december 30 . 2016

Devon and my journey of waking up to racism


For about four months now, I have been pressing into the uncomfortable place that lies between ignorance and motivating-awareness.

Before, I turned a blind eye, a deaf ear, a walled-up heart that wouldn’t let in deep sadness and others’ pain that I can never fully understand. It was a deep expanse of Unknown, this thing that I was sort of aware of but didn’t acknowledge.

I denied that racism was still alive and well in America today. I didn’t accept that I had a part to play, a role to identify with. I laughed off racist comments I overheard, walked away from discussions that broached the subject, checked out mentally at conferences where “racial reconciliation” sessions were given spotlight, got offended when my own comments about black culture – music, language, attitude – were labeled as “racist”, even though I meant them with appreciation and love.

I was ignorant. Unexposed to truth and light and awareness. Partly from how I was raised, but partly by my own choice too.

In September, after Keith Lamont Scott’s death, I found myself leaning forward, looking over an edge into that expanse of Unknown.

I didn’t really do unknown. I’m a recovering control-freak, and “unknown” didn’t jam well with needing to have a handle on the situation.

So, I only had the courage to lean at that point. Listening to a podcast. Joining a diversity-related book club at work. Choosing to pay attention to a racial reconciliation conversation in leadership training. Quietly, cautiously, curiously engaging and catching my breath every time something was stated that sounded strangely like it was coming from a mid-century civil rights lesson in a history book.

In November, I noticed a rickety looking bridge spanning the proverbial expanse of Unknown. I opened my mouth and asked questions of a few people I respect and trust: what else should I be reading? What other voices should I be listening to? Can you empathize with the trepidation I feel when engaging these conversations?

I had discovered the reason I felt so afraid of the expanse: I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, of asking the wrong question, of my white privilege showing too much before getting to the point in a conversation where I found the courage to take a step onto that rickety old bridge.

I was afraid of being vulnerable. 

And when I was able to identify that, I remembered these words from an incredible woman whom I esteem (emphasis added):

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
– Brené Brown

And I didn’t want the fear to keep me from the unknown any longer. I wanted to choose vulnerability. I wanted to choose engagement. I wanted to know more of the truth and I was beginning to see that my choice to disengage was actually an expression of my privilege as a white person.

I desperately wanted to crack open that box of privilege.

Yesterday, I asked an African-American man about it.

I could not have told you this moment was coming by any stretch of the imagination – except to say that I had been praying for a African-American person to come across my path who would patiently and graciously help me to see better from their perspective. One who would allow me to stumble over my words – even if I accidentally offended them – and to look past my ignorance and see my heart no matter how uncomfortable it may be for both of us.

And all of a sudden, there he was. Devon, one of my students who had set an appointment to check in with me and make sure he was on track to graduate. We weren’t there to talk about racism at all.

I can’t even remember what he said, the comment that caused me to catch my breath and immediately sense the opportunity that was before me. The opportunity to lean into vulnerability, to engage with the moment of discomfort and potential awkwardness of my ignorance, to communicate that I was sorry I had chosen to be that way for too long.

It felt like I was ignoring the rickety bridge, had secured a bungee rope to my ankles, and was counting down 3…..2…..1 – then leaping into the expanse of Unknown.

I took a deep breath and looked at him.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes, of course,” with such a kind smile on his face.

“What is it like for you…as an African-American man in this season? In light of the election, of the shootings that have happened this year…?”

And I listened so closely to his words. His story. It was both surprising and shocking and unfortunately confirmed so much of what I had been reading – the atrocities that I hoped weren’t true.

He talked about growing up in Texas and knowing as a young boy – this man is in his early 30s – that he and his siblings were never to cross “the tracks” into the other side of town. Even as an athlete in high school, his football team – which was integrated – had to be escorted across the tracks for football games, and then escorted back by officials of that other town.

He shared that on this same football team, there were many times he had to sit out of games because a white boy – who was not as talented as Devon was, but whose parents had relationships with school officials – was chosen to play his position instead.

He talked about how he had been wrongfully imprisoned, knowing he was being profiled but he respectfully went along with the due process until he was released.

And that was where the conversation landed – with respect and honor. How to really make the most difference by treating others as you want to be treated.

If he is pulled over for no apparent reason, he refuses to believe that it’s for a profiling issue. He honors and respects those in legal authority over him. He wants to be treated kindly by them and so he acts in the same way.

I was baffled.

This man has every right to feel angry, to allow bitterness to fuel his distrust and dislike of the white-supremacist culture he finds himself in, to retaliate and use his words to lash out and communicate the truth.

But he chooses instead to extend mercy, grace, and respect.

As we talked, he graciously answered my questions with honesty and kindness, even honoring me by acknowledging that I am able to identify with him in one regard – I am a woman and have experienced discrimination myself at times.

By doing so, he honored me by leveling the field of our conversation. Where I had felt low and vulnerable with my questions, he helped me to see that our shared experience, the internal feelings that all humans sense of being seen as less-than caused us to sit eye-to-eye and speak as equals.

To be honest, I would have been content to stay low. I would have almost preferred it. I have been so alarmed and sickened and appalled by the truths that I have discovered in the past four months. I want to get low so that I can understand, even on a minute level, how oppressed and cast down the African-American community has felt for centuries. I want that low position to communicate to them how sorry I am that their experience went unseen by me for so long.

Instead, Devon helped me up to where he was. I don’t have words to express what that did for my heart and my spirit in that moment.

Devon’s posture and attitude gave me the courage I needed to keep pressing into this journey. To keep asking questions of good and wonderful people at the risk of appearing ridiculous and sheltered and conservative and close-minded and ignorant. I am thankful for his grace with me in my process and for his permission to share about our conversation. I honor him and his story today.

Writing this with a heart full of thanks for those who have kindly shared moments in the first months of this journey with me: Devon, Rebecca, Tiona, Megan, John, Jake, Ashish, Kaeli, Maddi, Ches, Sarah, and Aubrey.


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