The world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is a visceral terror. I can't prove this, but I know it. It's the terror of being described by those they've been describing for so long. (James Baldwin)
Collectively, those of us who seek to be allies with the African-American community, and by extension, all communities in our country experiencing bigotry and racism and exclusion and violence and terror, do indeed have work to do. Lots of it. We can help.
It's important to do the right things for the right reasons. We need to ask the right questions, open ourselves to critique, assume a teachable posture, and educate ourselves.
If we do not, much of what the majority culture will "do" in response to the the tragedy of #Charleston will become exercises in meeting our own needs. "I need you to need me. I want you to want me. Look how helpful I am!"
This is always a danger in therapeutic or helping situations. It's particularly dangerous when there's a sense of collective guilt or complicity.
So, part of our work is to self-differentiate, to do work ourselves so that we can be a better and stronger presence for others.
One way to self-differentiate is to become less fragile. Learn to accept the criticism of minority voices, free of defensiveness. The two most effective beliefs that keep white people from seeing racism as a structural issue are that 1) racists are bad people, and 2) that racism is conscious dislike.
A second step is to acknowledge that whiteness is a thing, and it can be described. Last week while I was in Chicago at 57th Street Books I happened upon a collection of interviews with James Baldwin. In one interview, he was asked, "What is the role of of black writers today?" His response is incredible, "This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete."
Now, if a white author had said that, the implication might have been that erasing color is important, in order to start assuming again that the world is white. But that isn't Baldwin's point. So he continues:
"Well, you ask me a reckless question, I'll give you a reckless answer--by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is a visceral terror. I can't prove this, but I know it. It's the terror of being described by those they've been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete. Do you see what I mean?"
Lester: I see what you mean, but some black writers of my generation might say that the responsibility of black writers is to write about black people.
Baldwin: That is not a contradiction. If our voices are heard, it makes the concept of color obsolete. That has to be the inevitable result."
If our voices are heard, it makes the concept of color obsolete. If we want to stand up to racism, our first step is to ensure black voices are heard. So how can we do that? White people can do it by listening better. Follow #blacktwitter. Learn from NPR how to code switch in reverse.
Lots of us, naturally, also want to reach out to and comfort Mother Emmanuel AME as a congregation. And there are good ways to do that. For example, the city of Charleston is itself taking up a collection that will cover funeral costs, and all remaining funds will be given to the congregation itself: http://www.charleston-sc.gov/index.aspx?NID=1330 Their web site itself includes a donate button, and contact information if you'd like to send a letter: http://www.emanuelamechurch.org
My own tendency is to take my emotional struggle and grief and to channel it into proactive work and love here in our own community. If you are in a predominately white congregation, reach out to a local African-American congregation and support them. Go be with them in appropriate ways. White people like to make minority communities come and meet them where they are. If we want to change, we have to be open to discomfort. It's not easy visiting other faith communities, because you have to learn where to park, how to act, what to say. But it's worth the time.
If you are in a white ELCA congregation, get in this for the long haul. Lutherans are known for sticking with the work until its actually done. Where will you be next month, next year, five years from now? Our own congregation is organizing a year long conversation on Race, Reconciliation, Reparations, and Restoration. We are going to read, and talk, and study, making use of ELCA resources and a variety of books. We are also going to ask ourselves over and over again, after listening to our neighbors and study resources, a simple questions: "How can we do more than just talk?"
If you are super ambitious, one excellent syllabus that has been making the rounds is worth a look: http://aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/
Then, there is this post from Sojourners on how white Christians can get in the game: https://sojo.net/articles/we-are-one-body-white-christians-time-get-game
And finally, because of the making of blog posts there is no end, I will conclude with a confession of complicity, that this most recent tragedy, this domestic terrorist act, was perpetrated by a member of a Lutheran church, and against pastors trained in a Lutheran seminary. This one hits so very close to home. Which is why the grief is so deep, and the need to respond more urgent and deep than heretofore. We have a lot of work to do.