On Overcoming Racism and Whiteness: The First Step is Empathy


As I'm writing this, I'm not especially happy.

I'm thinking about the events of Charlottesville, the displays of hate by Nazis, the KKK, and other White Supremacist groups, and the feeling that for all our progress, we still haven't learned that black lives matter.

I'm sad. I'm angry. I'm frustrated...

In preparing the piece for today

I mulled over and over in my head about what I wanted to say to my people,

white people,

about racism in America and what we can learn from Charlottesville...

and the stinging sensation came with a realization... 

People can choose to be ignorant. People can choose not to care. We can keep ourselves at arms-length from the social issues of our time while they remain only that, social "issues." We can air our opinions on social media and pat ourselves on the back for thinking the right things. Then we can keep doing the things we do and care about the things we care about. 

Which, by our actions en masse, don't include black lives. 

Let me explain:

You know the phrase, "No offense, but...?" 

That phrase is terrible. It's like saying, "I am going to say something offensive and inflammatory but I don't want you to react to it." 

We have people, white people, though the color doesn't matter in this case, worried about saving face. We are worried about who is being assigned blame. We have people saying, "I'm not racist, but..." And that's about as far as the conversation gets... Before it gets worse. Then we point fingers of blame, justify our own thoughts and opinions, all the while there are still real people whose lives are at risk based on the policies in place in the systems we help to support. It's like we have a house burning, and we are stopping to bicker about who started it and whose fault it is rather than looking for a hose and a way to help. I'm not above this, but justifying my opinions isn't helping anyone. I love people. I believe in the beauty and goodness and capacity of persons, but using kindness as an excuse to have hard conversations about our systems or how they are impacting the lives of other people in our midst... This has got to stop. Do we want to avoid taking heat or do we want to see the fire die?

Our sins of omission leave us with blood on our hands. 

I'm frustrated at my own lack of constructive work. I'm saddened by how impossible it seems to be to have effective conversation. But more frustrating is the accusation from my white friends and family who are more concerned by the "tone" of the Black Lives Matter movement than they are in the heart of the matter. We've been more concerned with protecting ourselves, our systems, our opinions than we have in making a world that works for everyone. What does this tell me? What does this tell our black neighbors? They don't matter to us. 

So as someone who wants to see this change, who wants to be a part of the change, who wants to inhabit a neighborhood/state/country/global community where justice and equality are words that represent reality... What can I do? 

I can direct you to the advice of my good friend, Thomas Jenkins: Listen, Love, and Learn. 

All this begins with empathy. 

My fears, my frustrations, my anger… If I trace the roots deep enough, where I feel like I have something to say comes back to empathy. I can feel (some) of what someone else is feeling, and I want to understand their pain. If I can come from a place of empathy, I can be safe space for someone else’s pain. After it’s been expressed, we can figure out where to go from there… But the conversation doesn’t move forward while we still have people not being seen and heard.

Until we stop and listen to the pain others feel, we will remain ignorant and they will remain with their pain. Once someone has the ability to acknowledge their hardships and have their feelings heard, they are able to take steps forward in the process. We are bound up in each other's liberation. 

Let me give you some examples:

I’ve talked with friends who are gay and have been able to hear their story and grow from their courage. I’ve resonated with their journey, and moving from a felt need to hide to be authentic about who they are… but I don’t know what it’s like to be gay.

I’ve talked with women in my life about how they feel walking around town or running, feeling constantly under scrutiny or unsafe. I’ve heard them verbally process why they wore what they wore to work to avoid the unacceptable extremes… and I realize I have no idea what it’s like to be a woman.

I’ve talked with some black friends about how they feel inhabiting white-dominant spaces, constantly checking themselves to see if they’re “too black” and are being ostracized for it. Then there’s shit like last weekend, where being a nazi is defensible, being a part of the KKK is allowable, but black men and women are still overwhelmingly told through words and actions their lives don’t matter. I don’t know what this feels like. I don’t know what it is like to live in a world that works against you. I do know that I have friends who I can sit down with and seek to understand.

While these remain merely theoretical issues, we will not make real progress. Find a neighbor, a friend, a colleague, a relative... find a black person and ask them about how these recent events have affected them. Ask them how they are doing. Ask them about their day-to-day experience. Ask them to seek to understand, then listen. 

You see, loving empathy invites me to experience and be with the pain and story of another, and where I don't understand it, I seek to understand so that I can be with them. 

Brothers and sisters, what we have done is cut ourselves off from empathy. We have drawn lines around our love, and have so been unable to see, hear, listen, and be with our black neighbors. 

There is a BUNCH of work to do. We've got to pick up the hose and put the fire out, and with whatever's left, we may have to rebuild from the ground up... And that work doesn't happen unless we first feel it is important. 


Pain is a great teacher. 

Maybe the first step is for us to learn from another's pain. To validate it. To value it. To be with it. THEN... Maybe, just maybe, we can do something to help. 

While we cling to our defensiveness, we run further and further from the love of neighbor. 

If we are to overcome our racism and whiteness, we are going to have to risk the feeling of guilt to be with the real pain of others. Ultimately, guilt isn't the point. Love is.