What do you do when your GPS dies? In my last post I quoted the poet Mark Nepo, from his book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen. Writing about his experience of emerging from deep thought, driving on a familiar road, but in unfamiliar conditions, suddenly and sharply aware that he doesn’t know exactly where he is, he says, “When I lost track of my context, I had to slow down considerably…. My way became immediate….” (emphasis mine)
I wrote about my own recent and visceral experience of that loss of context, driving to a cabin in the woods on unfamiliar country roads, relying on the GPS on my iPhone, which was just about to die on me. Nepo’s experience caused me to reflect, too, on my mother’s loss of context as she journeyed deeper into Alzheimer’s.
However, there’s another loss of context, recent and crucial, that is happening for people like me, people who all our lives have been racialized to identify as “white.” I say, “racialized,” because none of us white folks were born “white.” Minister and theologian Thandeka, in her book Learning to Be White, illustrates in example after example the persistent pedagogy that has taught and still teaches light-skinned children to identify as white. We had to learn to be “white.”
When white people think about the concept of race, we don’t usually think about the term as applying to us. I became aware of this curious mental twist as I was led to explore the concept of “whiteness” in a webinar led by Patti Digh and Victor Lee Lewis, “Hard Conversations: Whiteness, Race, and Social Justice” (pattidigh.com; also see my blog post, “An Opportunity for Holy Discomfort”). When white people say the word “race,” we are generally talking about people of color. For example, we don’t refer to ourselves regularly as “white,” but we do refer to people of darker skin, as “Black.” (To get a real sense of how ingrained this mindset is, try Thandeka’s exercise of referring to yourself and every other white person as “white”: my white pastor, my white mother, my white doctor. If you try that exercise consistently for a week, as she recommends, you will learn some interesting things about yourself. I certainly did.)
Furthermore, have you ever noticed that, when someone who is considered “white” is arrested for an alleged crime, usually no mention is made of their race. However, if the person arrested is a person of color, they are identified as such. Not to mention that, if the suspects are white, they are more likely to be apprehended without being wounded or killed, even if they threaten the police with a loaded gun or kill police officers. (Just Google “white people threatening police and getting away with it.”)
Have you ever stopped to wonder: What’s going on here? And what do you suppose is being taught to our children, under the radar, so to speak, as they daily witness race perceived as a kind of deviance, rather than a social construct we all share?
The murder of George Floyd, 8 minutes and 46 seconds of which was broadcast throughout the media, has precipitated a shift in the awareness of white people. This shift amounts to a major loss of context. And this is true even, and perhaps especially, for white people like me who came of age in the 60s, at the height of the civil rights struggle against segregation and the beginnings of the Black Power movement.
I grew up thinking, as Robin DiAngelo describes in White Fragility, that “racists” were the people who did bad things, like donning white sheets and burning crosses, lynching young men like Emmett Till, murdering civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Racists” were the ones who pointed a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun, loaded with double-aught buckshot, at the window of my family’s home and pulled the trigger, hoping to kill teenagers at a party, because the party was integrated.
While criticizing those people as the real “racists,” I remained comfortably unaware of the racism that was a daily part of my life. By narrowly defining racism as something that involves committing overtly racist acts, I could ignore that the way I live my life from day to day is supporting a system designed to perpetuate racism. Jesus called it, looking at the speck in your neighbor’s eye, while paying no attention to the plank in your own (Matthew 7:3-5).
Now, once again, we white folks find ourselves confronted by our history, by the racist decisions and actions of our ancestors; by the demand for reparations; and by the challenge that we ourselves have supported and upheld white supremacy in ways often unrecognized by us. I say, “unrecognized by us,” because people of color have long recognized the ways in which white people remain silent in the face of the unearned privilege attached to the color of our skin. In news clips from Barack Obama’s speech in 2008, just after he is declared the 44th President of the United States, the first person of color to hold that position, Black people are weeping and hugging each other. However, none of them seem to have been surprised when, a short 8 years later, another white man was elected to that office, promising to “Make America Great Again” and making conciliatory statements to white supremacist groups in the aftermath of the 2017 march in Charlottesville, saying that “there are good people on both sides.” (By the way, can you imagine what would have happened if Black people had marched in Charlottesville with burning torches, shouting violent slogans?)
Black people have known for centuries that racism isn’t just the racist actions of a marginal group. Racism is a systemic issue; it was built into the foundation and the structure of every social interaction, every business transaction, every point of day-to-day encounter between people who identified as “white” and those they labelled “non-white.” and was a major impetus for the formation of what are now our police departments.
I do not have to look far to find examples in my own life. I can find them in my own family’s history, both in the past and in my lifetime, and in the things I heard and absorbed when I was a child. I had the great good fortune of being born to a couple who allowed the questions of the civil rights movement to interrogate their own lives. But my father did not give up his segregationist views easily, until the leaders of the civil rights movement and their commitment to non-violent civil disobedience led him finally to admit to himself, “Wes, the only reason you’re upset is because Martin Luther King is just a better Christian than you are.” Dad recalls, as a boy riding the school bus, seeing Black children walking in the opposite direction. “It never occurred to me,” he says, “to ask ‘Why? Why are these children walking while I am riding?’” Nor did it occur to him to ask why Black and white children could not attend school together. And although my paternal grandfather refused to give the poll test only to Black people, a refusal for which he was fired, he still believed that people of color had to “know their place.” It was only at the end of his life that he began to question the racist attitudes that had been instilled in him from birth.
And me? After Obama became President, I was lulled into thinking that his election meant that things had fundamentally changed, that racism was on the way out. I had decided not to write the story of what happened to my family in the late 60s, when we were threatened with death for having an integrated party, because that was “old news,” and now we live in a “post-racist society”–Right?
Then, a video was released of the lynching of a young man named Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging through a white neighborhood, a place he had jogged many times. I forced myself to watch the full video, the one that had not been blurred for television broadcast. For a moment I could not breathe, I felt like I had been punched, tears rolling down my face. Soon after, news broke about the death of a young EMS worker, Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police who stormed into her apartment in the middle of the night with a no-knock warrant. No video this time, but it eventually came out that the person the police were seeking to arrest did not live there and, in fact, had already been apprehended in another location across town.
Finally, it was the video of George Floyd’s murder, which we have only because of the unflinching courage of a young woman 17 years old, Darnella Frazier, that forced white America to look directly into the brutal face of racism and be horrified in a way that we should have been horrified by the photographs of Emmett Till decades ago. In the midst of a lockdown during a pandemic, there was no way for any of us to look away from the truth.
I am currently reading Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, by Jennifer Harvey. In the Introduction, Dr. Harvey writes, “Despite decades of calls from Black activists, scholars, and theologians, white Christians’ attempts to address racism have largely failed to acknowledge the problem of whiteness.” (p. 11) Harvey is making the case that the paradigm of reconciliation, the paradigm that white liberals and progressives have held to since the mid-60s, has proven inadequate, and that we must look for a new paradigm, perhaps the paradigm of reparations.
We white folks have lost our context. With Nepo, we can say that our way has become immediate. There is no point in turning to the maps we’ve been following; they are as inadequate as maps of the world made in the 15th century. And we cannot trust the GPS on which we’ve relied, because it is about to die. We must embrace this opportunity, in all its uncertainty. We must come to the present moment, and, in the immediacy of the present moment, open ourselves to new learnings, new understandings, new directions. Otherwise we will never find our way.