As a white person, speaking into the racial justice and reconciliation space can often feel like a loaded deliverable. Questions about the validity of my voice and how it should be presented & received, while important are also obvious. What makes me qualified? Shouldn’t a person of color be doing this? If I do say something, will it do more harm than good?
These important questions should not be easily dismissed as imposter syndrome but instead good checks of caution before proceeding. While I am ever learning, here’s what my 30 years in the work of racial justice as a white woman have taught me: People of color should be leading this discussion and white voices, can help support the conversation, if we remember some of these important elements:
1) You cannot fix a problem you don’t understand.
Leaning in and learning from those impacted by racial injustice is the most important first step to the work of restoration. Getting to know people impacted by issues and not simply learning about issues, enables natural next steps to join them in what can become your shared efforts toward justice and restoration. In this shared restorative justice work, always center the voices that are closest to the pain and follow their leadership. We are there to serve the movement, to follow with humility.
As a long-standing justice advocate, I appreciate the prophet Micah’s powerful words forthtelling the truth of God’s heart for justice. In 6:8 of the book, the often-referenced passage in the work of justice is laid out so simply, “He has shown you O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you, to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.”
While I am grateful for this easy-to-understand mandate, I often wish he started his list with humility. Humility allows the enormity of injustice to move through our entire selves. It allows grief and lament to grip us. It provides us with a lens to recognize that all we think we are (good people) and all we think we have (good societies and systems) is often a result of exclusive efforts and greed.
When we choose a posture of humility, we follow the example of Christ, emptying ourselves of our power and established place to join the people on the margins, always loving mercy, ready to do the long work of justice. True service requires the bravery to be humble, to recognize the racial justice movement has not been waiting for us to show up to demand attention. The movement needs our body, our solidarity, and our service. Intentionally choosing a humble place of service will result in a place of true honor and effective work.
2) Be honest and stay curious.
The Bible may say that the truth will set you free, but that doesn’t mean it comes without a cost. The truth is always confronting. From the time of Adam and Eve’s original sin to today, when confronted with the truth, our natural human reaction is to avoid and blame. Learning the truth of America’s racist past and how systemic racism continues to perpetuate oppression is grievous. It can evoke feelings of guilt and shame, causing us to want to run from the truth. Yet, we cannot heal without the truth.
Internationally established, truth commissions began to formalize as early as the 1970’s when Argentina wanted to uncover actions by dictators and military juntas. These types of commissions, to address internal conflicts and bring together divided countries, have taken place in over 46 countries. The most well-known was South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It took place over 7 years, collecting testimonies from over 21,000 victims.
The framework for the process was to afford victims voice to share their testimony, their truth under the apartheid regime. They were given an opportunity to be heard, to share the deeply personal impacts of their suffering and for them to receive restitution. While the commission was not without some criticism, it is credited with moving a segregated and violent country toward a more reconciled path.
USAID, the US principal agency to support these types of efforts, has supported nearly 330 peacebuilding projects in 42 countries and awarded more than $230 million in grants for “people-to-people” reconciliation programs and activities worldwide. They have however, never given any money toward supporting truth telling or reconciliation here at home, in the US.
We need to be willing to listen to the truth, no matter how hard it may be to hear. We also need to deal with our guilt and shame so that we can build paths of empathy to each other.
In her book, Dare to Lead, Brene Brown speaks to the connection of shame and empathy. In the work of racial justice, empathy (connecting to someone’s emotions as a result of their experience) is the primary way people from different racial backgrounds can share a connection to each other’s experiences. Brown shares, “Where shame exists, empathy is almost always absent.”
She warns about assuming we can understand someone else. “One of the signature mistakes with empathy is that we believe we can take our lenses off and look through the lenses of someone else. We can’t. Our lenses are soldered to who we are. What we can do, however, is honor people’s perspectives as truth even when they’re different from ours.”
She goes to on state, “We have blind spots. We need to learn from each other. “We cannot practice empathy if we need to be knowers; if we can’t be learners, we cannot be empathetic. And, to be clear (and kind), if we need to be knowers empathy isn’t the only loss. Because curiosity is the key.”
3) Work toward repair
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the leader of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has said, “We are not responsible for what breaks us but we can be responsible for what puts us back together again.”
In our racially divided and unjust world, we are crying out in our brokenness. We long for restoration, for peace on every side. As people of Christian faith, we have reason to hope because of the restorative work of Christ. He is our peace (Eph. 2:14), our reconciler of all things (Col. 1:19 & 20). This reconciliation moves from God to people and includes the kind of people to people and people groups to people groups healing we need. His reconciling work of ALL things moves beyond personal restoration and includes the restoration of societies and systems. As agents of his light and peace in the world, we should not settle for a restoration that falls short of this level of repair.
Today the status quo of injustice, oppression, and complacency flow downstream with ease. If we are to capture the prophetic imagination of the prophet Amos whose metaphor of justice rolling down like a river and righteousness like a never-ending stream, we must grow deeper roots of commitment to the work of repair, to the work of resistance.