The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow: Responding to Racism

Some weeks ago when I started posting a few thoughts on race, I received this note from a friend of mine.  He has given me permission to post this anonymously in order to gain some insight into one of the most difficult issues that arise in conversations about race and other issues of power and privilege; namely how do those with acknowledged privilege best not only reject those unhealthy and unhelpful aspects of the privilege, but work to for the good of those who are without that privilege?

He writes . . .

I'm at the point where I recognize the privilege provided by my white, male, heterosexual, male (and cis), non-disabled, married status.  I would like do what I can to counter racism and the other isms in the world.  But I'm stuck.

On the one hand, I want to speak out.  But I also know that if I choose to speak out, I'm gonna screw it up.  I'm gonna say or do something stupid and racist/somethingelse-ist.  I'm a baby in the world of social justice.  And I'm gonna get slammed for my mistakes by someone who could care less that I'm trying to help - who only sees me as yet another example of the problem.  That will (and already has) drive me back into my shell, into "it's not helping me and it's hurting me, so why bother?"

I also know that my stepping into the social justice world will be seen by someone as colonization, unless I'm successful in walking a very thin tightrope between those who see me doing too little and those who see me as doing too much (and trying to control) at the same time.

In just about every other area of life, we support and applaud the efforts of novices (and even more advanced students, as they grow).  We applaud the efforts of babies who walk and talk for the first time.  We applaud children who understand their schoolwork for the first time.  In the church, we applaud those who come to the faith for the first time.  But in social justice, we expect the privileged to step out of their comfort zone because "it's the right thing to do" or "they should have been doing it all along".  We refuse to "give someone a cookie" for doing what they should have been doing all along.

So my question is this.  How can we challenge the legions (and there are legions) of well-meaning privileged folks to do what their lives otherwise do not require them to do, without driving them away as they err?  How do we turn the great privileged masses into an army of true allies?

Do we truly love our enemies, and the ambivalent, as well as our friends?

First, thank you - you know who you are - for trusting me with this.  I hope that folks will be helpful, challenging and compassionate in their responses.

There are many postures when it comes to addressing this question, just in terms of the race conversations there those who would say, "It's not the job of people of color to educate white folks" to those who believe that the only way white folks will learn about the impact and reality of privilege is if people of color engage in the conversation.

My two cents and advice . . .

First, I'll say again that differences in race, gender, class, etc do exist.  We can talk all we want about how we deal with them, but these are beautiful realities of humanity with which we must continually struggle as community. So pretending that we are somehow "above" or "beyond"or color blind to these things is a bankrupt and destructive pathway that assesses our distinctiveness as essentially bad.

  • Gathering with others who struggle with the same question.  There will be times that you need to gather with people who struggle with the same things as you do, namely privilege.  Often the best "education" comes inside the family.  This is not always the case, but when it comes to race, gender, etc. we might be able to hear the challenges and nudging better from those who are going through the same things.  You must be careful that such conversations do not turn into clubs of privilege, but ones that are seeking the same kinds of transformation that you do.
  • Understand your place in the context of the oppressed.  Understand that for many, the idea that "we" are being "used" once again for "your" own betterment is a alive and real in the world.  In physical, emotional and economics ways too many times, those without privilege have been used only to increase the self-worth and or power of the privileged.  Combine this perspective with personalities and life circumstances and you are bound to run into walls of challenge when you may slip up. The pain and righteous indignation run deep.
  • Not all people are created equally adverse to the conversation.  While I value those who think the privileged need to get their own act together, I know that there are many who embrace, with just as much passion, the engagement between folks who deeply yearn for the kinds of cross-cultural interactions that help both sides grow in understanding of the other. 
  • Know the bounds of being a person with privilege.   You will NEVER fully understand what it means to NOT be a person of privilege, so any time you catch yourself feeling like you can speak for a people or community in a way that might feel like you are co-opting their experience, you run the risk of alienation. The best way avoid this is to surround yourself with a few trusted folks who can and will call you on these things without threat of leaving the relationship in its entirety.
  • Stay in the conversation.  While I get that it is hard and you will get slammed on occasion, to stay out of the conversation is is exactly what your privilege allows you to do.  For most other people, a retreat into a safer place is not an option, I would challenge you to keep being out there, growing, stretching and finding your voice and place in the cause of reconciliation and peace.

Okay . . . so there is my advice my friend.  Again, thank you for putting yourself out there and asking the questions that you do.

I hope others will chime in with more communcal wisdom.

[Taken with permission from the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow's blog; originally posted 12/6/2010. Follow Bruce on Twitter @breyeschow]