Getting it Wrong

Last night, I attended a community discussion on racial issues prompted by the murder of George Floyd and last weekend’s demonstrations. The crowd was large in size and in whiteness. We had the privilege of  listening to a few black neighbors talk courageously about how they feel right now, and what it’s like to be people of color in Franklin, TN. What an honor it was to lament together and to hear their voices, their stories, their fears and hopes. One woman said something I very much needed to hear: 

“Please don’t let the fear of getting it wrong stop you from speaking up. 

We KNOW you’re going to get it wrong. (We all laughed!)

And that’s totally ok.  If you’d be open to feedback about

how you might have mis-spoken, that is the key. 

Most of all, don’t be afraid to say something.”

 

That’s me. I’ve been afraid. I guess I needed her permission, because I woke this morning with all these words.

So here I am, speaking up, and getting it wrong.

I’ve been afraid to put words of reconciliation out there because my life doesn’t really back up those words. I am so white. I have chosen to live in a place where there’s one black family at my church, and one black family on my street, and a handful of black families at my kids’ school – and some of those kids are adopted into white families, and some of those are recent immigrants from places like Uganda. I have like two black friends, and zero close ones. I feel conflict about this, and I don’t know what to do about it. I am likely blind to the ways I’ve fashioned my life to be so mono-chromatic. And I don’t know what to do about that, either. 

So I went last night and listened, because it was something I could do. Because I figure I should start with confronting racism right where I live, and in my own heart. Because I am devastated by the unjust deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. I see that racism is very much a problem in our nation, and even in our lovely little Franklin. And I am ready to be a part of making things right. I desire to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with my fellow humans whom God created with precision and delight (and also our skin color is not the same). 

And have I mentioned… I have no idea how to do that. 

As I heard my neighbor’s stories of negative police interactions and fear-filled parenting, I found myself in an entirely different heart-space than previous years. I was able to listen and not immediately respond inwardly with a defensive narrative. (Another fruit of Spiritual Direction training?) A few times I caught myself thinking, “But!” and was able to identify where those buts came from. I have some work to do now around those sources. I am a grown woman; I should be able to listen to someone without formulating a comeback.

There are a couple reasons for this new openness in my heart, to be able to hear “Black Lives Matter” and not furrow my brow.

 

A Touch Point

One reason for this shift in hearing is due to the paradox of being a Christian woman. I currently attend a church that doesn’t allow me to be an usher, a deacon or a pastor because of the way God made me (a woman). I know how much pain and confusion this causes me. I wrestle with it every single day. Even if I went to a different church, I would still wrestle with it, knowing that millions of women are labelled and valued only as complementary to their husbands (I’m still not sure where that puts single women). I continue to do hard work on the inside to forgive, and to do what I can, and to separate myself from the theology of generations of white men who benefit from their interpretations of scripture. I work to see myself as a citizen in the larger Kingdom of God, in which we are all created equally in His image and with giftings and callings. In this Kingdom, I am a first-class citizen.

This journey is ongoing and… NOT FUN. But recently I have begun to wonder if it is a gift into an even broader space. To be able to relate, just a little, when someone experiences discrimination because of the way God made them – yes, this is a gift. It’s different that racial discrimination in major ways, because in a patriarchal system my life is very safe. I know nothing of the systemic injustice my black neighbors live with. I can’t begin to relate to what I heard last night. 

 

Curiosity & Chip

Another reason I approach the issue differently now stems from a lesson I learned from my friend Stephanie: 

You can’t be defensive and curious at the same time.

I would highly recommend giving this a go. It ‘s shocking to realize how many times I jump to defend my way of thinking and seeing the world. Defensiveness steals from true listening EVERY TIME. It’s the thief of compassion and connection and intimacy and all the Brene Brown things. What does that defense serve? What is it trying to protect? What would I lose if I chose to be curious instead of defensive, to really hear how someone else thinks about and experiences the world? Is their experience and view point any less valid than mine? Have I built a world in which I’m always right, and everyone else is always wrong? 

In our idyllic Best-of-Southern-Living downtown, we have an obelisk anchoring the town square. On top of the obelisk is a statue of a young Confederate soldier, placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1899 to honor their husbands and sons who died in the war. We call him Chip.

Last night a black neighbor explained how Chip stands for white supremacy, and he should not be given that place of honor. I felt my defenses rising. You don’t understand what it’s like to be a southerner, I defend Civil War history to northerners. The war wasn’t a one-issue conflict. We have to embrace our history instead of erase it. Yes, they’re Confederates, and yes, slavery was atrocious. Also these mothers lost their sons, and their grief is valid. Our history is complicated and heart-breaking, and we need to learn to embrace it all to inform our future.

As he kept saying those stinging words – white supremacy – I did my best to set my defenses aside and be curious instead. I admit that my black neighbor’s perception of Chip is just as valid as mine. I have always wished northerners would really hear me when I try to explain the (white) south, and now it’s my turn as a white southerner to listen to a black southerner. To really listen.

Here’s what I realized.

When I look at Chip, I see mothers who lost sons; he sees a slave owner. I see a complicated history of ancestors on both sides of the war that helps me walk in humility; he sees an unjust system that brutalized and animalized his great-grandparents and even today threatens the peace and prosperity of his family. Hard questions were asked: how is my current status a result of the system? What did this southern way of life cost me? How did it benefit my family line? My black neighbors have strikingly different answers to these questions. Terrible answers. It’s so much more than complicated and heart-breaking. I will no longer see Chip the same.

I’ve come to believe this about the gospel: if it’s not good news for everyone, it’s not good news. Something has been twisted and needs to be made right. The same principle applies to a good social justice system. If it’s not equally just for everyone, it’s not just. Something is wrong and needs to be made right.

 

All Lives Matter

This is all over social media right now, the plea to not respond to Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter. Last night a woman explained it for me again, and I heard her. Imagine two houses: a black one on fire, and a white one in good condition. When the firefighters respond to the call, should they spray water on both houses, because All Houses Matter? No. You triage the house on fire. You speak value to the ones the system has devalued. They need to know it, they need to hear it when every news outlet plays video of a black life being erased – Black Lives Matter. 

It’s a little bit like the week Beth Moore was torn to shreds by John MacArthur, and I desperately wanted to hear from the men (the creators and benefactors of a complementarian church structure): Women’s Voices Matter. Women Matter to the Church. Women Matter to God. You are not limited to the nursery and the potlucks and the wife-of-the’s. You have the same Holy Spirit, the same gifts of the spirit, the same brilliant minds, the same image of God as us. John MacArthur is a narrow-minded idiot who does not speak for the whole body of Christ. We love you. We see you. We need you. We are behind you. We honor you. Here’s the microphone.

It’s only a little bit like that; I’ve preached without fear of being arrested. Beth’s life has never been threatened (that I know of!). She’s well able to provide for her family. So maybe it’s not even close to the same thing, but it helps me have a hint of understanding for what a minority class needs from the majority class.

I hear you, sister, and I say it aloud: Black Lives Matter. (Can I call you sister? I don’t even know!)

 

All this to say…

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how I just got it wrong, and I’m absolutely sure I did. But I’m saying something, and I hope that is a start. I look forward to figuring out a solution. I look forward to engaging in my community’s full history, not just the white history I’ve come to treasure. I look forward to writing and befriending and living toward our beautifully diverse world. I look forward to not staying the same. I look forward to helping make things right. 

 

And just in case a person of color is reading this, I feebly give this a try…

I have no idea. We live very different lives. I’ve been blissfully unaware of my white privilege. Thank you for being so long-suffering. I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry. There’s a lot I’ve gotten wrong, and a lot I need to learn. I am amazed by your strength. I value your input. I’d love to be friends, if you’ll have me. I’m trying to listen and not judge. I’m so glad we live here together. Let’s work on this Chip situation together. I hear you, and I love you. 

(What did I get wrong?)

 

7 thoughts on “Getting it Wrong

  1. Well said. I have felt the need to shut up my opinionated self the last few days and try to just listen. I was in love with a black man for some 40 yrs but have never told you that story. Some day I will. Miss you.

    Kathryn

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  2. I’m white and don’t feel bad about it at all. What if all people were judged on the content of their character rather than the color of the skin?? Including and beginning with the way we judge ourselves…….

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    1. Connie, I think we’re all hoping the same thing – to be judged on character, not skin color. How we judge our own character is definitely a whole thing. Thanks for commenting.

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  3. This hit me hard, especially as someone who values history, the good and the bad. It may sound stupid, but I thought the “fuller story” was the end all be all, let’s wipe our hands, our work is done here kind of thing. I was taken aback to hear multiple speakers convey it as a problem and I definitely had to check my “buts” multiple times. I’m in the same boat as you. I don’t know what to do; I feel heart broken and powerless, but I know things must change. This was an excellent post, and should no one else say it, you are phenomenal and I have so much respect for you and Jay. Love you guys.

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  4. So good, from an also super white person. I am learning similarly to your learning. What I am realizing is that sometimes it doesn’t matter at all what I think, because someone else’s perspective matters more – as in your story about Chip. I too admire their strength. I was walking down the street one day in Dallas a very long time ago – just happened to be walking with a black friend. And the stares, the looks…someone actually crossed the (very busy 4 lane) street to walk on the other side as we passed. I was ticked and indignant. And my friend just listened to my rant and then said “Sure, but you can’t live that way every day, all the time.”
    I have so so much to learn. At least now I’m listening, and yes like you Rachel – I’m noticing it when I feel defensive and facing that in me. (you might be on to something with the spiritual direction training! ;))
    thanks for the post.

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