I was all set today to write about one thing, when another topic unexpectedly presented itself through the conversation I had with a friend.
My friend and I were talking about how for the last nearly three months, nearly everyone has been focused on opening up and returning to “normal” as quickly as possible. That’s about the only thing that has been on people’s mind.
With the reports of horrific acts of injustice perpetuated upon our African American sisters and brothers across the country the past several weeks, suddenly the conversation has been changed. We are no longer focusing solely on things like handwashing and the use of sanitizer and face masks. We are beginning to ask ourselves deeper questions about how we will treat one another when our communities re-open. We are asking how we can root out the virus of racism that has infected our soil for over 400 years – and beginning to ask how we can treat the virus of racism every bit as seriously as we treat the COVID-19 virus.
So how will we do it?
There are no formulaic answers I can offer to that question. I do know a couple things I can offer as a jumping off point.
First, I know it will take time to address the issues of systemic racism. Unlike the process of re-opening businesses and services after the stay-at-home orders, we won’t be able to have a target date (i.e. systemic racism will come to an end on August 15). When it comes to relations between African Americans and Americans of European descent, these problems have existed on our soil for over 400 years. Those long-standing challenges won’t disappear overnight. While I wish they could be solved in a matter of weeks – sadly, I don’t believe they will. And those who often present solutions as being quick and easy are often projecting some degree of their power and privilege as they fail to appreciate how deeply entrenched racism is in our communities.
Second, building relationships between people of different racial/ethnic locations is one of the best tools that can help us overcome racism. While educational materials dealing with racism have been flying off the bookshelves the last 10 days, educational materials alone cannot solve the problem. I learned that education alone doesn’t solve social problems when I worked as an educator in the field of HIV/AIDS in the mid-1990’s.
In the early days of that earlier pandemic, many public officials bought into the notion that it we simply educated people, they would change their at-risk behavior – and the transmission of HIV would stop. That wasn’t true. When it came to creating behavioral change, one of the most important factors involved how an individual felt about themselves and others. And the best way to effect self-esteem and one’s understanding of self in relation to others is through relationships.
Here’s where it gets tricky.
As my friends of color have said many times, entering into relationship doesn’t mean a person of European descent simply calls up a person of color that she or he might work with or occasionally see at a social gathering and expressing his or her solidarity. Entering into relationship means sharing many facets of your lives over an extended period of time (i.e. sharing a leisurely meal or coffee at your favorite establishment; taking trips to each other’s favorite spots; sharing celebrations with one another such as birthday parties, etc.). Most importantly, it takes talking about a wide-variety of topics – not just race.
Third, it will take attention to exploring what we mean by saying we want to talk about race. I’ve talked with friends of color who are not African American about what they are experiencing these days. Many express how utterly left out they feel in our current conversations about race.
They have been quick to note that they understand why there is a particular focus on relations between African Americans and European Americans right now given the recent tragedies. They also say that as we move forward, we need to pause and ask ourselves, “How comprehensive do we want to be when we talk about race and racism?”
As the pastor, I get frustrated when some in our faith community talk about our church and say it is almost all white. Some of those who say that fail to “see” many of the people of color who ARE in our community: people, for instance, who are of Afghani, Argentinian, Columbian, Indian, Japanese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Taiwanese background. This pains my heart that they don’t “see” all of the racial/ethnic diversity that is actually present.
Of course, there are many, many, many other things that need to be addressed as we prepare to re-open our doors in coming weeks and months. I offer these three things as simply a jumping off point for further conversation.
While we may all have different ideas of what needs to be done in the days ahead, I think there is one thing upon which we can all agree based upon the events of the past two weeks. While we all are eager to re-open our doors, few of us are eager to return to “normal”. Here’s hoping we return to something FAR better!