Having the Hard Conversations
I’ve come to believe over the past few months that conversations about race and racism cannot take place in 140 characters. In some social media platforms such as Twitter, you have limited space. You can’t say it all. Emotion and detail cannot be fleshed out. Certain conversations about racism demand that we sit with one another and wrestle with what it means to be in community.
Over the last year, many of our staff and many within the annual conference have been wrestling with the issues of race and racism. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve been stretched. My own personal definitions have been challenged and I’m trying to see things from different perspectives.
Shelly Tochluk, a white sociology professor and author of “Witnessing Whiteness,” challenged us to think about how our own experiences affect others and challenged us to be unafraid to talk about race. It’s ok to talk about it. In fact, we need to talk about it. Issues of race do not depend upon a person of color starting the conversation.
I once had a college professor state in a class that he was a “recovering racist.” He defined that and we talked about it as a class. At the time, I don’t think I fully understood it, but I do think the statement holds water, even today, even for me.
See - the thing is . . . I am also a racist. Let that sink in for a second. And then think about how that would sound if I just tried to say that in 140 characters or less. If that’s all I said, you may characterize me as a bigoted, hateful, fear-mongering white male who walks around spewing mean and ugly things toward anyone of color. If I let that statement speak for itself, you might not think very nice things of me.
Racist is an emotionally charged word. It’s an ugly word. There is history. Beverly Tatum, in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria reminds us that “for many white people, to be called racist is the ultimate insult.”
What I’ve learned over the past few months is that it’s ok for me as a white male to come to terms with the fact that my background, my standing, my skin color, and some of my internal biases give me power. And with that power and bias, there is a system of advantage that is related to the color of my skin. That, at the very heart, is racism.
Now the question of how actively or intentionally I participate in issues of power and bias might cause some to then question the definition. Some may claim that they have no power, they’re not economically advantaged, and because they are not in that system of advantage, racism is not part of their social DNA.
I struggle with similar questions, and the only way that I can answer that is by understanding that just because I don’t actively participate in systems that oppress other people, doesn’t mean that I don’t benefit from those systems.
Talking about racism causes me to reflect on issues in the media. What am I feeling when a black male is shot? What is my reaction when a police officer is confronted for “doing their job?” How do I talk about immigration, and election politics, gun control, and well, the list can go on and on. Sometimes I can feel the biases creep into my imagination and into my thought pattern. Who I am, how I’ve been socialized, where I live cause me to think and react in certain ways. Those reactions and thought patterns are part of a larger conversation about race. All of those issues are emotionally charged with opinion and bias.
Isn’t it interesting that I can’t say all that I’ve said in the last six paragraphs in a tweet? In fact, all that I’ve said only scratches the surface of conversations that I’ve had and that I need to continue having.
Admitting that there is racism and owning up to our participation in systems that hold power and bias doesn’t make me (or you) a bad person. Admitting it and confessing also doesn’t absolve me from working toward changing systems so that lives can be impacted. Just because I’m writing this blog doesn’t mean that I don’t have more work to do.
Conversations about race and racism shouldn’t happen on social media. They need to take place around a table where we can confront the real issues, questions can be ask real questions, make confessions and share progress. When I sit at a table, I can be challenged for what I said, and I can also ask a very simple question, “why?” We deserve that as a church and as a people.
There is danger is writing what I just wrote. Someone just might tweet that Greg Cox is a racist. If that happens, I’m not going to respond in 140 characters. Well maybe I will, but I just might respond by saying, “yes, and let’s talk.”
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