by Sarah Foster
Racism. Such a harsh word connected to a bitter past. A word I have only really thought about in the context of hatred, discrimination, and violence. A word that I did not believe applied to me, to my own life. I knew racism as a present, existing, deeply rooted issue in our country. But somehow in my mind it was still distant. Because I don’t feel hatred toward people of a different race than my own, because I grew up in a home with parents who taught me about different cultures and modeled love and acceptance for all people, because I grew up traveling abroad and working with refugees in our community, racism was not my problem.
While that may be partially true (it’s true that I’m not racist), when I distance myself from the issue, I inadvertently deny the severity of racism in my own country and the reality of our collective history. I deny the power of my own choices. Over the past weeks of studying genocide, the present refugee crisis, and the present reality of white privilege, I have realized that there is no grey area of distance and silence. I am either promoting justice or promoting injustice. And by looking away from racism, I am looking away from the people I claim to love. By sitting in silence with closed ears, I am promoting injustice.
Brené Brown rightly states in her book Rising Strong, “I’ve learned enough about privilege to know that we’re at our most dangerous when we think we’ve learned everything we need to know about it. That’s when you stop paying attention to injustice.” (Brown 166). This week I realized that I thought I had learned enough about privilege; I thought I had learned enough about racism. I had learned enough to pretend to “know” when in reality I was closing my ears and forgetting, which is the antithesis of true knowledge.
The reality is that racism is a part of our country’s history; in fact, it’s a part of humanity’s history. Afro-Colombians and Afro-Brazilians are just as marginalized and discriminated against as African Americans. (On a side note, to only focus on racism and white privilege in the U.S. is to re-enforce American centrism. In the U.S. we have to guard against several layers of privilege – American supremacy on top of Whiteness.) This is a global issue that deserves everyone’s attention. I believe we can rise above the cultural/social constructs of racism, Whiteness, and privilege if we 1.) learn to own our collective story, 2.) recognize our shared humanity, and 3.) learn to truly look at others and really listen. We need to be honest with ourselves and with others about our own history and the reality of injustices still present in our world today. What story are we telling ourselves? Only when we choose to tell the whole story in complete honesty will we be able to write our own ending. Only when we bare the whole honest story is there room for forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. As a culture we have a tendency to dichotomize and oversimplify. And while we certainly need to be wary of overcomplicating the issue to the point of paralysis, we need to be careful to actively listen, to try and gain a new perspective, to integrate all the parts of our story. I need to tell my story and you need to tell yours, recognizing that we all have a place in society. This kind of openness and honesty has the power to foster “new ways of listening, new ways of hearing the calls of others” as Warren and Hytten say in their article “The Faces of Whiteness: Pitfalls and the Critical Democrat.” Warren and Hytten propose building a “bridge of Critical Democracy” between the dangerous dichotomies of “obsessive investment with self” vs. “distanced engagement with self” as well as “static understanding” vs. “active investigation” (325). This “bridge of Critical Democracy is a way of moving toward a position of flux, an ethical retraining of the mind, body, and spirit to rehear, to reimagine” (337).
I’m tired of apathy and complacency. I’m ready to rehear and reimagine. Will you join me?