Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – 2021
A few years back, a white female clergy friend of mine was responding to the lastest in the continuing string of Black people killed by police action by surveying the pain of her community and Black friends and saying something to the effect of, “I will never understand what it is to be Black in America and feel such anguish.”
Her response has stayed with me for its honest expression of being able to bear witness to such anguish but also the reflective awareness that this pain is different from her own and not something she can find a true equivalence with in her own experience–she can only bear witness and seek to support her friends and community as best she can.
As I’ve continued to return to this response over and over as again and again we’re confronted with the realties of racial inequalities and the pain it generates, I’ve come to feel less comfortable with this phrase though. While it is an apt confession rooted in an understanding of one’s own position vis a vis that of others, it seems dangerously close to sliding into, “the wrong sort of question.”
That is, it might lead us white folks to inadvertently frame our efforts into “understanding what it feels to be Black in America.” Try as I might, I will never quite be able to answer that question. Oh, I might reach some cognitive understanding about the inequalities and injustices faced by Black people in America and where they come from and how they are perpetuated. But what it ‘feels like’ on a daily basis–nope.
Last week I had the humbling honor to be a respondent to Mpho Tutu Van Furth during a panel for my university’s Professional Development Week which was themed around Reserves, Resilience, and Repair. Tutu Van Furth was discussing the hard practice of forgiveness as explored in practical ways with her father, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in The Book of Forgiving.
Her challenging words for us included that the very real and hard work of forgiveness requires accountability before it can begin. Real forgiveness cannot proceed without it. Similarly compulsory forgiveness, where it is required of someone unwillingly, is not going to lead to reconciliation. Forgiveness is a type of grace, something that must be freely given (or held back) by victims.
In my comments, I reflected on how the South African philosophy of ubuntu is a significant part of this process in the context of her and her father’s anti-Apartheid actions and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission efforts that followed. In short, ubuntu means ‘humanity,’ but it also implies far more than the simple fact of being human. Ubuntu recognizes the deep connections between people and our mutual obligations toward one another–“I am, because we are.”
There’s a similar concept in Confucian thought with the key virtue of ren. Like ubuntu it’s hard to fully translate into English. The most common translation I’ve seen is “human heartedness.” I’ll often explain it to students as both the feeling of “aww….” when you see a baby but also the “ouch…” when you walk by someone homeless and struggling to survive. There’s a ‘humanity’ we recognize and it compels us to feel connected despite whatever social conditioning we have.
In ASL, we have a sign that can be glossed as HEART-GIVE, made by a claw handshape at the chest, as if it were holding our very heart, then moved outward, as if to offer to someone. It’s used in a variety of idomatic ways and implies not only the offering of one’s inner self, but the implict trust required for such an act. Like ubuntu and ren it sort of loses something in translation.
Which causes me to ponder– Are we lacking something in white dominated, hearing, American society like ubuntu, ren, and HEART-GIVE that impedes our ability to connect with one another in ways that allow for accountability, forgiveness, and reconcilation to grow? Is individualism so primary that we’ve forgotten how to care for one another? And is liberty being defined in ways that erod our common concern for one another and the environment we rely on for healthy living?
While the presence of ubuntu, ren, and HEART-GIVE do not automatically guarantee anything in the search for a justice and reconciled community, the lack or devaluation of such resources seems a major stumbling block!
In the side chatter of a Zoom webinar where responses and reflections to the question and answer section of the panel with Mpho Tutu Van Furth were popping up, a discussion about “telling the stories that speak the truth of one’s experience” was brewing. Black voices in that conversation were affirming this as an important first step, but also raising challenging questions regarding, “We’ve been hearing these stories. It seems it might be time to hear stories from white people, I want to know why they feel compelled to hurt us, or participate in systems that harm us.” Challenging questions indeed!
I also offered some reflection: as a white person, I think we also need to learn how to listen to stories. I’ll expand on these thoughts a bit here. We have to approach listening not to form a response–whether it be defensive or affirmative, but listen to learn. And this is challenging because we’re often trained to listen and ‘connect’ with a story by finding parallels with our own experience and ‘identify’ with the speaker of a story. But we must actively resist then when listening to the stories of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). If we do not, we run the risk of making these stories about ourselves rather than actually actively listening to these stories. This is often difficult and uncomfortable– not being the center of the stories being told is unfamiliar to us.
Furthermore, this should change how we tell our stories. It should move us to recognize where we actually appear in the stories we hear from those who are BIPOC. And it forces us to consider why and how we sit with our privileges in the world as white people.
All of this requires a shift in our phenomonology where we continue to use first person narrative and experience, but we also recognize those unfathomable questions like “What is it like to be a bat?” or in more human terms (whispers of ubuntu, ren and HEART-GIVE), “What is it like to be Black in America?” This question should neither invite us to imagine what it actually feels like directly, nor seek parallels with our own experience as white people. What it should do though is rattle our complatency and cause us to consider, “what is it to be white in America that contributes to what it feels like to be Black in America?”
I’ve been pondering that question from my own vantage point and wondering “What is it like to be a white Christian male in this moment?” as someone committed to anti-racist values and actions. But those thoughts are for another post perhaps, this one has gone on long enough.