And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Things are not getting worse.
They are getting uncovered.
We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.
Adrienne Marie Brown
Dear White Friend,
It’s been an exhausting three weeks.
You’ve done a lot of introspecting. You’ve talked with your Black friends and your friends of all races. You’re hearing the same things that some of them have been saying for years, but in a new way. You’ve cried. You’ve lost sleep. You’ve looked in the mirror and not always liked who you’ve seen. How could you not know? How could you not see?
And you’re tired. You’re tired of talking about race. Tired of talking about other people’s pain when you know there’s already so much pain in the world to go around. You’re tired of trying to figure out the right language, and who should be blamed for what, and what a society with no police could possibly look like other than a hellscape.
You feel like a child that used to go into an old relative’s closet to snuggle in their clothes and wrap yourself in their smell, but then one day discover that the smell is fetid and wrong, and the closet is full of spiders. And it’s been that way the whole time.
America’s fragrant smell of liberty and freedom is fetid and wrong. America is full of spiders. And it’s been the whole time. And you’re frantically dusting yourself off and desperate to run from the closet to go somewhere and cry and get that horrible creeping feeling off of you.
I know how you feel. I was educated in the same school system you were. I was told the same stories about the triangular trade and mercantilism that brought knowledge but no understanding. Slaves. Raw Goods. Finished Goods. Slaves. Raw Goods. Finished Goods. Around and around and around, a cool, soulless equation, as if the slaves were merely additional variables rather than human bodies and souls with dreams for their children and animosity against an annoying neighbor and a weakness for pepper soup and a funny laugh and an uncle with the best stories and an aunt with the best hugs.
Despite my family’s best efforts to educate me on the true history as they knew it of my people, I once believed much of what you believed. I was aware of much of the history that is not emphasized, but I did not have language for or understanding of the headless formal and informal systems that would persist after the unseating of overtly racist laws and customs. As a Christian, I thought that if one man could pay for the sins of the entire world, it was easy to imagine one man paying for one great sin of one nation, and so I left Martin Luther King on his own cross and went forward to imagine the New Nation he had so graciously died to create for us.
And let me tell you a secret, White Friend. I am still learning too, and sometimes, I still want to hide, too. When I received the EJI Calendar of Injustice, I couldn’t hang it up, because every day I would be forced to learn about a new indignity my people or others endured in the name of white supremacy. I still carry with me the images from the memorial, where I found out far more Black people were lynched for their wealth than for real or imagined relationships with white women. And because of our greater demon of sexism that hides in the shadows while racism takes all the credit, I do not even have language for the degree of horror Black women have endured as unchecked power begat untold sexual violence.
It makes me want to hide, too. My closet is full of spiders, and I just want to run away and never go back there. I feel as helpless as a child, and so tired.
But we are only 21 days into this walk together, White Friend. Your Black friends have been walking this stony road for their entire lives, as their ancestors did before them. Some of you have intertwined stories that know hardship, that know injustice. Instead of using those stories as proof that your work is complete, use them as a place to begin, to grow your empathy. Find the strength of those stories and use them to give you the strength to keep going, to keep cleaning, to keep deconstructing the comfortable lies that we built our lives around.
You will want this to be about you for two reasons. First, you’re human. Every parent knows that a child’s favorite story is one that centers them. What’s worse, our strange, panopticon future increasingly involves algorithms ensuring we have exactly what we want in front of us at all times, or within easy reach. Our technology is building a world of lotus eaters, blissfully unaware of anything outside of their immediate view.
Second, it’s been about you for quite some time. If your family was wealthy, the rules were written for you. If your family was poor, you at least had the psychological benefit of believing that you were better than Black people, which had the convenient effect of leaving you disinclined to make common cause with people you had more in common with than your feudal lords. And, like parents do for children to keep them engaged, our media and storytelling apparatuses target you and keep you the center of the story.
So you’ll want to give up, because you’re tired and this story isn’t about you. Worse yet, maybe the story is about you. Maybe someone in your family is, or, horror of horrors, you are, one of the villains. This realization can cause you to completely reject everything you’re seeing and retreat back into the lies. These are someone else’s problems, right?
No, they’re your problem when you don’t confront your bias and underpay or don’t promote your Black employees. They’re your problem when you pastor your church or counsel people from a race-blind perspective and render yourself unable to enter into the pain of others or advocate for justice on their behalf. They’re your problem when you see the output of systemic injustice in the legal system as an attorney or judge but have no language or tools to process what’s happening, and so you assume there must be a social or cultural problem and prosecute, defend, or rule accordingly.
They’re your problem when you have a social media page and a yard full of Black Lives Matter signs in a city full of Black people but you and your children have no Black friends. Those children will grow up with only the stories that the existing machinery and patterns tell, without personal experience of an alternative. And as the older parts rust out and wear down, they will find themselves taking their place in the machinery of systemic injustice.
And know this, White Friend. Though I get tired, though I want to give up just like you, I do not have the choice. If I forget, I will be reminded at the most inopportune time. Perhaps when I am pulled over. Perhaps when a neighbor mistakes me for a possible criminal. Perhaps at a job that always manages to find me just a bit wanting, even though they can’t quite put their finger on it, when it comes time to promote me or give me the compensation that my peers get. Even if I manage to insulate myself in enough education, money, and luck to be able to forget, I’m only one person. I have too many people that look like me, in my family and beyond, that are in a vulnerable position after literal centuries of looting of their and their ancestors’ wealth and dignity who will not be able to forget.
I am of the firm belief that this is a season of revelation. We must face the subjugation and generational abuse of Black people. We must face the genocide and erasure of and the broken covenants with Native Americans. We must deal with the othering and erasure of Asian and Latinx immigrants. And we must do these things in an intersectionally sound way that breaks the oldest wheel of all: the myth of male supremacy.
If we are brave enough, if we can face the spiders and clean that horrid smell from the closet once and for all, we will have a new nation, with liberty and justice for all. For every one of us, regardless of sex, gender identity, orientation, race, creed, or color. The Book of Revelation (Apokalupsis in Greek, from which we get the word Apocalypse) concludes with the time of trouble yielding way to a “new heaven” and “new earth”. I do not propose that these are the end times predicted in those books. But even in times like these, God can make something new.
Dear White Friend, are you prepared to enter into tribulation with me? Will you engage in the difficult work of imagining a new nation? Make no mistake, there’s no more water, there will be a fire this time. But the question of whether it will leave ash or clear away death to leave something new is up to you.