The Sunday Slot 7
My plan today was to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement….I planned to approach it from the angle of what it feels like not to be listened to. After all, the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol was not some wanton act of vandalism, black activists had been calling for it for a very long time but were just not listened to. Those deeply offended by this statue honouring black oppression were quite simply not important enough to be listened to.
Anyway I began my preparation by searching my own experiences of not being listened to. Being bullied or rejected as we sometimes feel we are or other times, when I felt wronged but I suddenly and surprisingly I came to realise that I could not come up with a single viable instance when I was so disempowered that I couldn’t make my voice heard.
But of course that is precisely the point. The fact that I could not come up with any significant examples does rather bring into sharp relief my own white privilege.
As a youngster I, like many white people then and now, would more than likely use the stock phrase ‘I am not racist’, after all I had many black friends… how could I be… but the fact is my whiteness gives me a position of power and privilege that I couldn’t see then and if somebody had tried to tell me I was complicit in it I would have felt wronged.
My first real encounter with myself on the matter came when I was studying theology around 20 years or so ago. A scarily passionate and angry Professor of Black Theology undoubtedly opened my eyes to institutional racism but I found it really uncomfortable. I continued to have many black friends and didn’t see my treatment of them as being anything different to my white friends. As much as I dreaded those lectures I found that with each successive session the scales began to fall from eyes and my white privilege was thoroughly exposed. Even then it was a battle within me as a complete soup of feelings were stirred up from guilt and shame to anger, both on behalf of those who had been treated so unjustly and on my own behalf for having been awakened to such injustice programmed into me – but which I seemingly had no way of resolving.
After my ordination and on venturing out into ministry all those years ago, something happened that further my own journey with racial injustice.
A visitor arrived for the morning service, probably the first black woman to ever attend that white middle-class church! Jenny was originally from Zimbabwe and now working locally. She received a very warm welcome from church members, was introduced to people and told where to sit (partly to avoid her the repercussions of sitting in somebody else’s seat!!). All seemed to be well, if at times people we were little too effusive in their efforts to appear inclusive. She was invited to various events – so far and so good. She was happy with how things were and enjoying attending church.
Some months later another new person arrived for the morning service. Ada was Nigerian. She was also warmly welcomed and then led to the seat next to Jenny. They were introduced to each other and from that moment on were seen by almost everyone else as a single entity. They were invited to many things but always as an item. They were always left to chat with each other at coffee after the service. Two seats, always together, were saved for them at the various events that took place and so on. I talked with the elders of the church and asked that they might enable different friendships to be made, individual invitations offered, for these were two very different women who were clearly being defined by the colour of their skin. Generally however the elders were patting themselves on the back for how welcoming they had been and dismissed my concerns.
One afternoon, spending time with Jenny, I asked how she felt things were going, she confided that she was very sad. Things had not turned out as she had hoped, it turned out that she and Ada had nothing in common at all and had come to really dislike each other yet neither felt able to challenge what was happening, after all people were only being kind!
Our conversation deepend and then, probably for the first time ever, I fully listened -and heard – what it was to be defined by skin colour and what that meant in terms of living, working and worshipping in a white majority context. I’d never listened to a black person in this way before and Jenny had never shared with a white person like this before. I had no answers, no excuses, no half baked explanations as to why these women, despite being from countries that were 3000 + miles apart were deemed to be virtually one and the same, their personal identities non existent and the simple choices such as who to be friendly with taken away. All I could do was listen, all I could provide was an uninterrupted space where she could be deeply heard. At first her voice was deferential, apologetic even for speaking truthfully but the better I got at just listening the better she got at speaking boldly, expressing her experiences and conveying the deep pain of living in the context of white privilege where even your relationships are subtly dictated.
If the professor began the process of bringing my white privilege to the surface Jenny exploded it into my full awareness and once you really begin to see it’s hard to unsee even the fine nuances of racism that exists right across the board.
Such awakening must happen for every one of us who is in the position of white privilege. Before we can stand up to racial injustice we have to find out where this lives in our own soul and bring it out into the light. So if you are white and have never considered your privilege then take the time to read, to reflect, to understand and to bring it out into the light of consciousness. And above all…listen. Simply create an open space where your own bias, thoughts and judgements are banished and then listen deeply to the pain and anguish that is spilling over right now. Infact, don’t just listen, make sure you hear what you are listening too. Change can only happen once we own it for ourselves. And if all of this feels uncomfortable then we just have to get over it!
As Robin DiAngelo says
“It is white people’s responsibility to be less fragile; people of color don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible.”