Mission 2017 Day 4, Part 1: The Poetry of Repentance

On our last full day in Washington, D.C., we explored anti-racism attitude and tactics, considered ideas of equity, wrote poems, and split into groups on the National Mall for a night of fun. Like yesterday’s update, today was chock-full and will need to come in two parts. So here is Day 4, Part 1: The Poetry of Repentance… 

“Sharing Can’t Attend to What Has Been Stolen.” 

The headline for this section ^ is the first thing I wrote down that our seminary speaker, Rev. Michelle Ledder of the General Commission on Religion and Race, said to us as we began our anti-racism workshop. Rev. Ledder is a clergywoman in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and leads anti-racism workshops for Methodists of all stripes (and non-Methodists, of course!). As a white clergywoman in the AME, she is often the only or one of the only white people in the room and she must at all times be aware of her role and responsibility in that situation. In short, for her to truly possess an anti-racism homiletic, that means she must challenge herself daily when it comes to being white and preaching about racism without being racist in the process. This carries over to when she speaks to groups like ours that are attempting to think of new ways of doing the hard, hard work of anti-racism.

And it is hard.

But that shall not deter us, Amen?

Rev. Ledder quoted another clergy person speaking on “radical hospitality” with this statement: “It may not be easy, it may not be comfortable, but it is always worth it.” We took this as a mantra for our anti-racism work and it certainly fits!

One early example of how it’s “always worth it” has to do with how we respond to racism when it needs to be confronted. For example, Rev. Ledder offered that as a white person, when an article pops up in her news feed with a title like, “10 Things I Wish White Allies Wouldn’t Do,” she has to choose her attitude. For her, and certainly I can relate here, that often means one of two choices:

  1. This sucks. I don’t like this feeling. I’ll skip this article.
  2. This sucks. I don’t like this feeling. I’ll read this article and repent.

My hunch is that’s a choice that many people have to make every day about a myriad of issues and matters of race is probably one of the most prominent. It’s the sort of thought that might cross one’s mind when she or he thinks of equity. If people get more than they should have had in the first place, how do you share what you shouldn’t have taken? What does it mean to consider all of the centuries-old policies and systems that have allowed some to have privileges others don’t? This is the point, Rev. Ledder offers, that one should come to repentance.

Repentance is a good word. For me, it meant a guy with a placard and a bullhorn shouting at people instead of speaking with people. “Repent! The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Over the years, I’ve come to a healthier understanding of repentance. Literally, it means to make a turn. Figuratively, it is to make a turn and do a new thing. I believe everyone has areas that deserve repentance, some areas more obvious than others. Racism is a big one. How do we interrupt systems of inequality to begin new systems of repentance and equity? How do we say we’re not going to play that game anymore? How do we shift the whole board?

“You didn’t build that.”

“Welfare” is a loaded word. There are many kinds of welfare that many people don’t consider welfare. Why? Because welfare is for other people. They need welfare. I just use this particular program. The Homestead Act is a great example. This gave young families home loans, which helped them build equity, which means paying property taxes, which then go to the local schools, which then enhance the neighborhoods, and that leads to privilege. The script or narrative, then, becomes “I pulled myself up by my boot straps.” Except that home loan is a form of welfare. Not only that, there’s one word missing in that explanation above: white. “This gave white young families home loans…” For decades, black and other families were shut out or had a much more challenging time getting home loans, which leads to less equity, which means less property taxes, which means poorly-funded schools, which degrades the neighborhood, and that leads to… well, you tell me.

And look, that may be an oversimplification. And, where there’s smoke…

Teachable Moments Abound

We played two different games together. The first was throwing paper balls into a wastebasket and the second was Monopoly with new rules. In each case, the point was to observe different kinds of disparities as it relates to economics and personal relationships. I liked each, though I was surprised by how challenged I was by the Monopoly game. At our table, we could feel some of our demeanors change based on the roles we were assigned and we had to process that. It was a fascinating piece of exploring systematic disparity and systematic racism.

In the midst of talking about welfare, etc., a young man with our group, Elliot, lifted up something he’d read in Senator Al Franken’s latest book: if you’re going to lift yourself up by your bootstraps, you need to have boots in the first place. I wonder if this is one of the keys to help white people understand white privilege, especially for someone who is white and understands they were able to use welfare systems. White privilege doesn’t take away from the hardness of their life, from their personal story. It only acknowledges that in addition to that, you didn’t have to deal with racism.

Types of Racism: Micro and Macro Levels

We discussed an excellent video featuring Jay Smooth (here’s my first and favorite Jay Smooth video) and the Race Forward organization speaking about four types of racism:

  1. Internalized Racism
  2. Interpersonal Racism
  3. Institutional Racism
  4. Structural Racism

Their research shows most media coverage is of the first two – which is about individuals’ choices – while the other two – which is about systemic racism – gets much less attention. For our part, we must have heightened systematic awareness, a means of highlighting in our minds and hearts the policies that lead to discrepancies which in turn lead to the first two types of individualized racism.

That means, for example, when we speak about race, we need to speak about it in real systemic terms in our own contexts. So even though we’re all the way out in D.C., “to not talk about Philando Castile here would be ‘textually fraudulent.’” Racism isn’t elsewhere, on TV or YouTube comments, nor is it in someone else’s backyard. It’s right where we live. If we take the time and energy to have even the first steps of discussion about the rules of our community, how racism is reflected in that, it can lead hearts to be open to how the rules can be different

A few tips that came out of this seminar for how to actively disrupt racism, how to be anti-racist:

  • Work up to being prepared to risk something personal in disrupting racism. It’s not just you, though. Remember, “Everybody risks something. In anti-racism, people risk different things.”
  • White people can ask themselves what tangible repentance she or he can do and what harm will she or he actively repair?
  • White people must remember that a person of color’s repair isn’t to fix what they did but to heal from what has happened.
  • “The work of dismantling racism won’t stop unless it has a disruptive force.”

I have two favorite personal take-aways from Rev. Ledder’s session, in addition to all those great pieces of wisdom above:

  1. I appreciated the amazing level of grace-filled patience she offered each of us as we attempted to articulate ourselves around a challenging topic. We didn’t all say what we mean, and we didn’t all say what we said well, and she was helpful, kind, and always came from a place of love – not correction or shame or knowing better – in order to help us work harder for anti-racism.
  2. Ledder said that one of the best tools we can develop is to develop tolerance to talking about racism for prolonged periods of time. I think she’s absolutely right, and I personally take this as especially important for a culturally white person like me.

That is most of the day, Dear Reader. I’ll return with Part 2, the Poetry of Community to wrap up the seminar and speak of our evening on the National Mall. See you soon, and in the meantime, please continue to share, like, subscribe, and comment.

-nm

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