Left Speechless but Speaking Out by a Humbled White Person
By Jane Tawel
June 1, 2020
And so it is, as we see that black lives still don’t matter to my people, the white people; that social justice still does not matter to my people, the people in power; that we are all for equality as long as my people don’t have to give-up any thing to make America a more equal playing field for people; and so it is we see that Langston Hughes was right all those years ago:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
“Harlem” by Langston Hughes (1951)
We see that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ever so right, was so right, when he wrote:
Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. … But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. [Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America”]
Years and years go by. . . deaths and deaths go by…. Are we really still surprised, when black people have to shout, still have to try to make themselves heard over our white complacency, still have to shock us as they cry out: “Can you hear me now?!”
We have failed to hear that we have not met our promises. People say, “oh, but two wrongs don’t make a right”. But the question for me, a white woman grown up in America all these years, isn’t about being right — it is about being righteous. Righteous indignation is all very well for a white person, but righteous action is what is needed now. My intellectual assent to what black people are feeling, or doing is all very well, but that doesn’t help them two bits worth if I do not act on that assent. As it is said, “faith without works is dead”.
How dare we like spoiled children cry over our broken toys, more than we weep over the dead bodies of black boys and girls. How dare we demand self-righteously that the playground rules be changed to punish black people, and not ever demand just punishment for the white looters sitting in the halls of power, looting our democracy, looting our economy, looting our health system, looting the very foundations of any remaining morals this country might have tip-toed toward. The playground has never had fair rules for blacks and whites, because we white people hog all the swings and slides. How dare we continue to let people keep killing our citizens just because they are black and then complain that they don’t know how to control their anger. We dare because we are white. It is that horrifically simple.
And so I am left speechless in the flood of prophetic, condemning, heart-breaking, angry, fearful, mournful, and sorrowful words and actions, protests and riots, preaching and venting — I read by and about and hear by and about black people in this nation. They are the stored words and feelings of centuries and they rise once more like a flood of tears that is never dammed.
And yet, though I do not have the right, I have not earned it as I should, I was not born black with so few other equal rights other than the right to speak up on this now — I must speak. I will not stay silent just because it is not “my fight”, for until we white people make it our fight, nothing will ever change, as we have seen. I will not condemn the reactions of people whose shoes I have never walked in. I have never been black. I can try my hardest to walk in those shoes, but it will be an exercise in moral thinking only, not moral action, unless I am truly walking with, standing up for, acting for people of color.
But I have spent a lifetime walking in a white person’s shoes, and so I get to decide what it means to “walk the walk and not just talk the talk”. I get to decide what I believe my own life is worth. Is my life merely worth the gathering of more stuff for me, the avoidance of conflicts that might be difficult, worth only the “niceness” of staying silent, and the ease of retiring into a life that was never all that hard to begin with? Or is my life worth more than that? Is my life worth believing that small people doing small things in the name of justice and truth and love, is the only real kind of life worth living?
So, I will speak when spoken to, and I will condemn and call out white people — my people — , no matter whether they are people I love or not. I will call-out white people who use racist language to defend their unease with black anger. I will call out those white folks who sit in judgement of others, while the giant planks in their own eyes prevent them from seeing their own sins against God and others. I will call out the white pastors and white Christians who claim their rights to practice their religion and earn their salaries are more important than the death tolls, the health, the salaries, the murders of black people in this country. I will call out those who listen but do not act. I will call myself out, first and foremost.
And I will not stay silent when I grope for the words I continue to try to say to my black fellow Americans, to my black brothers and sisters, and forgive me for using a phrase that has given so many white people like me a false sense of solidarity, to my black friends: Please forgive me. Please help me. Please.
I am so sorry. I am here and now accepting my own egregious culpability and the egregious culpability of my nation. I have tried to say many things during this time with words that will only remain pathetic if I don’t act. I speak as someone who has long believed in a world view that is only as good as it is acted upon. Unlike what you may be hearing from those who claim it today, the Judeo-Christian worldview is one of acting for love and truth and justice, against hatred and injustice and deceit. In fact, the only thing worth believing about God, Jesus or the Bible is that it doesn’t matter what we think, since in light of God we are all stupid. It doesn’t matter what we believe if it doesn’t change us. The only thing that matters is that we humans are meant — required — to act out goodness — goodness for the whole earth, the whole world, good hearts and minds that translate directly into wills of loving actions for the betterment of all, but especially for those who have less than we do. Period.
So here are some thoughts related to a few things my black connections, and other people of color, have been trying to help me with and that I have been struggling with. I don’t say that there are not white friends of mine who are also speaking out and speaking up and standing for, but they like I am, are the “roar of the crowd”; we are not the players who literally have skin in the game.
I have to start with my own worldview as shaped by American Christianity but which has drastically morphed in recent years, to something that I hope resembles more like what a real God, and real Savior, and a real Holy Book would teach. If you believe in the truths about justice in the Bible, and the idea of how the world is supposed to be as Jesus taught, as I do, then we know that accordingly, the nations are continually and will be in the future judged. Check out the books of Amos and Isaiah and the words of Jesus, if you don’t believe me. America will be judged, and I think God will start with what we — our whole nation of white, colonizing, slave owning, genocidal, violent and silent — people have done to people of color, indigenous peoples, and in this country, especially, to black people. It makes me tremble to hear people call this country “back to being” a Christian nation — it never was, never has been, never will be. Christianity is as Christianity DOES. As God has always called His people to do, we must decide “as for me and my house, who will I serve?” Will I serve the false idols of this nation, or serve the Lord? As all individuals from Abraham to Moses to Joshua to David to Jesus, we can choose to side with the power of a nation of kings who are not just, not truthful, not caring of the least of society, not “loving the whole world as God so loved the world”, a nation built on racism and greed. Or we can stand up and be counted. We can leave the Babylon of our false religion, we can stop wandering in the wilderness of our grumbling and greed, or we can leave the Promised Land to those willing to risk for it. But this is “religious” talk. What is happening in our country today is about humans, and humanity, no matter what your beliefs and disbeliefs.
The transgressions and consequences of racism and violence of our nation continues and I can not imagine if I were black and having to witness atrocity after atrocity. But until everyone who is not a person of color, accepts their own responsibility, either by commission or omission, we will not know how to change. I must accept my own shame — we carry the sins of our fathers and mothers generation after generation. I carry the stain of my own prejudices, spoken or “only” thought. I carry the heavy cost of my own laziness in not fighting for others, silence in the face of pure evil, and for not mourning with so many people of color who continue to mourn, and mourn, and mourn.
I have no substantial say in my nation except with my vote and my money, but I do have a say before my God and my brothers and sisters, and fellow humans, and even a voice that should be heard by those who do not believe as I do. Perhaps they cannot believe in my God because they have suffered at the hands of this white “christian” nation for so long — and that is on me.
I am angry, and I am sorrowful. And I am so, so sorry for everything. To claim it is not “my fault” may have philosophical credence but it has no bearing on what must change in my own heart, my own life, and in the hearts and lives of this nation.
And to those who would see me as a spiritual person, I repent. And I confess my own sins humbly with repentance, for my owns sins of both commission and omission, done and left undone. I honestly believe, that in this life and the next, God will weigh us all in the balance. I know I, too, deserve to be judged, for my prejudices, my racism, my not being who God has called us to be, and I pray that I might understand the weight of these words: “Repent and be saved. I, Jesus, do not judge you — so go and sin no more.” And sinning no more in white America today, means that I am also being told: “Now get out there and do something about this as God has commanded you to do.”
To look at oneself in the mirror of truth is to face one’s own hypocrisy. Black people in this country are understandably incensed not only at the institutionalized racism of centuries, at police murders of black people, of white racists killing innocent black people and getting away with it in the courts meant to uphold our laws, but they are also angry at the blatant hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy is the other monster head on the Hydra of white privilege, hatred, inequality, and greed that lives and is fed in America.
I am finding that hypocrisy is one of the most difficult things to call people out on. It makes sense, because hypocrisy is not only in the very foundations of our egos, but is a founding father of this nation and of the major religion we claim as “Christianity”. Our foolish lazy stance that we are merely called to a belief in the idea of democracy but not a fight for it, and our complacent belief that we need not do anything other than pray to earn God’s favor, has led us to jump off the cliff of reason and understanding, and into a raging tide-pool of hypocritical insanity-producing self-justification and destructive false mores and unsustainable values.
My heart breaks most of all at what people are doing and not doing in the name of God or Christ. A white pastor I know and whose church I once attended, posted the other day to all his followers that maybe we should stop speaking out on social media and stop speaking out in the streets, and try “listening”. Dear Lord, does this man not see his own complacent hypocrisy? Answer: no. The man has a cushy job in an all-white church with a house on a golf course (paid for in God-money) in a pretty much all white state — a place he fled to a few years back after Los Angeles got a bit too much for him. What black people is he “listening” to? I’ve tried calling him and others out before and they just delete or unfriend me. LOL! But isn’t it really the same for most of white people, we live in all white glass houses and throw rocks at the reactions of black people throwing rocks in riots?
Frankly, I’m always rather thankful when someone decides to “break up with me” over issues, because I feel I must be actually doing something, maybe even doing something right. Also, because when someone unfriends or deletes me because they don’t like how angry I am, or my truth-telling, or my trying to discuss something I don’t agree with, then I get a little bit closer to understanding what is it to walk in the shoes of a person of color. To be shut down, to have no voice that is worth listening to, to be “listened to” and then ignored. I can pity these people who decide I am not worth it, who think God’s love is for being nice, that God’s command to love others as self, is for Sunday pew sitting, and not protest marching, tables turned over righteousness. I am aware that I am being “deleted”, being dismissed, being shunned or judged because I am in-your-face angry. I can almost imagine how angry I’d be if I were black. When white people get upset and angry with black people for demanding truth, demanding righteousness, demanding change in thinking and acting, for “calling out” and calling to account our wrongs, our deeply entrenched problems, our race issues, and our “Christian” failings, do we not see our own hypocrisy? Do black people also have prejudices, do they also make mistakes, do they also have to be accountable — why of course, but as a white woman, I take to heart these words from a person of color, Jesus Christ, who said “to whom much is given much will be required”. Mea culpa. Much is required of me and it’s time I started paying my dues, not just skimming off the top.
So we keep at it — all of us. Listening, yes, I am listening, but “faith without works is dead”. And listening without change and action is like watching a meal without eating it. It is like eating a communion wafer, the body of Christ given for us, without becoming the person of Christ, without acting out the life of Christ, suffering unto death for the love of others.
Ah, listening. Is the corona virus “listening” as more people of color die than white people do because of years of entrenched greed and racism and institutionalized inequality? Did the cops “listen” to any single one of the black men and women they have pulled over for being black, arrested for being black, killed for being black? Did they “listen” when they heard George Floyd cry, “I can’t breath”? Are our government leaders “listening”? Are schools and those who will educate the future “listening”? If they are truly listening, they will hear the thunder of the waves — the flood is here — and they — we — will all DO SOMETHING. It is not time to take cover, white folks, it is time to fix the broken dams.
Who do we admire, black and white folks alike? Gandhi? Mother Teresa? Abraham Lincoln? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Did they merely listen and then “pray” or “discuss” or “promise change for the future”? How about Jesus? Did Jesus just “listen”? Heck no, He led a one-man riot, he turned over the tables, folks. Jesus actually lived out his whole life as a single-handed protest against racism, injustice, and greed and pride. There was no one who understood better than The Son of God what having great power means and so he used it by laying it down for the least of the least in this world. There was no one who suffered more at the hands of conspiracy theories and racism and false religious leaders and persecution than the Son of God. How dare we treat him with such contempt today with our hypocrisy of inaction.
We have got to stop giving powerful or entitled people the “pass card” on their actions (or inactions) and for us white folks, we must stop giving people the green light on their hypocrisy. I confess humbly, that it is easy now at my age, with my color, in my place to speak out. Far too easy compared to George Floyd, a black man who cried, “I can’t breathe”. It’s kind of a relief that all the “Christian” places and the schools that I used to work for “let me go” for being a bit radical, a bit different, for speaking out, for questioning authority, for protesting. I’m not complaining as it has helped me understand prejudice more intimately. I don’t have to weigh any more who might read my posts and decide that students or other “Christians” “can’t handle” something or that hard truths are merely “opinions” that should be kept to oneself, or worst of all — that Jesus came to preach “why can’t we all just get along?”, which is the very last thing Jesus would have said.
What Jesus did say was,“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” What Jesus did say was, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
White folks, we keep “swallowing camels” and keep “straining out gnats”. And that is the truth we seem unable to “swallow”.
What students can’t handle — what young people today can not tolerate — what people who do not believe in the religions of today can not stomach — what people of color can not swallow — is the broken world we are leaving them and the excuses we are still clinging to.
So, you are right, no matter how the words may come out, my friends, to call out and call to account each other and ourselves. We must all call-out folks, but let’s start with calling out our own folks. Let’s call out especially educators of young minds and hearts, especially white people, especially self-proclaimed religious people, especially powerful leaders, especially the “listeners” and not “doers”.
When there is a seismic earthquake going on in this country, a destruction of the very foundations of morality and democracy, then people can’t keep silent. We can’t just enjoy sharing recipes. It’s why it has all been a “recipe for disaster” — our complacent acceptance and our soul-destroying hypocrisy of those who are privileged to live white. The foundation is crumbling folks, don’t keep painting over the dirty walls.
I am calling out myself, because it has always been easier for me, a white woman, an American, a “Christian”, to speak out and speak up. It has always been easier for me to post and write things like this than it has been for a black person, a person of color, a Muslim or Jew, or an immigrant. I refuse to give myself a pass card, and don’t you either, my friend, “To those who have been given much, much will be required”.
Thank you to the black people, to all the people of color, in America today, throughout the world, in fact, who love me enough to speak out and speak truth. Who care enough to believe that I can change. Thank you. Be brave, be safe.
Thank you to all the black and yes, white people who have been acting in ways seen and unseen for all these years to bring justice home to America in real ways. Be tireless in doing good, be hopeful.
I will continue to think and pray, listen and take in, and find ways to actually ACT, not just talk and write. I will keep listening and keep listening and never feel that it is my right as a white person to be tired of listening. I will mourn in anger and sorrow with black mothers and fathers and spouses and children and friends across this nation for the terrorism and tragedies that no one should have to endure time and time again.
And I will act, without knowing for certain whether it is the “right thing” to do, but with the hopeful assurance that it is the “righteous” thing to do.
~~ “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
(Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoting the ancient prophet, Amos)
~~ May it be so ~~ Jane