I have been reading and writing a lot about race lately. The Black Lives Matter movement got me going. Trump’s presidency stoked the fire of urgency. Over winter break I finished, Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. I highly recommend this book. In fact, I wish every white person would read it. Irving does such a good job highlighting issues of race that people of color deal with every day, but to which we white people remain oblivious. Irving’s tone is not teacherly or patronizing, even though she is a diversity educator. Instead, she is autobiographical and self-effacing. She shares stories of mistakes she has made in her efforts to become a more racially-aware person. Some of these stories made me cringe, because I have made similar mistakes. But the only way to learn is to face these mistakes. Here are just a few of the valuable lessons I gleaned from this book:
White people need to educate other white people about race. Honestly, before reading this book, I thought I could only learn about race from people of color. (I’m embarrassed and ashamed to have just typed that sentence.) White people often fail to recognize that “white” is also a race that we need to understand. If we can understand whiteness and white culture, then we can better understand the challenges we pose to people of other races when we expect them to act like us, speak like us, learn like us, etc.
Irving, whose suburban upbringing was a lot like my own, helped me identify a variety of beliefs and behaviors indicative of white culture, such as: conflict avoidance, emotional restraint, a sense of urgency about time, a habit of asking social locator questions like “What do you do? Where are you from? Where did you go to school?” to determine what box we should put people or gage the level of success they have achieved. I am guilty of this white judgmentalism and am determined to break this habit of asking “social locator” type questions.
Fair does not mean equal. Equality starts with equity. “Equity,” Irving writes, “means both holding people of differing needs to a single expectation and giving them what they need to achieve it.” In other words, equity is a way to level the playing field and equality cannot be achieved without it. She illustrated her point with a hypothetical: If there was a test that involved students writing their answer on a line on the board—a line five feet above the ground—what would you do for the shorter students who couldn’t reach the line? You’d make the test equitable by giving the shorter students a step up so they could meet the same expectation as the taller students. Such steps—like affirmative action—level the playing field to make it more equitable.
When it comes to racism, there’s no such thing as neutral. Irving writes, “When it comes to racism, there’s no such thing as neutral: either I’m intentionally and strategically working against it, or I’m aiding and abetting the system. As historian and activist Howard Zinn said, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train.’” Irving correlates this idea with her antibullying training as a teacher. “Antibullying pedagogy describes three distinct roles: (1) bullies, (2) victims, and (3) bystanders,” she writes. “Traditionally the approach has been to reprimand the bully and console the victim while ignoring the bystanders, those who witness but neither partake in nor stand up to the bullying. More recently, however, educators and psychologists recognized that the real power rests in empowering bystanders to become allies in the fight to eliminate childhood bullying.”
I am convicted by Irving’s words, realizing that I have lived most of my life as a bystander, as someone who has aided and abetted the system of racism because I was SO unaware and because I lacked the courage to do anything about it. Irving shares that her ultimate goal is to interrupt racism, advocate against it, and educate without doing more harm than good. Even though I know I will make lots of terrible mistakes, I’m committed to this goal as well. The burden to right this wrong is on those of us who benefit from this unfair and inequitable system. Will you join me? Reading “Waking Up White” with your friends, co-workers, or church groups is a great place to start.
[The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Co-Moderators, Rev. T. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edmiston, have invited churches to read and study this book. They’ve also published this curriculum to guide and encourage your study.]
When our son, Isaac, was about a month old he began to scream and cry each night for about an hour. Nothing would comfort him. Our pediatrician helpfully explained Isaac’s behavior to us as a period of PURPLE crying, an acronym for:
Previously referred to as colic and treated as if there was something wrong with the baby, PURPLE crying was a way to help parents understand this period in their baby’s life as a normal part of every infant’s development. As our pediatrician explained it, Isaac took in stimuli all day long and at night he needed to release that stimulation in a big, emotional cry. I remembered this trying time of parenthood a few days ago when I sat down to meditate for the first time in many months.
My daily meditation practice faltered because I decided I preferred to use my quiet morning time to write. But then life handed me some change and new challenge. Our beloved 14-year-old German Shepherd lost the use of his hips and after a few months of trying to help him live with dignity, we decided we had to put him down. In the midst of this, my 45-year-old body presented me with changes to which I’ve had a difficult time adjusting. It was the holidays, so I coped by eating and drinking too much. My exercise routine also faltered.
Finally, while trying to run on the treadmill at the gym I noticed that my insides felt all jumpy and wrangly. This is how stress feels to me—like my insides are filled with Mexican jumping beans. I should get back to meditating, I told myself.
That night, after the kids had gone to bed, I sat and breathed through one rotation of my 108 mala beads. (Mala beads are great for meditation, by the way. Read more about them here. Watch a video about how to use them here.) It was a fruitful meditation, because what arose as I sat quietly with myself was all the emotion I had been avoiding, emotions I finally could identify during this time of meditation as anxiety, sadness, frustration, grief. All this had been welling up inside of me, but I had been disregarding these feelings in my effort to just…keep…going.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from meditation is how sitting with ourselves and honoring what is happening within is essential for healing and spiritual wholeness. The Buddhist practice of sitting with your suffering has become very valuable to me. My emotions, like the ocean tide, need space to rise and flourish before they can ebb and recede. Too often, though, I avoid these uncomfortable emotions and go to great lengths to push my suffering aside. Like an infant’s period of PURPLE crying, the emotions that arise within us are a natural part of the human experience and should be respected as such. By honoring what is within me, by attending to even the most painful of emotions, I’ve discovered that their power over me diminishes.
What about you? What is within you? What have you been avoiding? And what might happen if you honored and attended that which is within?
What follows is my sermon, “Is there room for me?” to Monmouth College at our annual Christmas Convocation based on Luke 2: 1-14.
Traditionally, in a Protestant worship service, all the children are invited forward for a special time or message from the pastor. One Christmas, when I was the pastor of a small church in North Carolina, I decided to involve the whole congregation in my children’s message by acting out the scene where pregnant Mary and Joseph are looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem. I gave the people sitting on the aisles doors made out of posterboard. Then I led the children around the sanctuary to knock on the doors and ask if there was room for them to come in and stay. I did this not realizing how difficult it would be for my church members.
Two-year old-Garrett, clutching his tattered teddy bear, knocked on Leon’s door and asked, “Do you have room for me?” and Leon—well, I could tell that Leon wanted to cave—so, I interrupted, “No, Leon, you’ve got no room for Garrett. Now shut the door.” The same thing happened when sweet little Grace in her red velvet dress knocked on Sharon’s door. Sharon’s a grandmother who never says no to a child. She looked devastated to have to turn Grace away. “I’m sorry sweetie,” she said. Finally, my own 4-year-old, tow-headed, son, Isaac, knocked on Mack’s door, with his sweet little six-inch clip-on-tie and his shirt tail untucked. Isaac and Mack had a special connection. They looked for each other every Sunday morning and that Christmas, Mack had made Isaac a toy train out of wood. So when Isaac asked, “Mr. Mack, do you have room for me?” It was all Mack could do to stay on script, “No, Isaac, I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room for you.”
Every Christmas, as I consider what to say to you at this convocation I try to take the pulse of our community and then respond in a way that I pray is both helpful and faithful. This year, with race and interfaith relations boiling over, the rescinding of DACA, and our divisions growing ever wider, it seems to me that many of us just feel left out in the cold, or feel left to wonder, is there room for me?
Our seniors getting ready to graduate wonder, “Is there room for me, is there a place for me, in life beyond college?”
The woman living in a society where glass ceilings are yet to be broken and #metoo is trending on twitter wonders, “Is there room for me, for my aspirations and my success?”
The white man, tired of hearing about his unearned privilege and confused over what, exactly, to do about it, wonders, “Will there still be room for me if I let others in?”
The transgender man who just wants to use the bathroom like everyone else wonders, “Is there room for me?”
The undocumented student, who fears her and her family’s deportation, wonders, “Is there room for me?”
The Syrian refugee, whose family is scattered all over the world and whose home has been decimated by violent, warring powers wonders, “Is there room for me?”
The African American student attending a predominantly white college, wonders, “Is there room for me?”
Pondering this question (the question of whether or not there is room) I returned to the text and discovered a detail that I had missed. When I read this story of Jesus’ birth before, I had always pictured a weary Innkeeper greeting Mary and Joseph in the middle of the night, a lantern reflecting their faces desperate for a place to stay and the Innkeeper’s regret as he, reluctantly, followed the script, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room you.”
Well, apparently, I made this whole scene up because there is no innkeeper in this text. In fact, I learned recently that the word inn would more accurately be translated as “guest room” or “guest bed” in the peasant house or desert cave where Mary and Joseph more likely stopped. This was not a place of business—not some kind of hotel—but family and friends who had come home for the census and crowded in for the night with people and animals sleeping on different levels. So yes, there was no bed for them, no guest room with a private bath, no luxury to speak of at all. But there was room. Mary and Joseph were taken in. Their baby was born, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger.
Knowing this, now I wish I could go back in time, back to my church in North Carolina and back to the Christmas when I led all those children around the sanctuary. I wish I could go back and give my church members the right script. I’d tell Leon, go ahead and cave. Let Garrett in. Sharon, it’s okay, you’ve got room for Grace. And Mack, you can make room for Isaac, just like I know you would for any child of God.
In today’s world, it seems like we’ve been operating under a script that tells us there just isn’t enough—there’s not enough room, not enough resources, not enough jobs, not enough alternative sources of energy, maybe even not enough love to conquer the hate or good to overcome the evil. This belief in scarcity arises out of fear and anxiety. I get that. I know that fear too. But this belief in scarcity only leads us to hoard in excess, to isolate ourselves, build walls, choose sides and arm ourselves to the hilt to protect our own.
The birth of Jesus Christ flips this script. It proclaims the good news of great joy for all the people. No one is left out in the cold. Nor is anyone left out as Jesus grows up and purposefully reaches out to those who have been left out: the women, the children, the stranger, the sick, the poor, even the despised tax collector. Jesus apparently believed that what God has given, God has given in abundance. There is enough. There is room for us all.
There is room for the graduating senior and the woman with career aspiration. There is room for the privileged and the underprivileged. There is room for the lgbtq, for the undocumented, for the refugee, for the minoritized. There is room for us all.
The angel Gabriel wasn’t kidding when he said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” A Savior born in an overcrowded house among the animals because the good people there believed they had enough to make room.
This Christmas, may we know this Savior and this salvation when we too make room for all of God’s people.
[Feature Image: Wbeem]
The Presbyterian Outlook recently published my advice to the church on how to reach young adults and college students. Follow this link to read the article: Dear Church: Please ask me about my college students.
Last Sunday, during a program at my college about how to create needed social change, I observed a few of the white students tuning out. One fell asleep. Another started texting a friend. Another tried to pay attention, but her eyes kept wandering to the floor, the window and the faces in the room other than the presenter. The students of color, on the other hand, were engaged in the topic. They asked and answered questions and contributed to the discussion.
After this observation, I decided to lead a program on privilege thinking it would be helpful for more of our white students to understand the social, economic, and political advantages they have over people of color. When I shared my idea for the program with one of my more thoughtful white students, though, she told me that her peers were tired of talking about privilege. “It’s everywhere, Teri. Sure, it’s important. But people are just tired of talking about it.” I was grateful for this student’s honesty, but also wondered how I could stoke the fire of this important conversation. I decided to go ahead with my program.
In my planning, I came across Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh (who is white) helpfully unpacks the invisible knapsack of unearned assets she can count on cashing in every day, but about which, she says, “she was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” Because of the color of her skin, McIntosh says she can count on the following:
This last example helped me better understand the disinterest and weariness of my white students. There are no real consequences for a white person’s apathy, disinterest, or weariness of talking about privilege. In fact, the system of white dominance and white supremacy that our country has been built upon rewards such passivity. If white people remain oblivious to our unearned benefits, then we cannot be expected to share, give them up, or work towards a more equitable system. It’s hard to hold an oblivious person accountable. Thus, the system of white dominance is perpetuated.
Through the programs I lead and the relationships I develop, I hope to keep this conversation going. I hope to keep learning how I can live faithfully with the unearned assets I have inherited and encourage others to do the same. Jesus keeps calling me to the most disadvantaged. Although it’s painful to acknowledge that my unearned advantages play a significant role in keeping others disadvantaged, I’ve got to face that harsh truth to have any hope of righting what is wrong.
[Feature Image: Elias Schewel]
In other words, many tasks took precedent over my daily goal to sit down and write.
During yesterday’s readathon, I finally got to Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which has been on my list to read for a while. For me, the most helpful part of Pressfield’s book was his characterization of Resistance—that which keeps us from creating, growing, learning and evolving as human beings.
Two of the most intriguing points Pressfield made about Resistance were:
I also appreciated Pressfield’s description of what Resistance feels like. As a writer, he wakes up “with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction. Already, I feel fear. Already, the loved ones around me are starting to fade. I interact. I’m present. But I’m not. I am aware of Resistance. I feel it in my guts. I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic.”
This daily battle with Resistance resonates because it has beaten me so many times, allowing me to excuse myself from my writing. Pressfield’s clear characterization of Resistance is helpful, then, in discerning what the enemy looks and feels like, as well as the weapons Resistance uses against us. Resistance keeps us from being the creators we were always meant to be.