It has taken me a long time to figure out what I want to say publicly about what is going on in America right now. (BTW: my town of Portland, Ore. has been on mandatory curfew the last few days because of the mayhem around the city.) I am frustrated, not just with the brutality against black people in recent years, but also the fact that nothing ever changes. This news cycle is enduring, but in my more cynical moments, I feel that it will be “over” and forgotten by too many too soon. Only for life to return to normal—until the next murder.
The advocacy responses I have seen online and on the streets are well-intentioned, but often strike me as “flash-in-the pan.” And I continue to wonder: what would really make a difference? None of what I am about to say is “new,” but I firmly believe it is the only path to effective and long-lasting change. (Some of what I mention below was inspired by, certainly reinforced by, watching the movie JUST MERCY, which is now free to rent online for June 2020.)
Disclaimer: I am not black, so I can’t even imagine that struggle in America, but I know what it is like to be marginalized and judged based on the color of my skin; to be afraid in public, to be watched. So, I offer what thoughts I can from my own perspective. I encourage you to also read the words and hear the voices of black people.
Friendship, Not Patronage
The knee-jerk reaction from white people is: what can I do? March? Give money? Protest? None of these things are bad, but if it is only these things, it amounts to transactional patronage, coming to the rescue of black people from the outside. More important is friendship, which takes intention, time, community, and mutual trust. It’s not a quick fix, but it is probably the most powerful weapon we have against racism.
Leadership, Not Just Voice
We want to give black people a voice. Not enough. After watching the heart-breaking story of Just Mercy, I am once again reminded that people of color, women, and other marginalized people need to be in positions of power and leadership as representatives of their communities with authority and influence. Voice can be good, but without leadership, voice is just sound bouncing around. Vote for black people. Support their education and scholarships. Help them get elected. Hire them. Study under them. Honor and emulate black heroes.
Commitment, Not Fads
Pardon my cynicism, but when I see white protestors, I have the haunting suspicion that most of them are getting caught up in the emotion of the moment, and they will be gone tomorrow. I don’t mean to say white people shouldn’t protest ever. But it ultimately accomplishes little if there isn’t a greater commitment involved. Again, this goes back to a lifestyle of making friendships across racial and ethnic lines, and doing the hard work of support leadership for people of color—sometimes that means stepping down from leadership to make space, or getting out of the way.
Involvement, Not Outrage
As a person of color, I don’t feel that I benefit from people’s outrage. It may make them feel better, but doesn’t do much for me. I want to see action. Involvement. Study. Learn. Advocate. Partner with. If your response is just on Facebook, or just a sign or t-shirt, that’s for you. If you want to make a difference for me, get involved, get your hands dirty.
Because of how my mentors have shaped and inspired me, I work hard on a regular basis, often daily, to support and advocate for people of color in my profession.
Repentance, Not Apologies
Repenting of racism and passivism and complicity is much more than apologizing. Apologies are necessary, but they are ultimately just words, too often forgotten by the utterer. Repentance is about turning your life around, changing your lifestyle. Confessing your sins. Weeping over your sins. Feeling the gravity of your sins. And also running away from sin and towards justice. Becoming a friend of justice. Repentance means mortifying the racist self, and living a whole new life.
Where to begin? The first step is the hardest. Talk to black people and form relationships with the folks around you. Not to save them, but to be people sharing community with other people. Don’t expect them to immediately let you in. Trust takes time, so you have to take that time. Begin with a conversation, listen, be vulnerable. That’s the beginning of change. Then take footstep number two, then three….it’s a long road up to the mountain top.