Racism and the Least I Can Do
by Lē Weaver
I recently watched the movie The Butler and was reminded of how viciously people act when their societal and religious assumptions become threatened. Not to mention how cruel we can become when the inequality resulting from our privileged status is illuminated. In the short history of this country, white people have killed untold thousands of African American (and Native American) people with ropes, whips, guns, and even bombs, but more frequently by simply denying them the resources necessary to live healthy lives.
I find white people to be largely ignorant of our great privilege, while African Americans, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups are acutely aware of their great disadvantage. Those who say that everyone enjoys equal opportunity in the United States today are almost always people of privilege.
I wept bitterly during the movie, for the injustice that it depicts continues even today. When I was employed as a restaurant manager, I had more than one boss urge me not to hire black people for key "public-facing" positions, and though I didn't let their admonitions affect my hiring practices, my own self-interest compelled me to continue to work for those men anyway. I used my skills and talents to support the success of their endeavors. I hold out hope that my refusal to be complicit in their racist agenda somehow taught them something. But I am certain that I should have done more.
What my privileged ancestors did cannot be undone. But I would hope that all Euro-American people would join me in being deeply ashamed of their actions, as well as our own tendencies toward neglect, violence, and ignorance.
I wanted to stand up in the theater that night and beg for forgiveness from the people there. Forgiveness not for my ancestors but for myself. For my continued failure to act on the issues faced daily by those more marginalized than I am. For the privilege to which I certainly remain stubbornly blind. For the many times I have let racist remarks and actions go unchallenged. For my cowardice in not standing up in solidarity more often.
A few days later I watched the coverage of our President's speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous, "I Have a Dream" speech. President Obama spoke, as he sometimes does, about faith, and hope, and equality. And again I wept, but those tears were different from the ones I shed at the movie. The tears at the movie were tears of shame. The tears during Barack Obama's speech were tears of despair. Because for me, maintaining faith in the American political system, hope that real change is possible, and belief that equality can ever be achieved seem more like a childish dream than a potential reality.
What I have sadly become aware of over time is that the need to divide and dominate, the unquenchable thirst to be the only people in the room who "understand" the "real" truth, and the dangerous inability to perceive our own cruelty will likely always prevent our species from living fully into our calling as compassionate, loving, and humble servants of God's creation.
Knowing this, I hang my head. Because I'm not talking about some nameless "other." I'm talking about me. I'm talking about the people I love. I'm talking about us
And I don't want to leave it here. Lost in shame and despair, for all indications doomed to fail in our calling.
So I do the only thing I can. I look for Divinity in all of this. I look for a Loving Hand to reach out to pull us close and whisper yet another quiet verse into our ears. I listen intently.
And this is what I hear, "Gethsemane."
We are called us to gather in that garden, just as Jesus and his closest friends did 2,000 years ago, on a night filled with doubt. We are called to cry, and sweat, and to simply suffer from the fear about what comes next. We are called to remember Jesus' prayer, "Abba, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want." (Mark 14.36).
Jesus, confronted with suffering, prayed a prayer of surrender.
A woman whose work I admire, Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD, recently wrote this:
We pray not because we believe it is magic, not because we are certain that God will do what we ask, but because we can and we must. The world's burdens are too great and too many for any of us to bear, its problems impossible in our strength, knowledge, and capacity.
So we too must pray words of surrender to the will and the grace of the One who does not thirst for singular truths, whose perceptions are not limited by fear and anger, to whom division and domination have no bearing. We must pray words of surrender to God's future, not ours.
Ezekiel 12.2 puts it this way: "Mortal, you are living in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear…"
We must learn to let go of everything we cling to, everything. Because none of it, save for love, is really ours anyway. Not the power, not the possessions, not the money, not the favor.
Only in letting go of ourselves, risking everything that feels like our own, can there ever be a chance that justice will prevail. That's what the Freedom Riders did. That's what the marchers did. Risked their comfort, risked their lives, all in surrender to the pursuit of justice.
Only in surrender can we people of privilege turn away from hoarding and our pervasive belief in scarcity. Only in surrender can we put down our violent attempts at creating division where there need be none. Only in surrender can we begin to live into our calling by allowing the Divine Spark within us to ignite our lives, open our eyes, and bring us to our knees in humility.
I didn't stand up in the theater that night. I didn't speak up, though my heart was urging me to do so. It felt too crazy, too weird, too risky. And so as I write these words I realize that putting pen to paper is the least I can do.
Maybe next time I'll do better.