Love in the time of racial tension

It’s been a minute (as the kids say) since I’ve posted. In this cultural moment, to blog about anything other than racism and injustice would feel self-indulgent. The past months have been time for me to be quiet and listen to others’ stories. And while I understand that silence is complicity, I wanted to think deeply before I spoke and to carefully consider what I would say.

In the meantime, I discovered that much of what I wanted to say has been said, and far more eloquently, by Black women writers. Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race tackles tough subjects with honesty, compassion, and sharp clarity. Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here speaks to racism specifically within American Christianity. And Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy requires serious introspection and soul-searching. (The chapter on cultural appropriation, in particular, socked me between the eyes.)

So I’ve struggled with this post for several months. It’s trendy to tell hurting people, “I see you. I hear you.” But that feels like a trite line that means nothing and changes nothing. Nor do BIPOC need me to validate their struggles. But my evolving understanding of Christ and love does not allow me to stay silent or ignore the issues or decide this isn’t my lane.

So I’m going to share a few of my own realizations — as a white woman, as an educator in rural Georgia, as a person who struggles to follow Christ (which, to me, increasingly means parting ways with institutional Christianity) and to live in love.

I need to get over myself and my white fragility. Several years ago, I read an essay by a student that changed and challenged me in ways its author will never know. This student had no reason to trust me with her painful experiences, yet she did — and her vulnerability transformed me.

Because of this essay, I came to understand that I often read situations and students through the lens of my personal, professional, and racial delicacy — and that perception did a disservice to me but a far greater injustice to those students. When they didn’t immediately regard me as an assumed ally or even just a neutral party, I responded with defensiveness. I felt attacked. Why didn’t they like me? What had I done to evoke such animosity? If they walked into my classroom with a chip on their shoulder, then I wasn’t going to be able to win them over, so why even try?

Well, here’s what this one student taught me: She walked into my classroom braced for a fight because she’d had to fight hard just to set foot on a college campus and she expected (sadly, with reason) to have to keep fighting for her place there. She came in defiant because she needed to be — she was prepared to push through exhaustion, through tears, through searing wounds. And if she viewed me as a foe to be vanquished, it was because many of her teachers, instead of standing next to her in the trenches or sending her onto the field with a good pep talk, were strafing her from their lofty positions. They lobbed the best-aimed grenades, armed with the most exquisitely scathing shrapnel.

To be sure, not every Black student has these experiences, and some white students also suffer from toxic, hostile, and/or unqualified teachers. (I had a few.) Still, reading her story shifted my view. My concern shouldn’t be with whether students “like” me. It’s not about “winning them over” or gaining their trust. It’s about whether they feel safe telling their stories, sharing their lives, and about how my class encourages them to develop their own voices. That’s what matters.

There is always a history and a context to the interactions we have with one another. It cuts far deeper than like or dislike, and it’s not always/only about us as individuals. But sometimes it is, and when it is, we have to be willing to listen and change.

I have to grapple with how to be an antiracist in all aspects of my life. Last winter, I attended a workshop on critical race theory that was eye-opening in many ways. The most immediate was the realization that every reading I assigned in class was by a white writer. Initially, I didn’t think this was a conscious choice, although when I parsed out how and why I chose specific readings, I had to admit race has played more of a factor than I’d like to acknowledge. BIPOC authors often write about their identities and experiences as BIPOC; in many cases, race is a central fact of their existence, so of course they talk about it. But in trying to keep my classes neutral and avoid controversial topics, I was choosing only readings that didn’t acknowledge race. This practice automatically disqualified many beautiful, thought-provoking, insightful readings by non-white authors.

Another part of the problem is that the texts I’m most familiar and comfortable with are written by white people. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: From preschool to grad school, I don’t remember studying with even one non-white teacher, professor, instructor, or classroom aide. That workshop was the first time I saw someone not of my race standing at the front of the room. Throughout my entire education, except for a couple of cross- or multi-cultural lit electives, I read books by white writers for classes taught by white teachers and attended by predominantly white students.

And I had never realized this. I’d never had to think about how deeply and pervasively whiteness saturates every aspect of my life: my family, my schools, my professional circles, my reading, my writing, my politics, my friend groups, my feminism, my spirituality, my hobbies, the churches I’ve attended. Every aspect.

This isn’t a one-time recognition. Whiteness is so normalized in my life that I have to consciously and continuously be aware of what that means, so I can be intentional and purposeful in changing that.

I need to talk about race. This is something I have been very reluctant to do, for a slew of reasons that essentially amount to cowardice. I know I’m going to get it wrong. I’m probably getting it wrong right now.

But avoiding those conversations out of fear is not the solution; it’s just another manifestation of white privilege. That I have so often managed to opt out of these conversations, that they’re “just” conversations and not the everyday fabric of my existence, that I can stick my fingers in my ears and tune out the loudest voice in the room, that there are spaces where I can retreat if I choose — all of that is privilege.

Fierce love demands these conversations. It demands that I listen. That I carefully weigh when and how I speak, but that I do speak. That I engage. That when I get it wrong, I humbly admit I messed up, and I get up and keep listening and speaking and engaging and loving.

In Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (which is wise and profound and funny and insightful, and everyone should read this book), Dr. Maya Angelou says of a former acquaintance, Because we never had a chance to talk, to teach each other and learn from each other, racism had diminished all the lives it had touched (emphasis mine).

I do not want racism to diminish my life any more than it already has. This week, I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Carol Anderson moderate a discussion with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. I was awed by their brilliance and authenticity, but I also felt angry — angry that they were discussing events we never learned about in American history classes; angry that my teachers and textbooks whitewashed (pun intended) history rather than owning and acknowledging ugly parts of it; angry that even as someone who has read widely and consciously positioned myself outside the mainstream and sought out various voices and perspectives, I have missed out on so much.

But my personal loss is only part of it, maybe the least important part.

I don’t want my own racism — intended or not — to diminish anyone else’s life. I know it has. Despite my intentions, it surely will again. But I am challenging myself to learn and grow and do better, be better. Not to hunker down in fear and silence, but to work toward healing and love.

Published by Monique Bos

I write, read, take photos, engage in other random creative acts, watch bad creature movies, and love animals.

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