Most days, I am not capable of grasping the debt that white America owes to Native Americans and African-Americans.
Most days, I am not capable of grasping the debt that white America owes to Native Americans and African-Americans. I can rattle off a vague outline of facts, sort of. But emotionally, I have not come to terms with what it really means that Europeans drove most Native-American tribes to oblivion. I cannot dwell too long on the dehumanization caused by Jim Crow laws, or the terrorism of lynchings. And I really cannot face the brutality of slavery.
I have many tricks to shield myself. I am not racist, afterall. I don’t say racist things. I believe in equal rights. I give sermons praising the work of people of color. I am not guilty, either. My ancestors did not participate in the slave trade, nor the conquest of the Americas. They were off in Eastern Europe somewhere, cowering in fear of pogroms. We were victims ourselves, sometimes still are.
Who can stand unflinching in the face of her own culpability?
The Israelites could not. When they heard God’s voice proclaiming demands at Mt. Sinai, they recoiled in fear. They begged Moses: “You speak to us and we will hear, but do not let God speak to us lest we die” (Exodus 20:16). Moses knew how to distill imperatives down to simple “do’s” and “don’ts” that the people could accept. God’s full truths overwhelmed.
No, I am not a racist. But I do score as “moderately biased” on a test of implicit racism, as do nearly all Americans. (Also recommend this podcast.) No, my ancestors did not build this country, but I am living here and benefiting from my whiteness. I can walk into any store, and the clerk will assume I am there to buy and smile welcomingly. When my son gets his driver’s license in the next few months, I will instruct him to obey the traffic laws because it is the right thing to do. But I will not worry that should he be pulled over for speeding, he might end up dead at the end of the encounter. I can’t even imagine what that would be like– I might never have let him drive.
None of this makes me guilty. But it does make me responsible. Holding on to those two states, fully and simultaneously, is not easy. When the people shrunk from God’s word, Moses tried to reassure them. “Do not be afraid, for God came in order to lift you up, and to place His reverence upon you so that you should not sin” (Exodus 20:17). It didn’t work. The people backed away, and Moses ascended alone to Mt. Sinai.
As I learned recently, from a PodCast series “Seeing White” by Scene On Radio, when white people talk about racism, we often like to emphasize the importance of the individual. If only each person could treat every other person fairly and without prejudice, we could all get along just fine. The impact of that kind of thinking is to let ourselves off the hook. Because we are not racists, right? But individuals being nice to each other cannot dig us out of the hole we are in, as a society. The generational impact of years of brutality and denigration does not get undone by just being nice.
On the other hand, neither the history not the injustice is our fault, as individuals. Implicit bias is not our fault, as individuals. Even most black people in America show implicit bias against black people. It’s the air we breathe, the water we swim in. So we can let go of the submerged guilt and shame, neither of which is earned or helpful. Instead, let’s embrace responsibility, and work together to make real, systemic change.