of our existence, white people can literally traverse life and never have to acknowledge or deal with their whiteness. In other words, their privilege is a mirage of superiority (purported as normalcy) that they are never confronted with until race and racism are brought to the forefront, whether it be in conversation or any practical way.
Continuing in this line of thinking, the conversation is also difficult because in being confronted with your privilege, you must come to the realization that you can easily perpetuate the problem. It is easy to point to a singular figure or group as an evil to be rooted out, but it is much more difficult to point to an entire society and culture. Our country teaches us to think in the former way instead of the latter. This makes it difficult for white people to come to terms with racism as a system they benefit from the same as way that many men, for instance, have to come to terms with patriarchy as a system they benefit from. I can bring up several examples related to this as well, but I will leave it there.
I had the blessing at this training of not having to deal with any white person who was unwilling or unable (immature) to have an authentic conversation about their privilege given through a racist system. The facilitators, both Black and white, set the tone for the atmosphere, where the people of color in the room had priority, so to speak. One of the things that was more of a challenge, however, was following up on that genuine engagement with action.
This is not a surprise to any of us who have ever sought to make some sort of change on a micro or macro level in our own spheres of influence, our community, country, or world. It is actually probably not even a surprise to anyone who hasn't done that. People who are or have been a part of any group, organization, or had what was considered a great idea have to inevitably face the question of what's next after the excitement, passion, and even tears have been expended. The training facilitators sought to emphasize the action part of the title of the training, which was added to the original title for that very purpose. Getting people to move past cohesion around ideas and vigor for something was what I was seeking. Getting white people to move past that was really what I was seeking, even though it is not my job as a black person to prompt a white person into action . Your own internal morals and integrity should do that. Nevertheless, as one of my Black counterparts in the room so eloquently stated, "We don't need your apologies, we need your actions."
While I do agree we need action and not just feelings of shame and anger on the part of white people, an apology is also needed. Continuous apology and action are needed. Apology cannot be a step in the process that is skipped. The apology stage is the acknowledgement. Once you have acknowledged, you are forced to react to that acknowledgement. This can be likened to what we do in the Christian tradition, when we acknowledge our sins before God and seek forgiveness. After we have sought forgiveness, there should be adamant effort at change on our part, so that we are not repeating the same mistakes (sins) over and over again. This step is needed, to begin with, to begin to move past committing the same racial/racist sins over and over again.
Ultimately, the training offered useful tools that I can use in these conversations to push any group forward. This is less of a stumbling block to me now both personally and when engaging in these types of conversations. I won't delve deeply into the details in this post, but I offer some concluding words of advice for both Black African American people and white people.
For my Black sisters and brothers, do not cradle and console white people. There is no compromising with that point. We should not be concerned with hurt feelings, when it comes at the expense of our re-traumitization and very real potential harm. For white people everywhere who want to begin to be involved in the work to transform our society, learn to value your integrity more than your need to be liked. You will have family members and friends who will need to be corrected, and, if need be, completely cut off. Sometimes that is the only way people begin to get the picture. if your goal is to be liked by everyone, then you will solidify yourself as part of the problem.
For Black and white Christians alike understanding these two bits of advice is vitally important. Jesus was uncompromising in his ministry. His message was not always well received, and he was definitely not universally beloved. Regardless of who liked him and his message or whose ego was bruised, he was faithful in the calling he was purposed to fulfill. We are called not to be apologists or to tow the line in our message, but to be authentic prophetic voices and actors to help bring about justice for all people in this world!
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