I write as a white woman with mostly a white/dominant audience in mind. My white identity influences my perspective; I encourage us all to seek out voices from authors of color on this topic with regularity and fervor. On my list to read next: Sheila Wise Rowe’s book, Healing Racial Trauma.
In America, we haven’t healed along racial lines. Like a keloid scar at the site of an old wound, the edges have come together but not well. Keloid scarring is evidence of the body’s attempt to repair itself, but instead leaves behind hard and unsightly growths often larger than the original wound. Perhaps we think we’ve recovered from our country’s sordid past, but like silent bacteria, there is tension festering under the surface.
Though bias, prejudice, and racism are deeply woven into the fabric of American life, many of us—especially if white—live in places where it’s easy to ignore this tension. My town is 95% white, an upper middle class suburb of Milwaukee where we are educated, tidy, and nice. It’s the type of place where buying a $300 Patagonia jacket is “doing good in the world” because of the brand’s ethical values. (Whoohoo! We’re conscious consumers and staying on trend!) The reality is that Milwaukee is the most segregated area in the country, with a stark racial divide between the suburbs and city. No matter where you live, there is interracial healing work to be done.
Two years ago, my friend Erica, who is black, began spearheading a grass-roots effort called Bridge the Divide to provide a forum for discussion about racial issues. Together we’ve been holding monthly meetings, hosting a podcast, and planning other events to encourage conversations. Through this experience, I’ve gained glimpses into the pain and trauma that people of color are continuing to experience, and also into the defensiveness of those who don’t yet understand it.
Though the work is challenging and slow, for me and Erica—who are both Christians and nurses—racial solidarity is a tangible outpouring of Christ’s healing love. She helps me understand the reality of living as a black woman, and gives me grace as I learn about what I’d too long ignored. As a white person and part of the dominant culture, I’m learning holy deference: humble submission and respect, listening to and acknowledging others’ experiences instead of needing to defend my perceptions.
Can we say to our brothers and sisters of color: I hear you, I am in this with you, you don’t have to bear the tension and trauma on your own? Or do we fight to maintain our long-held stances? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Christians become the bearers of burdens: ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6:2)…Just as Christ bears our burdens, so also are we to bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters.” Bearing one another’s burdens takes a thoughtful, humble approach in our interactions; I’ve outlined three observations below.
In the field of nursing, we employ others-focused therapeutic communication techniques to help our patients feel safe and understood, establish a relationship with them, and determine their health goals. As in a nurse-patient relationship, therapeutic presence is physically showing up to embody our commitment to healing.
Presence is required for co-suffering, co-lament, and co-burden bearing; as often as possible, we should be physically present for conversations. Come to the table like a nurse who wants to serve his or her client; in deference and humility, actively listening and communicating verbally and nonverbally in ways that support another’s healing journey.
- What messages am I sending with my body language, tone, and comments?
- Am I asking clarifying questions or trying to make sure my point is understood?
A lack of shared perspective is one of the fundamental problems to effectively engaging others in conversations on race. Many white folks consider racism to be the personal response to individuals of another race; meaning if they’re respectful to others regardless of skin color, there isn’t a racism problem. However, more people are coming to understand what its victims already know: racism is a systemic issue, where established systems either purposefully or subconsciously contribute to inequality.
It’s not surprising that those who have always been the dominant culture miss the nuances of what it’s like to be “other” in America. Well meaning yet hurtful phrases often heard— “I don’t see skin color” or “I treat everyone the same”—don’t acknowledge or address decades of systemic inequalities that continue to negatively affect wealth, status, voice, and power for people of color today. Starting conversations by establishing each other’s definition of racism can help overcome some misunderstandings.
- What is my definition of racism?
- Have I spent time reflecting on my own childhood and upbringing, and analyzing when I was receiving racist messages?
- Do I think only “bad people” are racist?
Gain Knowledge to Explore Perceptions
History books in American classrooms mention slavery, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Japanese internment camps, but the breadth is limited and typically positively portrays a white/dominant narrative. My perception about race in America shifted once I explored resources outside the classroom—books, movies, interviews, and lectures.
Listening to the pain of others’ stories, learning the slant of news media outlets, and gaining a broader education of American history led me to realize the skin each of us wears represents something bigger than ourselves. I have been afforded privileges that my sisters and brothers with different cultures and skin colors have not been afforded. Before engaging others about race, dedicate yourself to gaining a better understanding of history, terms, and the magnitude of racial inequities and trauma that has plagued our past and present.
- Have I intentionally sought to educate myself further on issues of racism by talking with others, viewing films/videos, finding reading material, attending lectures, joining a study group or other activities?
It takes humility to consider new viewpoints and reorient our hearts—to be balm on the scar of racial wounds, to show up ready to love, listen, and learn.