“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching,” said President Obama in a surprise address to the nation during a routine press briefing on Friday. Nearly a week after the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial was announced, and after considerable consternation among many that the leader of the nation had not spoken about the acquittal of George Zimmerman and its meaning for African Americans or for race relations throughout the country, Mr. Obama shared his own experiences of frustration and humiliation as an African American man in a United States that is in no way even close to being “post-racial.”
“Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago,” the president said, offering America a rare glimpse into the heart of a president who has often seemed to be more comfortable as “a president who just happens to be African American” than as “the first African American president.” (Though, given the obvious risks of just happening to be African American, who could blame him for dialing down race in his public persona?)
Whether or not Mr. Obama waited too long to address the verdict and the wider context of racial injustice that has carved a deep wound in the African American psyche, his candor was heartening. As Anthea Butler argued in Politico, for many African Americans—and for many of the rest of us who care about equality and justice for all—Obama’s remarks on Friday were “the speech we were waiting for.”
Outside of the personal vulnerability Mr. Obama displayed in linking his experience to that of Trayvon Martin, the heart of the speech for me was the “soul searching” challenge he put to the country in the wake of the verdict. “[There has] been talk about, should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations,” he said, setting aside the idea that the hard soul work ahead could be done anywhere else but in the context of lived relationships.
“On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces,” he continued, “there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”
This is the sort of conversation I’d hoped to find last week at church, and which I was reasonably certain I wouldn’t find at any of the various churches I attend on the Sundays I’m in town—an assertion that a cursory scan of my Facebook page will make clear was not terribly well received among many clergy when I tweeted about it and discussed it in a blog post. Indeed, just about the time Mr. Obama was addressing the nation via the press corps, I was having coffee with an acquaintance who wondered if it was really fair for me to have expected clergy to at least acknowledge the cultural and spiritual significance of the verdict and for some gesture to have been made toward discussing that meaning in the church community. “What would you have wanted them to do?”
It was a fair question, given that I’d so publicly bemoaned what I thought many predominantly white churches were not doing in response to the verdict. It seems an even more important question in the aftermath of Obama’s remarks, when perhaps more people outside the African American community understand something of the emotional and spiritual pain the verdict stirred in black people.
So, what would I want churches to do now?
Well, looking at my own initial response to conversations on Twitter about the verdict, I’m inclined to suggest that those of us in primarily single-race churches not have these conversations on our own. We must, I think, look for opportunities to broaden and challenge our perspectives by reaching outside our communities rather than reinforcing our views by talking among ourselves and nodding in earnest agreement. We mean to be honest, I’m sure. But we can only see through our own experience, and the experience of white people really isn’t at the center of the present moment of national reflection.
As I discussed the night the verdict was announced, my initial response to the racialized tone of the discussion I encountered on Twitter (where, importantly, my network is far more racially diverse than is my local community) was to try to exclude myself from those white people who don’t understand “white privilege” and “systematic racism.” I wanted to make clear that I really “get it,” I really understand. Recognizing the pain expressed by African Americans all over the Twittersphere, and recoiling at the racist hate that likewise belched out, I wanted to make it known I was not “that kind” of white person.
Now, as an editorial note, I’m speculating in what comes next. And, for narrative effect, I’m probably going to exaggerate. But I have hung out with a fair number of liberal white folks for much of my life. Given this expansive homoracial social experience, I suspect that had I been with a group of white friends when I saw Jason Hines tweet, “You’re seeing white privilege in front of your face, but I’m sure most white people won’t see it,” the outcome would have been very different than it was as a result of my conversation with him.
My hunch is that we liberal white Christians (or whatever) would have nodded in deeply compassionate understanding of Mr. Hines’ anger, and taken to lamenting the biased legal system and racist American society in general. Many of us would also likely have quickly credentialed ourselves as racially sensitive and thoughtful. bell hooks would surely be evoked, and probably Cornell West. Some of us would tell stories about people-of-color-we-know who had been followed around department stores or denied housing after a white landlord saw that they were black. In short order, someone would suggest that we all get I Am George Zimmerman t-shirts to wear under our hoodies to church on Sunday.
And we’d all feel a little better.
The thing is, throughout and after my exchange with Jason Hines, I didn’t feel better. I felt like a profoundly insensitive jackhole who had a lot of the very kinds of soul-searching the president has suggested ahead of her. Thoughtfully, but passionately, Jason pushed back on my initial response. The gift here was that he stayed in conversation, neither ignoring me nor telling me to sod off, which he might justifiably have done.
At the end of it, I didn’t feel better, and that made me feel a little better—just a little bit more human at a time when a tremendous string of failures of humanity had coalesced into a great national wound that burst open when the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was announced.
When I’d first read Jason’s tweet, I’d thought something like, “Well, okay, he’s really angry.” I felt badly for him that he felt so angry—especially at me and my liberal, sophisticated ilk, who have all read W.E.B. Du Bois and Audre Lorde, and are over posting quotes from Malcolm X and Desmond Tutu on their Facebook walls this very second. See how sensitive and understanding we can be?
By the end of our brief conversation, I felt angry along with Jason Hines—not as much by several orders of magnitude, of course, not in the same way. But I had, I think, moved into a close enough emotional register to begin to understand. I had found a part of the most profoundly human part of myself that could not be other than outraged, other than wounded, over the fact that, as I told Jason later that evening, I had been able to hike around a redwood forest the whole day the verdict was announced without ever having to worry that another human would somehow see me as fair game. Shouldn’t we all be angry at that? Shouldn’t we all be kept awake wondering what to do about that?
The upshot of all this was that, as I’ve already reported, I crawled out of bed early on Sunday morning pining for a community in which I could take my anger and join it with the anger, and frustration, and sorrow of others by way of beginning to refine it into something else. I wanted to sit in the bright, hot center of the angry, anguished fire I’d felt in the comments of Jason Hines and thousands of other African Americans last Saturday night.
That was a mistake.
It was a mistake not because the people in predominantly white churches are evil, or thoughtless, or insensitive, or incapable of thinking through complex social issues like racism and taking action to help change the social circumstances that have allowed it to take root.
Rather, it was a mistake because no group of white people on our own is going to have the kind of soul-searching conversation for which the president has called and which I still very much need. We can’t do that because we simply do not have the resources out of our own experience to challenge ourselves in the way Jason Hines challenged me. We might very much want to see to the root of our own participation in a system of white privilege. We might see the racialized American landscape before us with great clarity. But we cannot speak from the experience of living as an African American in that system, in that landscape.
This is surely blinding insight into the obvious, but it seems nonetheless necessary to say: getting close to that deeply human understanding is going to require that we have actual relationships with African Americans and other people who are racially, ethnically, and otherwise different from us. That’s not going to happen at any one of the predominantly white churches near my home and around the country that I periodically attend. Though I know lots of people of different races, the truth is that I don’t worship with any of them.
Because of this, as I try on the basis of my faith to live into the challenge set before us in the president’s remarks and to honor the gift of conversation Jason Hines gave me last Saturday, I will not be attending any predominantly white churches for a while. Rather, I’m going to extend the advice of someone who commented on by blog last week, and visit African American, Latina/o, Asian, and other ethnic and multi-ethnic churches over the next several months.
“Christologically speaking,” the commenter said, “we are to become like Christ. Christ chose to identify with the oppressed. We then must become as the oppressed to be Christlike. This requires immersion, a communing and fellowship. The binding of wounds, carrying the dead weight of others’ afflictions, and finally to pay for restoration of wrongs you didn’t directly cause. This is Jesus The Christ revealed in scripture and must by our words and actions become flesh and dwell among us.”
That doesn’t sound like much fun, and I expect that I might not feel better on plenty of Sundays. But I’m hoping I’ll feel not good in a much better way.