Who's the Best White Person?
“We welcome our white brothers and sisters in this struggle. In fact, we need them. But I must ask them to remain humbly attuned to the opportunity of this moment — and to reflect on whether any actions they take will truly help establish justice, or whether they are simply for show”. (E.D. Mondainé, President of the Portland, Ore., branch of the NAACP)
“Our fight is our fight. Their privilege can amplify the message, but they can never speak for us,” .........“There have been moments where some (white people) have wanted to be in the front. I’ve told them to go to the back.” (Anthony Beckford, president of Black Lives Matter Brooklyn)
I am a white person. To be exact, I am a white, heterosexual, cisgender, male from the South. I am writing this to and for white people. I believe I am a recovering racist, although it took me a long time to get to that belief about myself. I now believe I have benefited from my whiteness through white privilege, which I do believe is a real thing, and I have worked hard to lay down my earlier white fragility, which I also believe in, and realize just how “fragile” I was long before I even knew this term. As in any recovery, I still have bouts of fragility, and I still stray toward racist thoughts. I am a work in progress on this and always will be. I believe I have a lot of blind spots, and more to still learn than what I know now. I have been asked, throughout the years, to share a bit about my journey with all of this and when I do I always make it clear, that these are my beliefs and thoughts. You, will have to find your own. I have ideas how you might get closer to it, but I have come to know it will happen, if at all, in many and varied ways depending on your history, your experience, and probably your personality and even the moment. And it also depends on whether you believe you have work to do yourself: in short, if you believe you are part of the problem, and not just a witness to it. Many things have to come together, at the right time, to have some of our blindness cleared. For me, it happened at the hands and care of the Rev. CT Vivian, now and always a hero of mine. And this hero of mine died on the exact same day another hero died, John Lewis. It is remarkable really. They marched together, were arrested together, worked together with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and then died together, on the same day.
Vivian spent one day with me, some 25 years ago, that changed my life forever. I would like to say it made it easier, but actually it made it all more difficult. His approach was a very combative one, a bullying one really, an approach that would not work for everyone, but it did for me. I believe many things have to come together for this conversion to occur, and it requires a lot of individual work for each of us for that to happen.
And so, I write, to my fellow white people, with a real concern. I am concerned about how we, often meaning well, and often unconsciously, sabotage any movement toward racial justice and equality, or at least slow it down, by creatively making it somehow, eventually about ourselves. I call it the “who is the best white person contest”. It has many different manifestations but the usual symptoms are a distracting focus and attention on which message is the best, or which method to “awaken” white people is the best, and even attacks on others who are not as enlightened as the one writing. In short, arguing amongst ourselves about who is most “woke” even when half those speaking don’t even know what “woke” means. This all concerns me because it takes away our energy from listening to the voices we need to be listening to in this moment, the people of color, people who have lived the expense and cost of white privilege, white supremacy, and white fragility, who know its full power and import and damage. Don't get me wrong, it is OUR problem. Racism is a white problem, that people of color suffer at the hands of. We can't expect people of color to solve our problem. But, we also have to know, and even more believe, there is a problem, and that we are part of it, if WE are going to be able to remedy it.
I think one reason this happens is that we white people are so quick to start rationalizing that “I am not a bad one, I am a good person”. It seems more important to defend ourselves than it is to just listen, absorb, acknowledge, contemplate, accept. In a sense, we should make it about ourselves, but only in the sense of owning our part in it, and then listening and learning from those who suffer from it.
I am trying hard to listen, especially in this moment. I inhabit an office that calls on me to speak out but I am trying to be very careful with that right now, which I can be equally criticized for, but this time, I’ll take it. I am going to speak out, and I have it in me to do so, as most of you are aware. But, I am trying to listen far more, and talk far less.
If you spend some time with this you can find my concern in some of those BIPOC leaders of the movement. I found such a voice in the President of the Portland NAACP, quoted above, who wrote in the Washington Post about his lament that white people seem to have an ability to take just about any justice movement and make it about ourselves, or at least globalize it, as with the dreaded “All Lives Matter” reply. “All Lives Matter” is a quick, mostly white way, to try to stop the discussion. I very much believe, in the Kingdom of God, and/or in the peaceful and equal world many of us dream of, that “All Lives Matter”. That is the truth of God’s realm, of the world Jesus spoke of and dreamt of, BUT, “Black Lives Matter” are three pointed words stating that this ideal is not true, and does not exist here. Yes, it should be our goal, but we are never going to be able to simply jump over the needed difficult and challenging conversations by simply stating what should be true, but isn’t. Instead I am urging you to acknowledge that we are not there and then to do the hard work of listening to the real time experiences of BIPOC that reveal the reality that we are nowhere close to this being the lived truth in our society, and in our Church.
White people, I believe we can get there, but I don’t believe we can do that without doing some real work, individually and corporately, all of us. One first step is to end this form of denial and minimization, this form of sabotage, that being, spending so much of our energy trying to figure out which one of us is the best, and more on bringing others along. This is an individual challenge for each of us, and a communal one for all of us.
What is the value of the life of a black man in this country?
George Floyd went to Cup Foods on Chicago street in Minneapolis on Memorial Day to purchase a pack of Menthol cigarettes. He paid for the cigarettes with a $20 bill which, after he left, was discovered to be counterfeit. Of course, no one knows if Floyd even knew it was counterfeit. Police were called by the young clerk. In a matter of minutes George Floyd was dead.
The standard cost of a pack of cigarettes with tax in MN is $ 8.10. So one might say that the answer to the question of what is the value of the life of a black man: $ 8.10.
And now, you can add yet another name, another face, another tragedy to the ever growing list of victims of police brutality and violence, most especially people of color, and most especially black men. George Floyd was from the predominantly African-American Third Ward of Houston. He was known as “Big Floyd”, a gentle giant, and a man of faith. He was considered an elder statesman and a community leader in the Third Ward. More than all of that, he was a human being, and a child of God.
He had moved to Minnesota in 2018, and I can tell you that is not easy for anyone from Texas to do, especially when one is a loved as he was by that community. Floyd went however, to be part of a Christian work program. And when this latest video went viral, as with so many other times this has happened, we began to hear of others, most likely where the local authorities had success in keeping the brutality out of the press. Breonna Taylor is such a name. An emergency room technician in Louisville who was simply sleeping with her fiancé in her home when police batter rammed her house, and shot her at least 8 times. The police were allowed to enter on what is known as a “no knock” warrant which had been issued by a judge. The police in this case were casing a house where they believed drugs were being sold. They decided to add the address of Taylor because they believed one of the men they were after had used that address at one time. That one suspicion, that one “notion” turned deadly for her.
Rightfully, many of our fellow citizens took to the streets to protest, and the vast majority intended, and did in fact, protest peacefully. Sadly, today, in our Seattle streets, but also in streets all over our country, the protests have turned violent. In Minnesota, the mayors of both St. Paul, and Minneapolis, have publicly stated all those arrested last night in their cities were from other states, using this event to seek their own gain, capitalizing on this tragedy to make peaceful protesters the culprits. I hope you don’t fall for it.
All of that is sad, but ultimately it also misses the point. We, together, must work to change the ease at which George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the ever growing list we do know and the so many we will never know, can be so easily and so senselessly murdered by those trained and paid to protect us all.
Today, our Presiding Bishop said this:
Perhaps the deeper pain is the fact that this was not an isolated incident. It happened to Breonna Taylor on March 13 in Kentucky. It happened to Ahmaud Arbery on February 23 in Georgia. Racial terror in this form occurred when I was a teenager growing up black in Buffalo, New York. It extends back to the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and well before that. It’s not just our present or our history. It is part of the fabric of American life.
He goes on to say, when all the TV cameras are gone, we have to stay fixed on these issues. And how many times have we all said that?
Thoughts and Prayers are good, but they do not change us. Peaceful protests are good, but they do not change us.
Finally, I want to say, the people that most HAVE to work on this, is my tribe, white people. We are the ones that have to consciously, intentionally, purposefully decide to be present, long after the cameras are gone, long after George Floyd and Brionna and Ahmaud are yesterday’s news. Their senseless deaths have to stay fresh for us. Then, we need to work on ourselves. We have to go to the difficult places inside ourselves, and find the racism and prejudice that reside in us. We have to learn more about that, so we can change ourselves. If we keep lulling ourselves into believing we are not part of the problem, it is going to be difficult to be part of the solution. Our privilege, our comfort, our unequal protection by the authorities is part of the problem. We need to use the privilege to change the balance.
Several years ago we put a lot of effort, in this diocese, to begin administering the Intercultural Development Inventory. Although, because this is certainly not a quick fix, and because this requires ongoing work, we have had some push back, and criticism. That usually comes because we all want the quick fix. By now we ought to know those are hard to come by. A couple hours in a class is not going to change this. Knowing the right words to use will not change this. This is very long term work. This is work for you to do on.....YOU, and the point of the work is to “develop” to evolve, to learn and grow.
My Anglo siblings, WE, most especially, need to do this work. I can tell you, my own work with this inventory has been transforming. Because of it, I can also tell you I have a long way to go. But I am working on it. Join me. We have to change this for the generations to come.
I end with our Presiding Bishop’s wise words,
Opening and changing hearts does not happen overnight. The Christian race is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Our prayers and our work for justice, healing and truth-telling must be unceasing. Let us recommit ourselves to following in the footsteps of Jesus, the way that leads to healing, justice and love.
I also want to pass along the invitation from the Union of Black Episcopalians, a group in which I am a life member, and a group that has taught me so much on this issue, and a prayer vigil via Zoom in which they are inviting all to attend.
You can read the entire post by the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church here.
The Rt. Rev. Gregory H. Rickel is the VIII Bishop of Olympia, the Episcopal Church in Western Washington State. He has been the bishop here since September, 2007.