This past week, I sat in a training meeting of about 300 people – all of different experiences and expressions. Racial equity training lead by two amazing black women was on the agenda. Hours of data about the black experience in the United States were presented to us, offering surprising statics of systemic oppression of our siblings of color. The data dispelled many myths surrounding racism and white supremacy and created curiosity around race in this country among some of the participants in this meeting. The day was split into two sessions: 1.) learning data and 2.) small group discussion and reporting to the entirety of the group.
After hashing out questions and comments within our small groups, a representative from each group was invited to give a report to the 30 tables of people attending. People spoke of their surprise at the facts, the need for action, and the intentionality required to build relationships and trust to do the work of racial justice. We spoke of uncomfortableness and sitting in the tension of conversations around race. All good things to consider.
However, when white people stand up in front of a group of 300 people containing siblings of color saying the “right things”, letting us all know that they are “woke”, and in some small ways, wanting to be acknowledged for this “wokeness” with an applause … this is where I invite my fellow white people of all genders and sexualities and experience… to sit down. While an acknowledgement of the re-traumatization of black and brown people was mentioned in the space, it may have been paradoxically intensified by this dynamic of “virtue signaling” by some and disregard by others, for whom the data was just data. The former group used this moment to display the fact that they can talk about white supremacy and whiteness and get on their white high horse. Yet this again creates a space where whiteness dominated, and our siblings of color suffered.
For the latter group of whites for whom it was a data sharing exercise, this was not to take seriously the experience of a space that exhausted, traumatized, and isolated our siblings of color. This data presented, however surprising to white colleagues, was real for our siblings of color. The numbers are real people. Those numbers were themselves sitting right at the tables. And all the while, some white people were on their phones and disengaged. Black and brown people were made to talk to white people who were not ready for any of what was discussed. Black and brown people had to sit with white people whose words—or silence– may as well have been a slap in the face.
James 4 states:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit that God has made to dwell in us’? 6But God gives all the more grace; therefore, it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and they will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and God will exalt you.
Racial equity training and any work around race and white supremacy should not be treated like a grocery list item. We cannot simply check it off and move on. There are conflicts and disputes among us and within us that stem from the systemic evils of racism. We, white people, ask and do not receive what we need because we ask wrongly, and we do wrongly so that we may get away with the pleasures of self-assurance… and yes that applies to both conservative and progressive whites. God opposes the proud, and the “woke” culture of white people has created boastfulness and pride within the death dealing of racism. We are still friends with the world and that brings God to tears. Our relationships are damaged and mending them takes time, trust and not a check mark. Our white hands are dirty with convoluted rationales around race … we are double-minded. We get up in front and speak with our words and yet our actions, even the manner of our speaking out, harms and damages our siblings of color. And it damages whites because when one suffers, we all suffer.
There was also a lot of laughter in this space…and I laughed. I laughed at the jokes made by one of the black women presenting to us. Jokes about white people and jokes about black people. But after reflecting with black and brown siblings, I learned that the jokes about black people only invited white people to think the social distances were ok. It made our white laughter immune to mourning and lamenting and weeping and actually beginning the process of dismantling white supremacy and racism in our lives and the world. Our white laughter should be turned into mourning and our joy should be turned into dejection because if we do not deal with the shame and guilt and whatever else white people are dealing with … we will never truly laugh and truly be joyful.
So when we white people are crying over racism, when we are feeling guilty, shameful, misunderstood, or mad about white supremacy, don’t expect someone to come comfort you. When we white people are proving our “wokeness” or finding ourselves complacent, expect to be called out. Our fragility is our own and, just as James tells us, God dwells within us…the Spirit is with us. God is there to comfort and how God comforts is not our way. God’s comfort challenges. God’s comfort brings about lament and grief. God’s comfort makes us look deep within ourselves. God’s comfort hurts and it is in that pain that we resist the devil that is racism and whiteness. And it is in God’s painful comfort that the devil will flee…but never too far away. The devil will lurk and tempt and ease back in our white lives. We must draw nearer to God and recognize that we are hurting our siblings of color. So white people, don’t get me wrong…be prophetic and show solidarity. But also listen, listen, and listen. And talk to white people about white problems, don’t re-traumatize, and…SIT DOWN.
Lee Catoe is the Managing Editor of Unbound and the Associate for Young Adult Social Witness. He is a native of South Carolina and currently lives in Nashville, TN. Lee is a graduate of Presbyterian College and Vanderbilt Divinity School and he is also in the ordination process in the Presbyterian Church USA.