Racism: changing this river’s course

Forces whose timing and movement we cannot fathom and must act on

Across the globe, a virus we cannot see exerts its gravitational pull towards safety, protection, distancing, isolation. We do not all have the same choice to hunker down.

An equally potent force pulls newly mobilizing white people alongside seasoned activists – to rise and move together with our neighbors – and “strangers” of color. 

(I am painfully aware I might well be marching alongside the same black man who I crossed the street to avoid on a city street at night six months ago.)

Often masked, sometimes social distancing, protesters flow like a river down streets emptied of automobile traffic by Covid-19 even before protests began: to grieve, rage, chant, home-school our children in the streets, make vivid the pain and we-are-doneness in a cultural body that perhaps is on its way to becoming one sensing, healing and awakening body after all. 

Young people lead once again, as they have on environmental justice. Often black youth in the foreground: kids likely to die of racism before Covid-19 threatened them. White children as young as preschool are getting newly inoculated with a race-appropriate version of “the talk” – a talk that has a moral compass.

We may be in a position to watch these events live-streamed…from within our home offices / home schools / home kitchens

or we may be in a position to march….

or to honk our car horns in support…

or, as my sister living in a high-rise for seniors in Berkeley…to light a candle on her 2nd floor balcony that may not actually be visible to anyone.

What is it that is happening on the sidewalks, in the streets?

Sidewalks and streets that have belonged to white people since the early days in America’s history?

How is it that our grief walks the streets, hundreds, thousands together, when we have not been able to gather to sit with our dying family members, bury our dead, witness wedding vows, eat, study?

How is it that strangers have emerged from siloed neighborhoods, the red-lined and the privileged, to walk together?

Washington Post reporter Marissa J. Lang writes

“They didn’t have a plan at first. Five friends determined to join protests over the police killing of George Floyd arrived in downtown Washington on Saturday with one goal: Get to the White House.

As they walked south toward the bright white pillars in the distance, the group began to call out to passersby — people out for walks or jogs, some curiously eyeing the young people brandishing signs and face masks, marching with their fists held high.

“Walk with us,” called Jasmine Grobes, 27. “Come on! Walk with us.”

By the time they reached the metal barricades around Lafayette Square, that group of five had swelled to nearly 50 times that number. “

If you want to move a river, dig a channel…the river will flow into it.

There is movement, a change in choreography: police and protesters reach out to one another in small moments even as tear gas and rubber bullets fly elsewhere. The channel that protesters, and sometimes police officers, are digging reclaims public spaces.

There are stunning and tantalizing examples of a different kind of listening and bridging that is taking place. 

There are messages everywhere: on signs, on fences – most notably on the security fence surrounding the White House.

“We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish.”

“When do I go from cute to dangerous?”

“Racism makes our patients sick.”

“We all bleed the same color.”

“Racism is the pandemic.”

“Why do you hate me?”

“Am I next?”

“Enough.”

We don’t know if we are in Langston Hughes’ Final Curve, as much as we may long for it

When you turn the corner

And you run into yourself

Then you know that you have turned

All the corners that are left.

We cannot foresee the outcome of this moment of letting go and coming in.

This is a mass of “unorganized” humanity beginning to sense itself – what one theory of change says is the key to transforming consciousness. 

In this view we observe, observe, observe. We go to the place of greatest potential to listen with our minds and our hearts wide open.

The place of most potential is our own being - and so we practice

With modest, not grand gestures, we begin to lay a foundation for racial repair and reconciliation.

We recommit to practice, to owning and freeing ourselves from our personal and cultural history.

We wrestle with responsibility, shame, and forgiveness of self and other, one second at a time.

We walk together, dismantle the shared racial structures together.

We make changes of the heart and let them guide changes in the law.

 

This is how we dig the channel to move the river of racism.

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Banner photo by John Salvino

To explore your own stories about race is hard to do alone. If you are ready to let your mind and heart break open into a larger story, let’s talk about how the practices of Radical Inclusion can support you.

White? Get acquainted with visceral awareness

I want to talk about what it means to be a white person “affected” by race

Since we live in a universe that is based on relationships, we are continuously affected by external factors – people and events. And we continuously affect others. In recent days we have been profoundly affected by police brutality and citizen vigilantism against black people live-streamed in real time. Weird camera angles. Anguished voices. Unrestrained brute force. Threatening use of 911.

I know that when I am affected viscerally  I feel it in my gut –  in the internal organs of my body – something that pulls me, pulls at me, pulls me to respond. I was educated, as many of us have been,  to dissociate from such sensations, and not even notice them. To the detriment of my humanity.  It’s not a a comfortable journey to repair the severed gift of sensing the most deeply felt of human connection.

This is what civil rights organizer Ella Baker was talking about when she spoke these words, 56 years before George Floyd died under the knee of a white police officer:

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.

Benjamin Franklin understood that we humans are capable of becoming viscerally affected in this way even when it appears that we are not materially at risk:

Justice will not be served until those unaffected are as outraged as those who are.

White America has largely looked away, oblivious of our skin color except perhaps during tanning season. I first noticed I was white when I began working as a community organizer: a white suburban Jewish chick in a black church-based organization. And like other whites, largely distracted, unrepentant, believing myself to be unaffected by – and somehow both entitled to and innocent of – the inequalities that have been facts of life here for people of color for more than 400 years now. I cared deeply. The work felt intensely personal and my responsibility. I still missed the depths of suffering among my black colleagues. I missed their full humanity and because of that obliviously diminished my own.

If I am I, because you are you, and you are you, because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you. But if I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you, and we can talk.

American University’s Metropolitan Policy Center recently released a study of DC area residents’ views of aspects of their daily lives: shopping, talking with neighbors, sending kids to after-school programs, dealing with government agencies, encountering police. The Washington Post reported that “the biggest takeaway, and the most surprising finding,” according to the Center’s associate director, was “the rate at which white citizens of the Washington area remain unaffected by issues and concerns that vex other racial groups.”

It is our human pre-occupation with remaining at the center of our lives that keeps us from being viscerally affected and from perceiving the consequences for ourselves and for those around us.

We each look out at the world through our eyes and what we see reinforces this view. For us white Americans, everything about the way we walk through the world reinforces this: as we shop, talk to neighbors, deal with government agencies, and so on. We do not yield that space readily, or even welcome others into it. Meanwhile, our family members, neighbors, colleagues – and strangers, who have pigmented skin have a different experience. Mostly, we don’t notice. For people of color in the United States there is no negotiating civic life from the center, but only from the margins of the circle.

So - where to start, when we feel the urgency to act? And under uncertain pandemic conditions?

  • Be simple. Be ordinary. Listen to yourself. Get to know the parts of yourself. Welcome them in, whether you like them or not. Listen to others’ stories with humility, with an understanding that your version of the world is just that, your version. Some truth, some falsity, some wisdom, some foolishness. 
  • Read history you have not been taught.
  • Take small actions within your daily sphere. Practice, as Gandhi counseled: be the change you want to see in the world. 
  • Pause. Reflect. Choose what matters most. Then do things that matter to you with other people.
  • Be a listener. Listen first to yourself. Which voices are holding forth in your internal monologue? What story are they telling? Who have your inner story-tellers cast as hero, victim or villain? What are the laws of this kingdom? Where did these stories, this plot-line come from? Who taught you – explicitly or by example?  And listen to stories that seem strange and foreign
  • Wherever you are a member – a workplace, a house of worship, a book club, look out for someone who is hurting, or acting out, or looking for a place to contribute. Find small ways to partner with them.

In our privilege, fragility, tears, we white people are neither as good as we idealize ourselves to be, nor as irredeemable as we fear.

And to my black friends, I pray that the intensity of your feelings not consume you, but that you are able to harness them and use them for the good.