Am I My Brother’s Keeper? Recognizing White Privilege and Speaking Out Against Racism
In the midst of the civil unrest these past few months, the words that linger in my mind are from Genesis 4:10: The blood cries out from the ground. As I consider those words in the midst of this cultural moment, I’m reminded that this poignant statement was originally a response to Cain’s defensive question: Am I my brother’s keeper?
Growing up in White evangelical Christian culture, I was familiar with songs and sermons that focused on the experience of the oppressed. I learned to find myself in the story of the oppressed throughout the Bible. I was drawn to a Jesus that was close to the brokenhearted because I felt the ache of my own broken places.
There is truth in that way of connecting to my faith. I have known deep loneliness and pain. I have experienced harm through the particularities of my own story and my experience of being a woman. I have not experienced material wealth. There is generational trauma in my body. And yet, if I am only seeing myself in the stories of the oppressed, I miss the full truth of my experience. Yes, I have experienced forms of oppression. And, yet, because I am a White woman who lives within a nation and system that privileges me for the color of my skin, it is important for me to also see myself in the stories of those who oppressed. It is important for me to recognize the ways that I can ignore the reality of racist systems because they favor my daily experience, or the ways I can dismiss my complicity in harm because I did not choose the system in which I was born. Part of having privilege as a White person means that I am able to choose when I engage with racial injustice, both in external systems and in my own heart; my choice is not forced on me by my daily reality. In all these ways of responding, I am essentially asking the same question: Am I my brother’s keeper?
I sat down to write because I saw confusion and overwhelm from some of my White acquaintances and friends. I want to take a moment to write specifically to White readers who live within the United States. While Reckoning with our systemic racism, there are many who are wrestling with the question of what it means to be our brothers’ keeper. What does it mean to seek the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living when even the land that we are on carries stories of evil and harm? There are many who feel deep grief and anger these days, and want to steward it well.
First, though, I am aware that there may be another group: Those who are confused, hurt, or perhaps feeling misunderstood or defensive. Perhaps you feel like terms such as ‘White privilege’ are not appropriate for your experience. Perhaps you believe that racism once existed within the United States, but that we have moved into a new post-racial era. Perhaps you believe that the kindest and most honoring position you can have is color-blindness. Perhaps you believe that racism still occurs within our country today but that it is limited to individuals and not a system.
I’m aware that the word privilege bears complexity. For many White people, it has become a word full of implication, shame, and misconception. It is important to acknowledge that the recognition and naming of other’s trauma does not diminish our own experience. Many of us may have grown up in homes in which our experiences of harm were minimized or dismissed. We may have learned that secrecy was the way to remain within our families. Our generational trauma may include abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and other deeply significant patterns. We may have family lines that have historically been marginalized for numerous reasons. For survivors of abuse or childhood trauma, it can be confusing or even terrifying to hear words like ‘White privilege.’ Even for those of us who may not have experienced childhood trauma, we may not feel privileged, particularly if we have limited financial or relational resources, or are experiencing hardship. However, having White privilege is not a statement of how significant our personal or generational harm has been. It means that we have not experienced trauma that is directly related to the color of our skin or ethnicity. The phrase “Black lives matter” does not change that all lives matter, but because black lives have experienced particular harm, it is crucial that we acknowledge, grieve, and name the harm with particularity. When we respond to “Black lives matter” with “but all lives matter,” we are participating in a form of deep dismissiveness and harm.
The murders of Ahmaud Abery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, as well as countless others that have occurred over the past two centuries, have provoked a response on a global level. There are many who are feeling grief and anger, and perhaps are unsure about what to do. As I share some of the categories that have provided a framework for my own learning and healing process, I’d invite you to breathe deeply and pay attention to the way your body may respond to these. What emotions or sensations rise within you?
I don’t arrive at these categories on my own. Like all of us, my learning and worldview are shaped by those I’m following. Some of the people that I’m continuing to learn from and would encourage you to research are: James Cone, Resmaa Menakem, Ronald Takaki, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Richard Twiss, David Leong, Kaitlin B. Curtice, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dr. Cornel West, Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, Robin DiAngelo, and Austin Channing Brown.
It is a natural, human response to want to simplify and categorize. We want to make meaning of our experiences and world, and even more so when we are in the midst of a system or experience that seems overwhelming. And yet if we are not able to accept our own complexity, we will have a difficult time seeing it in our relationships and world. You have your own stories of harm, goodness, contexts, and ways that you may hold a mix of experiences within your body. We need to continue to do the good, hard, and holy work of tending to our own complicated stories and pain. As we care for our own grief, we will be less overwhelmed by the grief of our nation and world. As we experience kindness for ourselves, we will have kindness and understanding for others in deeper ways. When we are able to acknowledge our own complexity, we are also able to recognize the complexity in others. No person is representative of an entire group of people. As we grow to understand our nuanced stories, we will see nuance and complexity in others. This will cause us to pause before we ask our friends of color to answer on behalf of their entire culture or people group.
Resmaa Menakem, in his brilliant and poignant book My Grandmother’s Hands, writes that systemic racism with the United States needs to be viewed through the lens of generational and historical trauma. From a neuroscience perspective, we now understand that our brains and bodies learn ways of responding out of fear and shame, and that those responses can be passed down the generational line. The good news is that our brains also have the capacity to change and develop new patterns of understanding the world around us.
Listen to the experiences of others, including those who have experiences that may not fit with your perspective or understanding. Take time to research the history of our country. Look for historians who are writing from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) perspectives. Learn about your own culture, including the unique one of your family of origin. How has this helped shape you into the person that you are? What are the beliefs, fears, hopes, and understandings that you have about the world that come from the context you were raised in? How might this context impact the way that you understand the world around you?
Are we allowing our hearts to be broken in a way that moves us towards life? Will we be willing to face the impacts of racism in external systems and our own hearts, and allow our hearts to be softened? Will we listen to the experiences of our friends of color with grief and anger without quickly moving towards comfort or reassurance? There is goodness in the desire to comfort and ease pain, and yet if we move to comfort without letting ourselves fully be in grief, we are often in a form of denial and disconnection. How gentle are you with your own sorrow?
Consider what you are called to in your life. What are the work, play, and relational contexts you already live in? What are the specific actions you can take within those spaces? The work of the Gospel begins in our own hearts and communities. We already have a space that we dwell in; what does it look like to follow the prophetic call to justice within that space? Jesus had a body. His work, death, and resurrection was embodied. Sometimes within the church, we separate prayer from action. But often, embodied action is a form of prayer. May we be sensitive to the movement of the Spirit in this hour as we pray, join community organizations dedicated to learning and fighting racism, advocate for justice in our conversations and relationships, and contribute resources to BIPOC leaders who are doing the work of restoration and teaching. May we have the humility to look for the good work of the Gospel that is already occurring and join. As white people, we are often trained to take action by assuming leadership positions. But perhaps, our work at this time is to learn and follow. Who are the leaders, organizers, teachers, authors, and pastors that can lead you?
We are living in a moment of reckoning with our collective, historical, and generational racial trauma. The question of how we are our brother’s keeper can be a defensive one, or it can be one that moves us towards repentance as we seek what it means to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.