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Today I Saw God

There is Value in Your Silence

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On Saturday, April 14, I had the privilege of joining about a dozen other leaders from Floris United Methodist Church and about two hundred others at Annandale United Methodist Church to participate in the Bishop’s Convocation on Race and Reconciliation. Most of us from Floris came because of our connection to our congregation’s new racial reconciliation initiative, and we anticipated hearing how our bishop and other leaders would lead those gathered to be more effective agents of change and reconciliation in our communities.

It’s not easy getting up to spend a Saturday in church. However, between worship together, a challenging presentation by our keynote speaker Romal Tune and small group training on facilitating difficult conversations, I found myself seriously considering my own race for one of the first times in my life.

As a straight, white, Christian male, thinking about my own identity is not a normal thing for me to do. Most of my life experience has occurred in spaces where most people look like me, speak my language and believe similar things that I do. I have lived a lot of my life in a dominant context, meaning that, not because of any decisions of my own but because of a system from which I benefit, my voice is often heard in conversations and in communities when others’ may not be. For a long time, I bought into the same lie that many white people believe, that I don’t have race or have to deal with race because I’m white.

We centered a lot of our conversation at the Bishop’s Convocation around this phenomenon called white privilege. I know white privilege is a loaded and misunderstood term, but it identifies an important concept in our society which we need to address if we have any hope of real racial reconciliation.

A video by Dr. Robin DiAngelo titled, “Deconstructing White Privilege,opened our conversations on this topic. I encourage you to take about 20 minutes and watch the video to understand this concept more in depth, but in summary, Dr. DiAngelo argues that our conversations around racism in the United States don’t address the core issues.

We usually talk about racism by labeling two groups: bad racists and good people. Racism is reduced to the individual level, and white people in particular prove that they’re not racist by citing how diverse their friends are or arguing that they were raised to love everyone and see everyone as equal. Interpersonal racism is problematic, no doubt about it. But the issues that more significantly undercut our abilities to view one another as equals aren’t about personal choices and behaviors now, but those in the past that have woven racism into the very fabric of our society.

Rather than keep racism within the bounds of interpersonal actions, our working definition of racism focused more on how racism acts as a system of racial prejudice developed and sustained by institutional power. This shift in focus led us to consider our own participation in the racist systems that uphold our society and realize that being white does not mean being without race, but rather being associated with the race deemed most beneficial by the constructors of our society.

As we had these conversations, a phrase from our keynote speaker Romal Tune stuck with me. At one point, he spoke about what white people can do in response, and that deciding to act is really hard. Because of the ways our society has been set up to benefit the white elite, in some sense, any action toward racial and socioeconomic equity requires those in power to give up and share that power. In other words, as Tune said to those of us who were white in the room, “There is value in your silence.”

The moral weight of our work hit me squarely in the face in that moment. Many white people believe that issues of race and racial inequality do not affect them, but to leave this work to our sisters and brothers who have been oppressed based on their race is not a morally neutral act. White people will continue to benefit from our misordered society until it changes, and if we believe racial equity is morally significant, it is our responsibility to work for change and our moral failing to do nothing.

I do not claim this responsibility as an egotistical white man looking to continue fixing the world’s problems with my own solutions. I claim this responsibility at the invitation of my non-white sisters and brothers to join the effort they have maintained their entire lives: working to make sure our society views them as people and as nothing less.It seems like a simple request or, dare I say, one we might all assent to, to view all people as people and nothing less. But the reason I spent a Saturday in church, the reason I’m committing to this racial reconciliation work at Floris, is that request still needs to be made.

My white sisters and brothers, we cannot put the burden of equality on those who have borne the burden of oppression for far too long. Be informed. Be empathetic. Be willing to say that you’re wrong. Be willing to apologize. Be willing to listen and learn. As Tune told us, our past is not our future, but the past has dramatically shaped our present. I invite you to join the work of our racial reconciliation initiative to help shape our future, so you too can discover the value in others that far outweighs the value of our silence

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