It's Time to Get Uncomfortable
If we are going to work towards racial reconciliation, white Americans are going to have to get out of their comfort zone
In Embracing Curiosity, I step away from writing about travel to comment on the bigger journey of life, exploring my faith and politics with curiosity and nuance.
Dear fellow white people,
I do hear you. You’re tired. You’re tired of being told that you are somehow privileged because you were born white. You’re tired of seeing the violence on the news or witnessing it first hand in your own town. You’re tired of feeling like you have to walk on eggshells when you are around non-whites because you don’t want to be accused of saying or doing the wrong thing. You’re tired of being told that America really isn’t as exceptional as you were raised to believe that it is.
And I know that you don’t want to hear this, but it’s time to finally step up and realize that this isn’t about you. Ok, maybe it is about you, just a little bit, but not in the way that you think.
It isn’t about just you. It’s about the bigger tapestry in which you are a tiny thread. An integral thread that is woven into the fabric, but still tiny and barely noticeable from a distance. That thread is woven with others, each thread dependent on the structural integrity and survival of the threads that surround it. If one gets pulled, the others might be damaged in the process, leaving the thread, and every thread attached to it, forever changed.
And so it is with a functional society. We were created to be interdependent, to help each other when we are strong and to ask for help when we are broken down. We are created to do this without consideration of race, culture, gender, or creed. American exceptionalism may have inspired innovation and economic growth. But it also ignored long-term effects for short terms gains, and now we are seeing the growing cracks split wide open.
Many white people are wondering what happened to their country. The country that they see today is not the country that they recognize from their youth and young adulthood.
The uncomfortable truth is that the country hasn’t changed; the problems that we see today are the problems that have always been there. The difference is that many of those speaking up finally took the situation into their own hands, broke open the lock, and turned their mute button off.
Yes, it is uncomfortable and it is against human nature to be uncomfortable. We don’t like feeling uneasy and unsure about our past, present, and future. But the harsh truth is that we are long past overdue for an honest conversation about race and the role that the history of oppression continues to play in our present.
It’s time for us to get uncomfortable.
We have to let go of our darlings.
I remember the first time I was told that the classic Holiday Inn was being broadcast on TV without the blackface “Abraham” number. As a child completely unaware of the history of blackface and minstrel shows in American culture, I thought the scene was funny. After all, the screenwriters were simply implementing a common literary device of disguise.
But now I just can’t do it. I know too much. I know better. I bought the DVD of Holiday Inn years ago so I could share it with my own children but I’ve never opened it. I just can’t do it because if I expect better from my kids, I need to show them better at home.
I didn’t really think about Little House on the Prairie until I started reading them to my daughter. I had seen the supposedly inflammatory headlines about libraries pulling the books off of the shelves because they were racist. I remembered reading the books as a child and my mother’s deep love for Laura Ingalls Wilder, so much so that we had to visit her home in DeSmet, South Dakota on a family vacation. My memories of the stories of Laura and her sisters were always so positive.
Then my daughter and I got past Little House in the Big Woods and I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the way Native Americans and black individuals were discussed in the following novels. My daughter got bored and I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t want to continue with a story that gave my young daughter a negative impression of people unlike herself. It wasn’t my job to teach her historical context. It was my job to teach her respect for those different from her. Wilder’s books were not going to help me do that.
Letting go of the things we love because we know better now can be difficult, but like ditching the childhood blankie, sometimes it’s just time to say goodbye.
We have to acknowledge when we discover our own bias.
When you have been taught your entire life to be “colorblind” and get defensive when your racial bias is called out, it can get really uncomfortable. The truth is, we have all been raised with racial bias. We talk about the “other side of the tracks” and the “bad part of town,” most of us aware that the phrase usually refers to places where whites are not the majority and residents are less wealthy. We’ve been trained to believe that “welfare queens” refers to black mothers who have multiple children but ignore the statistical reality that the vast majority of women on welfare are, in fact, white. We see schools that are majority minorities and assume that they are somehow inferior to majority-white schools.
I remember a couple of years ago when my husband slapped me in the face with my own unacknowledged bias. We were driving through a section of Houston that had been spruced up for the Super Bowl and I made some offhand comment that it looked amazing but I questioned whether it would last. He responded with, “Well that was a little racist.”
It stung. I tried to defend myself, but after some reflection, I was ashamed to admit that he was right. That statement made assumptions about how the neighborhood would take care of the new facelift based on the racial and economic makeup of the residents. My statement wasn’t fair, it was dead wrong, and I should have just left it at being impressed with the effort being made by our city.
The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. We need to spend less time defending ourselves and more time seeking to understand our own internalized bias.
We have to call out hypocrisy.
I know a handful of people who are 100% pro-life. When they say “All lives matter,” they mean all lives matter. They believe in caring for the poor, housing the homeless, ending the death penalty, justice reform, AND protecting the unborn.
Then there are the rest.
I’ve seen far too many people who love to bring up the many black and brown babies that are aborted every year, yet they have no interest in fixing the issues that cause those mothers to seek abortion. They don’t seek to understand the why and be proactive, instead of making judgemental claims based on their own narrow experience.
When a black person is shot by police, white people ask “what was he or she doing wrong?” instead of questioning the motives and actions of the police officer. We hear about “black on black” crime but not “white on white” crime, even though the reality is you are most likely to be killed by a person who looks like you. And when white protestors march down the street carrying weapons, they are far less likely to be tear-gassed than weaponless black protestors.
Calling out hypocrisy isn’t about “canceling” someone for their behavior. It is a call to action and an understanding that consistent messaging and action matter, all the time.
We have to stop being prudish.
I’m not saying that we need to let go of our moral center and religious beliefs, but life is messy and if we’re going to really open up to the experiences of our non-white fellow citizens, we need to stop being so squeamish when they are telling us the truth about their experiences.
As an English teacher I’ve dealt with my fair share of students and parents who have complained about literature that includes sex, drugs, violence, and impolite language. More often than not, a parent will be more offended by profanity uttered during a moment of war than they are about the use of racial slurs. They will be more upset about a rape scene than they are about the description of a soldier getting shot in the head.
Shakespeare is full of sex, violence, and impolite speech. The difference? It’s old, written by a white male, and people struggle to understand it. And yet I’ve seen people who have no issue with reading about Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide or Iago’s obsession with Othello and Desdemona’s sex life yet cringe when exposed to the harsh realities of masters brutally raping their slave women.
Should all of those things make us uncomfortable? Probably, but life is messy and we need to deal with the mess, not stuff it all into the closet.
We have to stop defending the Church in its role in our nation’s racial problems.
The American Christian Church and Christianity itself appear to be at a crossroads. Those who belong to the American church are having to decide if they are more interested in a life-changing faith in a Savior that offers a heavenly kingdom or maintaining the social hierarchy and status quo.
And the bigger, white-dominated evangelical church in American has plenty of skeletons in its closet.
Churches in the south defended and perpetuated slavery. Missionaries went to the reservations and attempted a full implementation of the philosophy “kill the Indian, save the man.” The Bible was used to defend miscegenation laws. Most recently, pastors across the country have turned a blind eye to families being separated at the border, children being held without an adult in detention centers, and refugees and asylum seekers being left to die in their own filth.
The truth is that white ministers throughout history have accused those fighting for racial or gender equality as troublemakers who were subverting the social order and disobeying scripture.
If we truly believe that all people are children of the same creator then it is time to make sure that our non-white brothers and sisters have an equal position at the table.
We have to stop believing that we have all the answers.
No one has all of the answers. No one knows how to fix all of our problems. We can’t even agree on every single cause for our nation’s problems with race.
But we can just stop and listen. We can seek understanding. We can just shut up for one minute and let the voices of those who are hurting make us uncomfortable and force us to squirm under the scrutiny that has been bypassed for far too long.
I recently started following the Instagram account run by several of my former students and older alum of one of the Christian high schools I used to teach at. They are seeking to right the racial wrongs that have taken place in the high school that they called home for four years. Reading the anonymous testimonies of former and current students has broken my heart and made me question my own behavior with my students of color. But as uncomfortable as it has made me to read those testimonies, I know how important it is for them to use their voice and for me to read what they have to say.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m learning every day. But I am learning and growing, which is the very least that we can all do.
To borrow a metaphor from one of my favorite podcasters, being a citizen and loving your country is much like being a mother. Pregnancy can be uncomfortable and painful. Childbirth can be uncomfortable and painful. Recovery can be uncomfortable and painful. Watching your babies grow from helpless infants to exploring toddlers to excited children to snarky pre-teens to distant teenagers can be emotionally uncomfortable and painful.
But if you love your children, you both embrace and struggle through the pain and discomfort. You know that the difficulty will pass. You know that you and your children will be better for it when you get to the other side. You cry and pray and lament when you see them struggling. As much as it hurts, you don’t give up until the challenge is resolved because you know how important that resolution is if they are going to grow into mature and independent adults capable of taking on the world.
And so it is with our country and racism. Dear fellow white people, we cannot allow our black and brown brothers and sisters to struggle through this alone anymore. It is time for all of us to embrace and struggle through the pain and discomfort that comes with knowledge and change.
A recent tweet by writer Austin Channing Brown says it well.
Hope isn’t about optimism. It is about fighting for a better world because it is necessary. We need to make space for mourning and lament and then we need to work to be better and do better by those who have been hurt by our centuries of inaction.
It’s time to do better. It’s time to get uncomfortable. Because the work is not finished until we live in a country where equality and representation are the norm instead of an anomaly to be celebrated.
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