“Who is this young woman married to?”
This is the question Dorothy asks most often when she greets me in the receiving line after worship. I bend down to be nearer to her chair. I shake her frail hand and smile warmly, waiting for her daughter, who stands behind Dorothy, to answer. “Mama, remember, this is Kyndall, our pastor.”
“Oh!” Dorothy smiles at me. This conversation about my marital status repeats itself on more than one Sunday, until one day, after learning once again that I’m the pastor, Dorothy quips cheerfully, “Well, that doesn’t mean she can’t get married!”
I did not know Dorothy when she was younger, but it seems to me the Alzheimer’s which has stolen her memory hasn’t been able to touch her sweetness or joy. Last Sunday when she was wheeled over to me, she said with heartfelt sincerity beaming from her eyes, “That was a really good sermon.” I was a little taken aback as it was the first time Dorothy seemed to know I was the preacher. To be honest, considering the fact that I’d just preached a passionate sermon about race and loving thy neighbor after the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers, I was a bit surprised Dorothy was aware enough of current events to offer an evaluation of my sermon. I found myself wondering what she heard. “I wish my preacher would preach like you,” she said next, and I thanked her for the compliment, not entirely sure what she meant.
Her daughter explained, patting her mother’s hand tenderly, “Sometimes Mom gets a little confused, and she thinks churches are just now integrating. She just asked, ‘Is this the first day of integration?’”
Startled, I couldn’t think of a response. Dorothy just kept smiling at me.
Dorothy’s misunderstanding keeps nagging me. My own parents were just children during the civil rights movement, so to me, young as I am, watching the news lately has felt like falling into my history book and watching it come to life around me.
Throughout my life when reading about the civil rights era, I have strongly hoped that, had I been there when it happened, I would have been one of the white people bravely marching alongside my black brothers and sisters who risked their lives to bring an end to segregation and Jim Crow. But it is hard to know for sure what I would do in a hypothetical situation. I like to believe I am a kind and compassionate person, that I am awake to injustice, alert and empathetic to the cries of the oppressed, and that I have enough courage to put my own safety and comfort at risk to stand in solidarity with the suffering.
And yet, I know how difficult it is to be aware of my own blind spots. Many good, kindhearted, and upright white people stood quietly by during the civil rights movement or urged King and the nonviolent resisters to be more patient and less disruptive. I know how reasonable and how articulate the arguments for denying the problem can sound, and how appealing it can be to feel that, for once, the suffering group is actually crying wolf, that their stories of oppression are based more on mirage than on any offense of substance, so thank goodness, I am not actually to blame and my way of life need not change. It can feel vindicating to suspect that, in fact, we are really the ones who are most under attack.
Lately I have been learning about sociopaths, how they act without conscience, feel no empathy, and feed on sympathy, even the sympathy of those they have wounded. When I read the white man’s rage, I can’t help but wonder if somehow we are creating a sociopathic system in which it is more important to win than to be human, more compelling to be right than to be empathetic, more pleasing to cast yourself as victim than to own your mistakes and improve.
In so many ways, we are still experiencing the beginning birth pains of an integrated America. In some ways, we’ve made significant and hopefully irreversible progress. In other ways, it might as well be the first day of integration or the mad years of Jim Crow.
In order for white people to restore our own humanity, let us stop condemning the perspectives and voices of black Americans. The best way to share our power instead of hoarding it is to stop believing we already know how it is, that our understanding of the world is the right one. We will know racism has been eliminated when we can listen to one another with respect, and if we do not currently feel respected by black voices, we ought to stop whining about it. We should go out and earn it. Respect doesn’t just get handed to us because we don’t own slaves.
We ought to stop talking at black people and about black people. I suggest we shut up and listen. If we are going to speak, let’s talk with not about. Talk with, not at. If we’re still talking at and about, then we are, by definition, still attempting to wield power over a group rather than sharing the power. We are, in the recesses of our subconscious, still tainted by white supremacy.
Dear non-racist white people, stop saying we’re not racist. That does not contribute to the solution. Dear non-racist white people, repent. Repent of the self-righteousness that allows us to glide through these violent times with smug indifference or offended egos or an unshakable sense of our own moral superiority or with shocked horror at what other people are capable of doing. Dear non-racist white people, pretend it is the very first day of integration. Are we alert and empathetic to the cries of the oppressed? Do we have the courage to put our own safety and comfort at risk to stand in solidarity with the suffering? Do we have the Christian humility to listen to other perspectives and learn new things? Dear non-racist white people, can we swallow with grace the fact that we have not earned the respect or trust of our black brothers and sisters, and that to do so will take work on our part, not theirs? Dear non-racist white people, are we sure we know what “racism” is and the extent to which it affects black and minority lives? Are we sure? Dear non-racist white people, if we are sure, let us think again. This is no time for self-assurance. Dear non-racist white people, I believe in us, even though we have failed. I believe we can do better.
A Recovering Racist