Dear FBCR Family,
I have offered prayers for you night and day over these weeks during the pandemic. Those prayers have become more fevered as we have entered a time of heightened awareness of injustice against people of color and are now enduring the necessary unrest of social change. I have prayed that you are healthy and that you are safe. I have prayed that you are finding moments of connection with others and moments of levity and joy even amid a sustained season of loss and pain. I have prayed that you have all that you need and maybe a bit of what you want. I’ve prayed a lot of things, but more than anything else I’ve prayed that God will give you (and me) ears to hear. I pray that we’re listening.
The protests we’re seeing in our streets are a kind of testimony. They bear painful witness not simply to recent events, but to the most recent examples of centuries-old injustice. While we would all rather see our community at peace, the protests remind us that we have not yet done the work of peace and justice required for living in tranquility. I hope we’re listening closely.
The question of what we can do to support the needed transformation of our social systems is very clearly before us. I have, at best, a partial answer to that question, and even that is laden with a paradox. We should all be following the leadership of BIPOC in our justice work. At the same time we have to stop expecting BIPOC to bear the burden of pointing out what should be obvious to us. Dr. Will Gaffney, professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Brite Divinity School puts it this way, “White folk: for the love of God stop asking black folk what you can/should do. That’s not our job and this is your work. Figure it out. Take a risk. Get it wrong. Accept the consequences and try again.” This letter is my attempt to suggest some paths forward that are informed by what I have learned from BIPOC leaders and writers with some input from friends and colleagues who have very graciously allowed me to benefit from their perspective. That means, though, that much of what follows is my own thought, which is subject to distortion by my own enculturation and bias. It is a flawed, but honest effort in the spirit of “Figur[ing] it out. Tak[ing] a risk,” and likely getting it wrong in some places. Where I get it wrong, I will accept the consequences and try again.
One more thing needs attention before listing a few things I think we can do and some of you have already noticed it. Much of what I will offer here comes from the perspective of a white person desiring to be an ally in the pursuit of racial justice. Some of what I offer here is work that can be done jointly, but some of what I offer are responsibilities that I believe are incumbent upon white people in particular. The work of dismantling racism and white supremacy at a systemic level is a communal work under the leadership of BIPOC. The individual work of rooting out the encultured and engrained racism within each of us as individuals is the necessary work of white people. So my invitation is twofold. For readers of white identities: consider my suggestions and wrestle with them honestly. Consider adopting them as personal practice. For BIPOC readers: thank you for making it this far. No one feels the stress of these days more than you. Read on only as you have the desire and will to do so. Though note that there are two invitations at the bottom of the letter that you may be interested in. Should you choose to read on, please feel free to offer your feedback on what I’ve said here, but please do not sense any obligation to do so. I promise to listen and learn.
Now, what might we do? Some suggestions:
Support BIPOC near and dear to you.
I suggest letting them know that you care about and appreciate them, but if you’re a white person don’t offer to “process” recent events with them. If they want to open up and share the struggle with you, wonderful, you really are a trusted friend, but don’t be offended if they prefer to hold those thoughts and feelings back.
Work on the World
Just as we’ve been saying of the pandemic, “This isn’t over until we have a vaccine,” in the same way, racial justice has a “this isn’t over until…” There are many markers of disparity, inequity, and injustice in the struggle, but lets sum it up to say this isn’t over until everyone is honestly living an equitable existence. We have a long way to go. Here are some ideas for starting places:
Support Black Owned Businesses
A major cog in the machinery of systemic racism has been economic disadvantage. When making decisions on patronage, goods, and services why not prioritize businesses having to fight racial disparity and a depressed economy, etc? Here is a good and growing list http://www.bobrochester.com/directory.asp .
Call Out Racism When You See/Hear It
Racism finds its way into even well-intended conversations and interactions. Calling it out is a way of creating social pressure to change the way we communicate, which can affect the way we behave. But calling it out isn’t just about pressure, it can be a needed point of awareness or a reminder to someone working to overcome decades of implicit bias. When you see it or hear it, say something.
Educate yourself on the issues that impact BIPOC such as the disproportionality of violent outcomes from law enforcement, fair and equitable housing, bail reform, historic and systemic economic disadvantage, mass incarceration/war on drugs to name only a few. When you’ve learned a bit, advocate. Send letters, make phone calls, use your voice and your influence to hold policy makers accountable for just decisions. Then…
Yes, I’m a pastor and therefore will refrain from partisanship, but I will encourage you to consider candidates you support from the vantage of those who have most at stake – BIPOC. Vote for candidates who want justice, then hold whoever gets elected accountable when they get into office. How do you hold them accountable?
You may not be physically able or feel called to take to the streets in protest, but you can still lift your voice in dismay when unjust policies are made or retained. Find creative ways to ensure that community leaders know you are dissatisfied. If you do feel called and able to be a physical presence in protest, be smart and accept the leadership of BIPOC coordinating the efforts. Accept a support role when asked to do so.
In 2013 three women of color gave voice and inertia to a new movement for the liberation and empowerment of black lives. Their organization is fully inclusive and borrows its name from a simple truth that needs proclamation – Black Lives Matter. Yes, it is true that as Christians we worship a God who values all life, but not all life has its value routinely called into question. We can’t proclaim that all life matters without getting specific. Let’s proclaim together that Black Lives Matter. Use the social media hashtag #blacklivesmatter, bring it up in conversation, hang posters and banners and let the world know that you believe it.
Work on Yourself
Systemic racism is just that – systemic. The history of the United States is bathed in racism and with each wave of attempt at eradication (emancipation, civil rights movement, mass incarceration/war on drugs) it has shifted forms and hidden itself well from the white vantage point. BIPOC have seen it all along, but those of us who have grown up without those lenses often have a hard time seeing it even when it is right before us. Becoming aware of the racism we’ve unintentionally adopted requires hard, intentional work. Here are some things I suggest:
Read a Book (links provided to order from black owned online bookstore, The Lit. Bar)
- Start with White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. She does a good job of pointing out that white defensiveness (perhaps you feel some of that now) has been a major roadblock to progress in racial justice. She’ll help you learn to recognize it and mitigate it.
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander was eye opening for me. She demonstrates how racism has morphed through time evading attempts at eradication through cunning political calculation. Don’t believe that? I didn’t either until I read the book.
- Between the World and Me is a visceral look into the life of a black father, Ta-Nehisi Coates, raising a black son in America. It is in the form of a long letter from father to son.
- Stamped from the Beginning: a definitive history of racist ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi is a scholarly tome on the history of American racism that makes a convincing and startling case that racism was a kind of unspoken foundational principle. It is a big, dense read, and I’ve yet to finish it myself, but it is required reading for anyone who wants a comprehensive view of how we got to where we are today.
- Author Ibram X. Kendi just teamed up with Jason Reynolds to “remix” the book into a volume accessible to teenagers (or perhaps adults looking for an abbreviated version) called simply Stamped.
- How to Be an Anti-Racist also by Ibram X. Kendi who believes that there is no such thing as “not racist.” He believes that one is either proactively anti-racist or racist and he makes a convincing proof before giving ideas on how to move into the former category. See a note below on an invitation to read this one along with me this summer.
Check your Heart
Even as we fight against the racism implicit within ourselves we are seeing even more overt expressions in the wider world. As BIPOC continue to lose their lives and be traumatized by the systems as they exist, it is natural and warranted that we would be angry – very angry, enraged, sad, overwhelmed even. We must listen to these emotions and let our actions be informed by them, but we must keep our heads. Recent protests have proven that the misbehavior of white allies gets credited to the very people we’re trying to be allied with. Be angry, be outraged, but be in control.
Another emotional pitfall we white people tend toward is a kind of racial narcissism. We invest a bit of emotional capital and take a risk or two as an ally then we begin to think of this as our struggle and we look for accolades. We forget that whatever pain, fear or anger comes our way is dwarfed by the same of those who experience it first-hand. We can help in this struggle, but it isn’t our struggle, and we shouldn’t expect rewards.
As such, do recognize that working toward justice does come with difficulty. You will feel things and few if any of them will be triumphant, warm feelings. It is good that we, as humans, share our feelings with one another and bear the load of processing them together. But don’t ask your BIPOC friends and acquaintances to process your feelings with you. Find a trusted white friend or family member who is also committed to racial justice with whom to share your feelings. They can be both present support and partner in accountability. This is too much burden to ask of someone who experiences the struggle first-hand.
Understand and check your privilege.
Entire volumes could be written on this topic and I would encourage you to dig in further, but let’s simplify here by saying that it is a plain and simple truth that white persons navigate the structures of this world with far more ease than BIPOC. Knowing that and accepting it as truth will help you know when to harness the power of your privilege to call attention to the injustice and when to simply check it.
Be Open to Nuance
Because we are encultured to be blind to racism, we often miss what is right before us. If you hear that a particular idea, action, policy, or system is racist, but it doesn’t seem so to you, approach conversation about that topic with open ears to hear how it may very well be. It may require some “rewiring” of your thought processes to understand. Attention to the details of such topics is very important.
Don’t stop. Don’t rest. Keep it up and make habits out of these and other ideas and behaviors.
Because it is a difficult time to ignore the racism around us, it is by definition an easy time to become concerned and active. If and when the news cycle shifts from the current height of protest we cannot let our attention and commitment to justice fall away. History tells us that systems don’t change without social pressure. If resistant systems and leaders know that the pressure is to be short-lived then there is no pressure at all. Only with sustained, wide-scale, committed pressure will we begin to see justice “roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24).
Lastly, two invitations:
The first is an opportunity to enact some of these principles together as a community of faith. Join me in the FBCR online worship space (rochesterfbc.org/worship-online click on “log in now”) Tuesday, June 9 at 6:00pm. Our discussion there will be about practical steps we can take as a congregation in the work toward racial justice.
The second invitation is to join me in reading and discussing How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi this summer. This book was part of our Christian Education planning for the Spring before the pandemic sent us into diaspora. We have a few books available for a suggested donation of $15. Our discussion sessions will be Wednesdays from June 17 to July 29 (except for July 15) from 6:00 to 7:00pm meeting online each week to discuss our readings. All are welcome to participate. Click here to register and let us know if you need a book.
I conclude where I began – by letting you know of my prayers for you. We are living through very challenging times – more so for some than for others. I pray that you are and remain well and that the Spirit of God would enliven you with hope for better days ahead and a zeal for a more just world.
 BIPOC stands for black, indigenous, people of color and is a term intended to foster broad inclusion of people of color while also recognizing that there are distinctive identities and experiences there within. For more information see: https://www.thebipocproject.org/about-us