“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.
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.