The acceptance of the pain of the past is a deeply personal journey, and not one we can rely on others to undertake for us. As part of my journey over the last two decades, I have awakened to the trauma and pain originating from the long legacy of slavery that continues to reside in many Black Americans’ bodies, minds, and spirits. This pain resides in and poisons all Americans, though we are not all equally forced to confront it daily. The degree to which one must struggle with, and fear unjust death because of, the legacy of slavery and a land steeped in 500 years of racism is directly correlated to the level of melanin in one’s skin.
Racist laws, budgets, policies, and social practices have robbed Black Americans of experiencing the fullness of their birthright as children of God. There are simply too many of us who have been unwilling to see and fight against the many ways Black humanity is denied. I have seen and allowed myself to perceive only a sliver, an iota, of the pain my black friends have experienced. And even that is only empathy at best, since I will never be able to own or feel a Black, embodied experience. My tears and my pain are essentially incomparable to those of my Black neighbors. They do not need my tears or your tears. Their liberation is already theirs. But you and I (white Americans) have not adequately, publicly called for the recognition of that liberation in the form of institutions, laws, and systems altered to become anti-racist. What is required goes beyond sympathy and listening; we must actively seek transformation of our hearts and attitudes. I confess that I am one of millions of white Americans who have allowed our centuries-long refusal to hinge our value on something outside of superiority to non-white people to persist, at the direct cost of Black lives.
Because of the disparity of experiences between white people and people of color, I recognize that until I choose to see the pain and injustice my Black friends live with daily, until I choose to examine how deeply racial hierarchies and discrimination are woven into American systems and psyches, until I choose to let that particular, ugly sort of pain into my soul and allow it to break me, I cannot hope for transformation in myself or in my country. Will you hear this difficult truth? If I authentically see the pain that Black people are experiencing and expressing, I am forced to see that I, too, carry pain.
If we are to hold any hope for an end to racial injustice in our country, we can no longer allow our aversion to pain to stop us from seeing and acknowledging the ongoing suffering and death, borne of racism, which Black Americans experience.
I speak to you, my white friends, and to myself: this is so critical and urgent because our Black compatriots do not have a choice. They experience this pain at a cellular level, and involuntarily, inevitably pass that pain — along with pride and resilience and so many other essential, praise-worthy human characteristics — on to their children. And we pass poisonous ideologies on to our children when we do not speak out loud and fight against them. Racism is a full-blown public health crisis.
The primary way for white people to play a role in disrupting the cycle of intergenerational trauma tied to American racism is to make the choice to loudly acknowledge it, recognize its myriad manifestations, to let it shatter us, and to seek transformation first within ourselves, and then with our white family members and friends.
We need to step back, continue to center and amplify the voices of Black leaders on our platforms, and take responsibility for doing our own work. We must not be content ending our conversations around this topic by asking, “What can white people do?” Answers to this question abound. Reach out to me if you would consider letting me walk alongside you as you seek. We must do this work now and every day until our bodies fail. We must do this work until natural death is the only acceptable way for our Black neighbors to lose their lives. I hope you will join me on the journey of healing ourselves and healing the pain that racism perpetuates.
There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13, NLT