A couple of months ago one of my African American friends and readers unsubscribed from my list.
I immediately began to worry that it was because of a couple recent posts I’d written. I worried that it was because in my attempt to challenge liberals (white liberals in particular) to “climb the empathy wall” and seek to understand (though not condone) the perspectives of white conservatives that I unintentionally communicated an acceptance of racism.
I’m trying to learn how to talk/write out loud about race and gender oppression and injustice while holding all of it alongside the goodness of human beings and of this life we’re living here on Earth that is so often woven together with some really horrible evils.
Like the school-to-prison pipeline.
Like separating children from their parents at the borders of one of the richest most powerful nations in the world.
Like people getting killed for being gay.
And some more subtle, insidious evils.
Like people of color having to deal with yet another white person telling them that they “don’t see color” or responding in a variety of creative, defensive ways when shown their own racial biases, or the racist practices and policies all around us.
Like women who are confident and assertive being labeled as “bitches” when men doing the same thing are viewed as great leadership material.
Like the many ways that certain body types are set forth as the standard of beauty and others as unacceptable.
Like stereotypical versions of the traditional clothing of indigenous peoples being viewed as appropriate “costumes” for white folx.
After years of seeing mostly just the harm caused by white people, and not finding much room in myself to recognize that there could also be goodness (including in myself and my ancestors) I am trying to make space for the complexity of people.
Because being stuck in shame doesn’t actually help to dismantle racist structures or bring about more justice and healing. In fact, it keeps me focused on myself. Aloof. Distanced.
The reality of human life is that there are good people who participate in horrible things. I am one of them. So are you. And the more privilege we have in our particular culture and context the more damage we’re likely to have participated in harm in one way or another, often without any conscious awareness of it.
I don’t ever want to justify the harm – that’s the tricky part. If I run over your foot with my car unintentionally, you still have a broken foot. And I have a responsibility to address that harm.
I am increasingly more convinced that compassion for other human beings (and ourselves) and acceptance of the fact that that we will do harm both intentionally and unintentionally, is the only path we can take towards healing our broken world.
Especially for white folx in the U.S. who have grown up learning the many “scripts” of white supremacy — which means all of us, not just those who claim the title of white supremacist with pride. I don’t want that to be true, but I can’t escape it.
I’m especially thankful for some people of color—like Amanda Kemp, Andréa Ranae, Ijumaa Jordan and my friend Nyeema Watson who have offered me unearned compassion alongside challenges that expose my participation in the very messed up way of being that we’ve all grown up with in the U.S. Their compassion toward me, along with truth-telling, is helping me to grow in my ability to offer compassion to others. Including those with whom I strongly disagree.
I’m thankful that among activists in many circles there is a growing movement to do big work in new ways that start with self-compassion and self-care. Check out The Nap Ministry for a unique example – napping as resistance! Or the Healing Justice podcast (the name is changing soon because the founders, who are white, were helped to see that they had appropriated a term created by BIPOC queer activists.)
For people of color it’s very likely that your next step in the work of racial healing is NOT to talk to white people sometimes – or a lot of the time. I know for both my husband and my oldest son, working only with people of color for the past year and not having to deal much with white folx has been a much needed respite from the constant defending and explaining they have to do when around white people who don’t want to believe racism exists, or that they are part of the problem. Or who want people of color to do the work of teaching them, whether they want to or not.
One woman at a recent anti-racism retreat I attended realized that she needs to start to refer the many white people who approach her for conversations to other people at her institution who have a desire and capacity that she doesn’t have right now. She’s kept showing up again and again for conversations about race and racism, facing white people’s implicit bias, defensiveness and ignorance because doesn’t want the students at her institution to continue be harmed. But she has been taking on too much of the harm herself for too many years.
Maybe that is your next step too. To say NO. To rest.
For me, rest and self-compassion are needed as well, but as a starting place for the courageous conversations I need to say YES to more often. As a white person, it’s new work, so it’s hard in a different way for me than for a person of color. I’m strengthening emotional and spiritual muscles that haven’t gotten a lot of use.
My pride and perfectionism and messed-up ideas about goodness/evil cause me to feel uncomfortable allowing myself rest and self-compassion when I have so much privilege, but I can’t just vault over these practices to get to the hard conversations, or to develop the strength I need to keep returning to them.
Neither can you. Not if you want to do your real work in the world.
So, whether you are a person of color or a white person, queer or straight. Whether you’ve been an activist for decades or are beating yourself up for still being afraid to speak up when someone makes an inappropriate joke, let alone doing any kind of community organizing, I hope you’ll join me in prioritizing some rest and practicing some self-compassion.
If you have no idea where to start, try just holding your hand over your heart and thinking of the word LOVE for a few breaths.
I’m sending lots of it your way today.
Thanks for reading. Here’s to thriving…and equity.