What I Think I Know About Racism and Me

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By John Backman

Please note: I am fumbling here.

This is what I know about race and me. No: this is what I think I know. As a white person, I doubt I will ever “know about race,” not really, not in my bones. I do know something about me, though. So let’s start there.

I know I don’t get race. Not on any level that’s meaningful.

I know there are several narratives about race in the U.S., and none of them make sense to me. I loathe the narrative of white supremacy, but that’s saying nothing at all: every human should loathe it. I understand the dream of a color-blind society, but I think it glosses over way too much. I respect the mindset of stamping out racism wherever possible—calling out people whenever they express questionable attitudes—but I worry it will just drive racism underground, where it’s much harder to see.

Also, I’m too conflict-averse to do it myself. Call it cowardly if you want.

I know I have racist attitudes in my soul. It has taken me a long time to see this in myself, probably because the shame is so intense. I won’t go into detail, because of that shame. But the attitudes live in my heart like a virus.

I know about these racist attitudes of mine because I am contemplative by nature, and the only way I can figure out how to address racism is to take it all in—to let it turn over in my heart and mind, pay attention to the process, see what insights emerge. Like the Gospel of Luke says about the Virgin Mary: she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:15, KJV).

I know that an important thing for me to take in, to “ponder in my heart,” is what black people say about being black—unfiltered, unvarnished, raw. So I’m reading James Baldwin. I just finished Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man (and this essay about how it speaks to us today). I watched Moonlight. An Alice Walker novel is on my bedside table. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a must-read every time I run across him.

…all this pondering is changing my attitudes. That is frightening and liberating at the same time.

I know that none of this, no amount of it, will ever give me license to say, “I know what you mean.”

I know that all of this really amounts to listening—a level of listening, I hope, that is beyond even deep listening. I am listening as directly as I can, trying to set aside my filters and defense mechanisms and just ponder the raw truth in my deepest self. I am cultivating a practice of listening for a lifetime.

I do not know how, or if, my listening will turn into speaking—though I suppose with this article, it already has. That is a part of my fumbling. I do know that all this pondering is changing my attitudes. That is frightening and liberating at the same time.

I have no clue how to foster a “conversation about race” in America, let alone how to “fix the problem.” Maybe we need more people to ponder racism, in this Virgin Mary way. I don’t know.

I know I have no tidy ending for this piece. Maybe you do.

John Backman is a spiritual director, contributor to Huffington Post Religion, and associate of an Episcopal monastery. He writes about contemplative spirituality and its surprising relevance for today’s deepest issues, and is the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart.

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3 Responses

  1. Trisha Scanlon says:

    I love this, and and proud to say I once went to church with you.

  2. THomas says:

    Thanks John, I am white (Armenian) but among the Northern European races my Dad was considered “Too ethnic” for a promotion he earned and deserved. This was in the 60s before race discrimination was actionable on a local scale. Oddly, Armenian sits at the base of the Cacausian Mountains which technically make Armenians caucasian? But I digress. Yes, because of relativism we are racist. “I am my body, therefore I am white and white is better than…” That said. How to ponder the problem or fix the problem? So if I may quote again a verse from the Bhagavad-Gita 5.16 “The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana (saintly person), a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater (outcast).” In other words, a fix would be spiritual education. Doesn’t matter, Christian, Hindu, Muslim. When spiritual practice is performed (no illicit sex, no intoxication, no gambling, no meat-eating), this universal or transcendental vision is achieved. Yikes, no what? are you kidding me? As you surmised in your article “…there seems to be an imperative to at least pursue truth. ” what’s holding us back is spiritual strength and to achieve true spiritual strength there must be sacrifice of bodily pleasures or tapasya. Without sacrifice this problem of racism cannot and will not be resolved. We stay, live, feel, think and see on the bodily platform. Because without sacrifice, the absolute truth remains a theory and can never be realized in truth.

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