Waking Up White

On Friday, November 5 I preached at the November Celebration of the Chapel Hill Unit of Church Women United.  They had asked me to speak on Building Beloved Community.  The heart of this meditation is taken from an earlier essay I wrote called “Waking Up White.”

“Who is wise and understanding among you?  Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.  But if you have bitter envy or selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.  Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.  For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will aslo be disorder and wickedness of every kind.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by and for those who make peace.”

                                                                                         –James 3:13-18 (NRSV)

Thank you for the invitation to be with Church Women United (CWU) for your November Celebration and to speak about “Building Beloved Community.”  I know that Church Women United has long been dedicated to these kind of courageous conversations.  You asked that I come and share with you some about what this next wave of anti-racism work is like, what the next generation is doing that may be a little different from what has been done in the past.

It is wonderful to start with a passage like the reading from James’ Epistle.

James spins a lovely tapestry of life’s complexity and what living together as beloved community needs as its golden thread—not envy, not selfishness, not lies.  No instead beloved community needs wisdom that comes from God, wisdom that is pure, gentle, full of mercy, and willing to yield.

James’ words about gentleness and peace drape us in a warm, comforting picture of a safe place where we can trust those around us to have our best interests at heart.  It is a place where there is no greed, no deception to distort the truth we need to tell each other.

Indeed “beloved community” is a truth-telling place, a place where lies find no traction, where brutality finds no home.

Now many of us Church-going people would say that church should be a place like that.  Maybe some of us have even experienced a church like that—or seen glimmers of it here and there in our lives as Christians.

The church should certainly be about building beloved community following in the way God calls us to be together.  And the language of beloved community has a certain texture to it in our American context—it is about dismantling the systems of racism that have wounded our country—it echoes in the reverberating tones of the voices those who urged us toward such a community of fairness, trust, and hope, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman, and Pauli Murray.

Churches have been talking about this beloved community for generations now—yet still Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.  And the most segregated churches in all of Christianity are the churches you and I attend—mainline Protestant churches like Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian.  2-3% of mainline Protestant churches are congregations that are multi-racial/multi-ethnic in their make-up.  (This figure is measured as a congregation in which 20% of congregation identifies from racial/ethnic demographics other than the majority of the congregation).  That’s compared to 8% overall of Christian congregations.  And 25% of non-denominational churches are multicultural using an even higher standard to measure their status.

What is stopping Mainline churches?  As someone who’s served churches all over the country—from Florida to California to Illinois, to here in North Carolina, I have come to believe that the biggest obstacle to building the beloved community is not a lack of will or a lack of vision, it is from a deep, even unconscious fear of talking honestly about race.

By race I do not mean simply the different hues of our skin.  I am referring to a system of privilege and prejudice that still thrives in our country and that helps to form our communities, even our houses of worship.  Building beloved community takes truth that is unselfish, truth that is aimed at making a lasting peace, and sometimes that is the most difficult truth to tell.

Talking about race for a huge majority of mainline Protestant believers means being able to talk about being white.  And talking about being white has not really been on the table in any substantive way in our country and in our communities.  Even though churches should be leading the way on this kind of high-risk conversation we have tended to shy away from it in congregations all around country.

In my experience, this is the work that my generation needs to find a way to do.

In Shakti Butler’s documentary “Mirrors of Privilege:  Making Whiteness Visible” a Caucasian woman talks about participating in an anti-racism workshop and being brought up short with a comment made by an African-American participant.  This participant explained that she woke up every morning and said to herself “I am a black person.”

The Anglo woman was startled by how unself-conscious she, herself, had been about her own whiteness her whole life.

I am sure many white folks can sympathize.  Not many of us wake up each day and think about our whiteness as we greet the day—unless we are lodged in a white supremacist boot camp or some such extremist enterprise.  This kind of “I am white” awareness sounds dangerous, even sinister.  What could be there reason why your everyday-out-in-the-world-well-meaning white person needs to think about whiteness?

In my experience that’s where most white mainline Protestants place ourselves—in that well-meaning category of white people who like to tell stories about how we’re a different kind of white person.  We want to make sure that people know we believe in civil rights, we welcome all kinds of people to our churches, and we have friends with skin different colors than ours.

We don’t have time to think about and talk about whiteness.  We’ve got better things to do; and perhaps, less disruptive things to do.  It is more comfortable to reach out to the people who are less fortunate to us than for white middle/upper class people to name how we are complicit in the systems of racism.

Indeed, whiteness is an intimidating thing to think about in this country.  If we think about whiteness, that means we have to think about blackness, too. More to the point, if we think about whiteness then we have to think about how we benefit from the racism that whiteness helped to create.

Growing up in the South I always felt a secret guilt about being white.  My parents were (and are) progressive people.   They took “civil rights stances” all the time.  My dad was one of the only white members of the NAACP in our Kentucky town.  My mom grew up in southern Mississippi.  We talked about racism a lot in our house.  And when we saw it, either in Kentucky or during our summer visits in Mississippi, we named it and discussed it at length.

It was not until I lived in Oakland, CA and pastored in a multicultural church that I actually got to be a part of a conversation about race that included the fact that I am white.  In that space my whiteness was something we needed to talk about and could talk about.  Talking about race wasn’t just about talking about how unfairly people of color are treated sometimes; it was also about how I have benefited from that system.  I was finally able to share my feelings of guilt and shame about that fact, and my feelings of helplessness about what I do with those thoughts and feelings.

For white people it feels like we have a lot to lose from this kind of truth telling and self-examination.  How do we move forward when so much of our life-experience has been effected by the privileges we enjoy—from shopping without suspicion in stores to exploring real estate options in the neighborhoods of our choice to our conceptions of beauty and propriety, good manners, and even how to do church?

One of the things I have learned about my whiteness is that it affects everything– how I do things and see things and even feel things.  This category of identity permeates so much of me that I must know more about it for it not to become an affliction.

Whiteness can become toxic when we leave it unchecked by redemptive forces because it was constructed with power and privilege in mind.  Whiteness has a dangerous default mode that can make us feel like things are the way they should be and that we are who we should be.  There is not much room for transformation, for healing in that way of seeing the world.

There is a distinction we all need to make between the fact of the melanin content in white skin and the dynamics of whiteness in a culture that has privileged whiteness for so long.  This distinction is simple:  being white does not make you a bad person, but whiteness does bring along with it particular kinds of responsibilities and dangers.

In a church I pastored we did a series on race and everyone around the table was asked to talk about how race had affected their lives.  Several white people who were a part of that conversation remarked that race really hadn’t affected their lives at all.  The facilitator pointed out the racially defined nature of that very statement:  believing that race hasn’t affected one’s life is something only a white person could feel in this culture.  That feeling is a stark example of race affecting one’s life—to be so very unaware of one’s own susceptibility to the lies that racism tells us.

This privileged naiveté can cultivate the even more illusory idea that we can opt in or out of the “race conversation” as we please.  White privilege is a fact of every white person’s life albeit tempered by other demographic markers like class and gender.  Even so, white skin brings with it at least an easy disguise for social acceptability that can get you places with its simple presentation.

So, what could be the healing opportunity in excavating the nature of this privilege?  Why would a well-meaning white person want to engage in this excruciating work?

Friends, all I can do is testify to you about the gifts I have received from being honest with myself and others about whiteness.   The first time I described my long felt feelings of white guilt in a room filled with people of all colors, my tears were met with great compassion.  It was a deeply healing moment.  When an African American friend and I talked openly about resentment, fear, and grief concerning our respective racial identities, her love and affirmation was one of the most humanizing moments I can remember in my life.  I felt my feet on the ground with a new firmness that day.

And as I walked alongside our African-American godson in his struggle to get a job, any job, I was humbled by his perseverance and his honest appraisal that it might help him if I came along with him for a job interview.  You see people have trouble giving him a chance for lots of reasons, and his race has something to do with that.  We’ll never know how much it did, but basically he felt like he needed to share in some of the privileges of my whiteness to get a shot.  And when I went along with him he did get that job.  What did my whiteness have to do with it?  I am not altogether sure, but I know it was a factor.

I am waking up to what whiteness means a little bit more everyday.  And a stirring in my soul tells me that Mainline Protestant Christianity’s current struggles with our own survival and health has something to do with our need to wake up to the dynamics of whiteness, too.

This stirring in my soul is not a political inclination nor is it a “civil rights stance.”  This stirring is spiritual, existential—whatever word you want to use that signals how primal it is.  This stirring is about being a full human being, a child of God, a person who truly believes and embraces redemption.  I can’t be afraid to show Jesus my disease if I really want to be healed.

This fact of my racial identity prompts me to seek a new kind of healing in my life.

I am a Christian so I believe in transformation.  And transformation isn’t just a new attitude or fresh perspective—it is a change in form, a new being, a new creation.

Jesus’ miracles include his ability to take social stigma and refocus our gaze onto the God-given identity that truly defines us.   What if we let that change in gaze reflect back on the ones who fear their own brokenness the most?  Christ’s light could shine on you and me and give us all eyes to see ourselves in a new way.

The promise of Christ’s truth telling is that it comes with a healing guarantee.  You won’t just get the hard truth, but you’ll also get healing balm.

One of the greatest gifts of this work on race that God has called me to do is that I can be honest about my own brokenness.  What a relief that all the pressure that whiteness can place on its people can dissipate.  I can use my energy to build relationships and listen and drink in God’s presence in these sacred encounters.  I do not have to fix anyone’s life—including my own.

Building beloved community must start at this foundation and build its way up from there.  We stand on sacred ground when we build our life together in God’s way.  If we truly want to dismantle racism, we start with telling the truth about the false gods that have distracted us from God’s beloved community—racism only has power when it is linked to a system of privilege.  Whiteness has been the idol of racist society.  And so those of us who have benefited, when we are in God’s hands, can find a way to name the truth of how we have benefited.

Like James’ community, I can find the gentleness, the peacefulness to yield.  I don’t have to grasp at anything in this conversation because it is a conversation God is calling us to have.

This work is an act of trust for us, for the Church.  What a blessing that it is God’s strong hand that is nudging us to wake up!

Thanks be to God.

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