Justice Vigil

Andy Wade –
I am disturbed by what I’m seeing and hearing. I’m disturbed not only by what I’m seeing and hearing but by what’s revealed about myself as this historic scab is ripped from our collective skin. Unfolding before our eyes is a national and global response to injustice against people of color – or more descriptively, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BBIPOC).

The narrative you accept regarding these events depends on where you see yourself in this narrative. Depending on your news source, for example, you may be told that those on the streets are thugs, looters, and opportunists. Or you may hear that these are people who are demonstrating because of systematic injustice but really they should be following the laws and be more patient and calm in their protests. Occasionally, you might hear that the weight of the knee on the neck of George Floyd is a weight that BBIPOC communities have suffered for centuries in the USA and that the entire system is built to keep them in line and under control.

But what disturbs me is when White reporters try to describe what’s happening through the lens of their own Whiteness. “Here is my perspective” is valid in one sense as it reveals who we align with as this deep scab of US history is scrapped off. It is my perspective and reveals more about me than about the “current unrest”. This is why it’s so easy for those of us who are White to jump in and “take a stand” in the moment, but to abandon the struggle over the long haul. It is also why “be patient” is never the answer – because we will abandon the cause as soon as the “unrest” settles down and “things go back to normal” and we are “no longer affected”.

I say this, including myself in the description. I do not suffer daily discrimination because of the color of my skin or my cultural practices. It’s easy for me to “get back to normal” and forget that “normal” for most BBIPOC is discrimination and violence.

The other danger I’m guilty of falling into is to become an “activist for the cause”, coming up with programs and solutions based on my perspectives, rather than the leadership and life experiences of those on the receiving end of our systemic evil. I may feel better about myself, but in the end, my well-intended actions are just a continuation of the problem rather than part of the solution. As I reflect on my own thoughts and actions during this time, I’ve encountered two big warning signs that I’m perpetuating injustice, rather than truly allying myself with those who are suffering.

  1. I attempt to define the response to the oppression of BIPOC based on my own “insights”, and assumptions rather than embracing the definition from those actually experiencing the oppression. Any definition I put forth, even if fairly accurate, diverts attention from those actually experiencing racism and systemic injustice and their own voice describing the situation. I used to refer to this as “robbing their voice” or “stealing their power”, but even those descriptions assume I have the power to do either. Their voice and their power are still there, always has been – I’ve just stopped listening and I’m just diverting attention from them to me.

  2. I join the action, becoming a leader of “the cause”. Like #1, I am assuming power over a movement that belongs to another. I must speak up. I must join in addressing systemic injustice. But I do not get to define what that looks like or how it happens. The frequently used quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” It is true, and by taking control as a White person to try to solve a centuries-old systemic problem created by my race, this is exactly what I’m attempting to do. I will need to act. There are things I will have to do. But my first act is to listen and learn from those on the receiving end of my history.

Another challenge I face is that I am a leader. I am a community activist and organizer. BUT when it comes to the issue of systemic injustice I am a beginner AND I have not personally experienced it. I don’t get to take my past “successes” in community organizing and pastoral leadership and assume a kind of top-level position in the current movement. If I am unwilling to sit at the feet of my BBIPOC neighbors and learn, I am not part of the solution.

Yes, there are times I instinctively recoil at some of the tactics. I’ve even voiced my disapproval of language used or approaches taken. But slowly, too slowly, I’m learning that these responses speak more to my desire to impose “acceptable” white cultural norms on my BBIPOC neighbors than my willingness to understand more deeply the pain and abuse they experience.

I do have a voice to raise, but it’s not what I assumed it would be. And I will continue to make mistakes along the way, allowing my unexamined personal assumptions and culture to overshadow what I’m slowly learning to understand with my head. That’s all part of the process. But also part of this process is an attempt to self-contain my learning experiences in such a way as to not place additional burdens on the very people I’m attempting to stand with. This may be the most difficult lesson of all.

So yes, I’m disturbed. I’m disturbed by my history – our history. I’m disturbed by the normalizing of racism by some of our leaders inside and outside the church. I’m disturbed by my own complicity in the past, and even, at times, the present.

And yes, I’m destabilized. I’m destabilized because almost every fragment of my education, even my theological studies, trained me to think from the perspective of a white, privileged male for whom our systems were built. I’m destabilized because my underlying assumptions have been pulled out from under me and all of a sudden I need to learn from the perspectives of others. That learning includes the very uncomfortable truths about how my core assumptions actually created a very heavy burden for my BBPIOC neighbors to bear.

But I’m also determined. I refuse to let my discomfort derail me from the path ahead. I refuse to become angry at my “loss of power and control” because the “playing field” was never level – no, not even now. I’m determined to walk this path with my BBIPOC friends and neighbors and I’m determined to listen, learn, and follow their lead. Yes, I’m going to screw up along the way – that’s a given. But when I’m called out for falling back into ways that perpetuate injustice and oppression, I pray I will also have the determination to shut up and listen, listen deeply without giving excuses, and become a better friend and, I hope, ally.

I’m disturbed, destabilized, but determined. And I know there are a lot more of us out there in the same boat. This gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, the tide of systemic injustice and racism is about to turn. If we will listen. If we will learn. If we will get out of the way so that the leadership of others can flourish, then lasting change may finally be in reach.

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