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Off the hook

The other night I attended Safe Conversations About Race, a moderated community discussion that brings together a variety of people from the community, across race and socio-economic status. It is an opportunity to witness bold conversations about race in a safe, respectful way. The discussion focused on the history of race in America: how colonization, power, and greed established the systems of oppression that have impacted us to this day. Then, we had an opportunity to talk with other attendees to share different perspectives and experiences. I have been there several times before, and it is always impossible to leave there without being changed.

Growing up, I remember learning that slavery existed until the emancipation at the end of the Civil War in 1865. What we didn't cover was the impact of 250 years of slavery. It is striking and should be deeply unsettling to all of us when you stop to take that in. And, yet, the damage only expands when you consider sharecropping into the 1950’s, Jim Crow racial segregation laws of 1965, or housing discrimination and mass incarceration. Other forms of present-day (often less visible) discrimination impact education and employment opportunities, and ultimately economic advancement.

These are the facts, and they are not debatable. Yet, we seem to be at a stalemate in our dialogue about race and our inability to confront these truths in a meaningful and restorative way. As I sat listening to the discussion that night, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and a little helpless. There is an extreme disconnect between the experiences that many people of color shared and the reality that white America chooses to see.

Outside those town hall doors, there is a notion of “that was then, and this is now.” That back then white people just didn’t know any better, and once they knew better things improved. This viewpoint glosses over the intentionality of how our systems were designed; the deliberate acts of stealing land, resources, and even people for our economic gain and power. At the same time, the historical narrative was framed as innovative pioneers simply defending themselves against savages or criminals.

Since race in and of itself is a fabricated construct, the only way to get past it is to go through it. The excuses we tell ourselves--that progress has been made, that oppression is human nature and happens everywhere, or that it is all a function of sin-- frees us from our own responsibility to address our mental conditioning around race. It lets us (white people) off the hook for how we may be numb to its impact, and complicit in its survival. It diminishes the experience of so many people of color today who have been trained to tiptoe through this world with the extra armor of bracing, proving, ignoring, and enduring. It keeps us all powerless from taking action and creating something different.

We have a choice to make about the kind of society we want to create and the legacy we want to leave behind. But first, we have to boldly face into the systems of oppression that we have inherited and the harm they have caused. For me, it is daily work of becoming more aware of my thoughts, impulse reactions, and the impact that my words and actions might have on those around me. It means starting from a place of honesty to admit the ways I have been trained to normalize our society’s preference for white skin like mine. It means not letting myself off the hook just because I have good intentions and try to treat everyone with dignity.

How can we bridge that divide when most of our communities are still very segregated? Think about how many of your neighbors or friends are of a different race. How might that impact your worldview and connection to these issues? It is nearly impossible to humanize across our differences when we so rarely interact in the first place.

At the end of the evening, someone shared a powerful statement that stuck with me: “If you were born where they were born, if you lived where they lived, you would believe what they believe.” It reminded me that everyone has a story and a reason for their perspectives, including those I disagree with or who have a hard time seeing the reality of racism in America today.

What if each one of us committed to finding even just one person of a different race to have a respectful conversation about our experiences? If we can start off from a place of self-awareness, grace and dignity, we just might be able to unearth some of the painful bricks that have laid the foundation of our society. It is only then that we can lay down new ground to build a more compassionate and equitable world. We simply cannot let ourselves off the hook.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter" ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

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