History and Pain: A Reflection on American Racism (Part 1 of 2)

If the word “racism” sparks feelings of fear, anger, or grief within you, you are on the right track. You are sensing the deeply embedded illness that the reality of racism has sown in this land we now call the United States of America and in all of its inhabitants for half of a millenia.

Thank you for taking time to read what I have undertaken here to express. If you have trigger points around violence and/or family trauma, I suggest that you read this article with a support person if possible, and if you are so moved say a prayer before you read that God will keep you humble yet strong as you open your heart and mind to experience painful thoughts and feelings. I further ask that you would spend time in self-reflection today, seeking discernment in how to humbly but urgently seek change.

In a post on Facebook, my friend Sheba explained why some of our responses, as white people, to George Floyd’s murder and subsequent protests across the world, miss the mark. I share her words here with her permission. The post conveys her thoughts as she and her husband struggle to come to terms with yet another murder of a Black person at the hands of police, while they celebrate the first birthday of their twin sons. I have abbreviated her post for space; click the link above to read the entire post.

It’s not easy for us to come up with eloquent words right now for how we are feeling. We are grieving. This is not the kind of pain that can be compartmentalized. We can’t tuck it away or put it up on a shelf. It is a constant, ever-present pain. We cannot choose when to feel it – it is with us every day. Many of us have had family members who have been brutalized by police, or have feared for our families’ lives when deciding whether or not to involve police – ever, period – even when their lives are at risk or they actually need protection. You may not know these of our stories simply because we only feel brave enough to tell them in the safest of spaces. None of what is happening is political to us. Saying that you don’t “get political” is a deflection and a cop out. This tired narrative is holding white people and organizations back from their supposed interests in equity and diversity. It’s holding us all back period, because it further deepens the distance we put between ourselves and issues that do not directly impact us – so we choose not to care. We choose not to pause from our everyday lives, and think critically about what’s going on, because doing so would create an inconvenience for us. Black people’s pain has always been an inconvenience for white people to actually face – because to face our pain would mean that you have to face your complicity and the ways that you directly benefit from white supremacy.

I believe that if we are to model Jesus’ radical, countercultural love and care for others, our first steps in any response to the claims of those hurting, those oppressed, must be acknowledgement and self-reflection, before we level any judgment or condemnation. I am making two requests of you here: (1) consider that you may not yet have the full picture of US history and take steps to re-learn; (2) consider that you may have personal work to do when it comes to seeing and accepting pain and its sources. These areas of focus are inexorably intertwined, but today I will attempt to focus my thoughts on the topic of US history, and next week I will post the second half of what I’ve written, on the topic of pain stemming from American racism.

I know there are many reading this who have experienced intergenerational trauma. The term or even the concept may be new to you, but when you think about inherited conditions that plague families across generations — alcoholism, mental illness, abuse, codependence — I hope you realize that our family histories play a significant role in shaping who we are.

Another way to look at the importance of the past is to think about ethnic pride. I expect most of us can say that we have been proud, or at least curious, to learn and speak about the places from where our ancestors hailed.

Imagine with me for a few moments that your family history in the US was not characterized by elective and legal immigration. Imagine that your ancestors were forcibly removed from their land, from their homes. Imagine that your ancestors were deprived of not only their culture but in most cases their family members, in many instances their very lives. Imagine that, in addition to powerful resistance and liberation, your family’s history was characterized by experiences of desecration, rape, torture, deprivation, and lynching over generations, for hundreds of years. This painful cultural history is the inherited reality for many of our fellow Americans. Indigenous people, Black people, and people of color have experienced trauma at the hands of white people, who invented the very construct of race, on this land for over 500 years. They continue to experience such trauma to this day.

Today, we do not condone slavery, but we allow mass incarceration of Black people and witness police brutality in silence. Today, we do not condone legal segregation, but we practice it de facto in our minds, our neighborhoods, and our schools. Today, we do not publicly assent to differential treatment and valuation of people based on the level of melanin in their skin. But oh, my sisters and brothers, do we hold on to such differentiation in our hearts when we witness the evil carried out upon George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony Robinson, and too many others, and do not stand up and loudly shout “Injustice!” from the rooftops, much less speak about it with our families, friends, and elected officials.

What are we to do with a legacy of this weight and magnitude? I suggest we must allow ourselves to be broken. I suggest that when we hear cries of injustice, racism, and oppression, we do not seek to argue about or deny or defend the behavior of our fellow white folks, or justify to ourselves our own inaction in favor of focusing on “Black-on-Black crime” or calling for peaceful protest. Rather, we must sit still for a moment, think sincerely about the pain experienced by those whose family members and friends have lost their lives because of racism, and begin to feel some of that pain for ourselves. We must acknowledge the pain of the loss of life, and grieve for those lives. Our sisters and brothers are being killed, illegally, and often without recourse.

If you have never been brought to your knees by the atrocities faced by African people stolen from their homes and shipped as cargo across oceans to be sold as property, if you have never wept after reading about crimes committed against Black slaves for generations, if you have never felt soul-deep anguish upon witnessing the ongoing mistreatment and murders borne by Black Americans in the 20th and 21st century, I plead with you: start with history. Please be willing to accept that you may not have been taught the full breadth and depth of our land’s and our nation’s history. Be willing to seek out accounts and sources that tell this history from non-white, non-Eurocentric perspectives. If you are unwilling or unable to seek out such historical accounts, I plead with you to genuinely ask yourself why that seems impossible or unnecessary to you, and to ask God to soften your heart to perspectives on US history that differ from what you have heard or learned in the past.

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13, NLT).

Join me on Zoom today at noon, as our church family discusses racial injustice.

On June 17, I will share why it is crucial for each of us to choose to sense the personal nature of the illness of American racism. I will address why it is equally crucial for us to refuse to let the pain we sense cloud our vision, lest we allow our own experiences of awakening to racism draw our attention away from the powerful, liberating voices of Black Americans to whom we must listen, ceding authority and airspace. I will conclude tomorrow with an invitation to join me on the path of taking responsibility for the required personal and collective action needed to heal the pain inflicted by racism.

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