“The guilt remains, more deeply rooted, more securely lodged, than the oldest of old trees; and it can be unutterably exhausting to deal with people who, with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves against charges which one has not made. One does not have to make them. The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky.”
— James Baldwin
Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes
Several months ago, I was asked to deliver the closing remarks at a Racial Justice Ministry event at All Saints Church in Pasadena.
Tim Wise, an anti-racist educator and author, spoke a few weeks earlier.
After his talk, the Racial Justice Ministry I work with decided to follow up with a screening of Tim Wise’s film, “White Like Me,” and afterwards, have a dialogue about white privilege.
White privilege, as Wise defines it, is as much a psychological matter as a material one.
In his essay, “explainingwhiteprivelege,” he writes:
“Whites have the luxury of not having to worry that our race is going to mark us negatively when looking for work, going to school, shopping, looking for a place to live, or driving for that matter: things that folks of color can’t take for granted.”
Privilege is obliviousness.
As I sat on my patio on a sunny day, thinking it would take no more than an hour to come up with some closing remarks, I saw it was taking longer.
Was I stuck in “white guilt?”
I definitely felt ashamed of what my people, white people, did to black people in this country — not only in the days of slavery, but in the days of Jim Crow.
There’s a book, “Without Sanctuary,” that includes images of postcards white people sent to their friends after lynchings. The postcards showed them posing next to the corpse, along with body parts they’d taken for souvenirs.
It wasn’t that long ago.
I have a history of activism; still, I felt baffled, impaled, as James Baldwin put it, like a butterfly on a pin, unable to move forward.
I’d faced the history of systemic racism in this country, and the ways I’d benefitted from it, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Then I remembered Tim suggesting we study the history of the white allies who were active in the Civil Rights Movement.
He mentioned Anne Braden.
Anne Braden was a newspaper reporter who lived in the South, in Alabama, in the 50s and 60s.
She became involved in the Civil Rights Movement after covering the events at the Alabama Courthouse (which were horrific).
Initially, she joined the movement, not to help black people, but to help white people who, as a result of racism, and a belief in white supremacy, were turning themselves into monsters — her own father, included.
Besides writing about the movement, she and her husband, Carl Braden, went to jail numerous times on behalf of the cause. Anne Braden with Rosa Parks
As I read Anne Braden’s story, I was struck by what she said about white guilt, and how unproductive it was:
“I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt…I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think everybody white that I know who’s gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in….Human beings have always been able to envision something better…All through history there’ve been people who’ve envisioned something better in the most dire of situations, and that’s what you want to be a part of.”
Anne Braden’s story spoke to everyone, white and black.
From that day on, I took Sincere Kirabo’s advice, dropped the white guilt, and focused on imagining a better church, a better community, and a different world to live in.
Now I could hear what people of color were actually asking of white people in the movement — not to feel guilty or ashamed, but to educate ourselves, speak up, and use our privilege for the good.
After the event, I talked to an African American friend who told me about a party she went to a few weeks earlier where she was the only person of color in attendance. When someone at the party said something derogatory against African Americans, she felt compelled to speak up.
“Why didn’t anyone else speak up?” she asked. “If you want to be an ally, you need to speak up.”
Nancy Fuosto, an Episcopalian priest, told a similar story at a Martin Luther King event I participated in last week. At a gathering where she was the only person of color, someone made a racist comment about Latinos. “It hurt,” she said, “but I spoke up.”
We don’t have to go out and get all bloody to be allies in the movement for racial justice — we can speak up, and make a difference.
Anne Braden lost friends because of the work she did on behalf of racial justice. She and her husband, like many white allies at the time, became social pariahs in their own communities. However, she was mentioned in “Letters from the Birmingham Jail” as one of the few white people Martin Luther King could count on.
Whenever I feel uncomfortable speaking out against racism, it helps me to remember that it’s far more uncomfortable to have to live with racism on a daily basis. And if I speak up, next time someone else might do the same, and then another.
I believe our cause is noble, and I can let go of any temporary discomfort I feel, because the cause is right.
I also feel, like Anne Braden, that the struggle for racial justice is related to my own humanity, and integrity.
At Martin Luther King said, “All /human beings/ are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
As I move away from guilt, and toward solidarity, I discover that the actions I take on behalf of the most vulnerable among us are liberatory for me, as well.
It’s wonderful, and a joyous thing, to work with people who, in spite of dark times, and dire circumstances, and unspeakable crimes, have the ability to imagine a different world.
As Anne Braden reminded us, we may not see the fruits of our actions, but “that’s what you want to be a part of.”