“Every single soul is a poem that’s written on the back of God’s hand.”
– Michael Franti & Spearhead from the song Every Single Soul
Some of us thought and hoped that the Congregational meeting after worship on August 4thwould be a short one. I was one of those. Not because I thought the resolution to become a Racial Justice Church unimportant. Quite the opposite, I had served on the team to get it produced and brought forward. I thought the meeting would be short because I anticipated little opposition. I thought we would approve it quickly with reminders of how far we yet have to go and then we would go so that we could get to it.
I was wrong. Instead what happened was an opening to testimonies of the pain of racism, right here at University Congregational. To those who testified in this way, thank you. I imagine that there was a kind of cost for you to do so, maybe risk and discomfort and effort and more. We are on a long journey to justice and you helped us. Because of you, we were doing some of the work of becoming a racial justice church in the speaking and listening of those moments. Thank you.
To not anticipate that need of expression was a failure of my imagination, an imagination shaped by being white, male, and straight. That is, I’m someone who has not been part of a group where voice and status were denied or diminished. I’m someone who can hold racial justice as an optional cause (albeit an extremely important one) because after any such meeting I can go on with my life and seemingly have little consequence. My appearance and my culturally conditioned behaviors identify me as white in our society, making me exempt to the forces of suspicion, limitation, and consequence that follow people of color wherever they go, all the time.
I can opt in or out of the issue. It can be for me less urgent. That’s part of my white privilege.
This is a confession of my failure to imagine what that moment might represent and offer to others, but this is not meant to shame myself. Becoming self-shaming just makes the story too much about me and keeps me from training my attention and imagination on those who have experienced their lives mattering less and on what I can do moving forward to change my imagination and actions to help that to change.
My focus as we pursue a world where BLACK LIVES truly MATTER is to keep finding greater awareness of my whiteness and of the cultural systems that reinforce white supremacy. To do that I will have to travel light and not be weighed down by guilt, shame, and excessive self-focus. In the book White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, well-meaning whites are reminded that defending one’s innocence and impact on others just gets in the way. A wise black woman said to a group of well-meaning whites at an interfaith racial justice event I attended in Denver that we simply have to begin and accept that we will make mistakes.
My practice then is to not be fragile. To make the mistakes and learn and to keep moving. To listen to feedback about racially problematic behaviors I do and not be defensive or angry or focused on my innocence or on excessive apologies. I am choosing to focus on resilience, learning, and change.
If we are to arrive in a place where every single soul is valued as a poem, as Michael Franti sings, we must keep moving. White fragility just slows us down and keeps us from the beauty of the poems we all are.