An Invitation and Ways to Be Aware + Attentive

Ways to be aware and attentive during Black History Month and beyond.

They say that time heals, and I tend to agree... with the proper care and tending.

>>> A quick disclaimer: Below is a post on a topic I feel highly unqualified and incompetent to write on. I also fear coming across as ignorant in a conversation I really want to be helpful. So please read this as a humble offering; my own small step to stand with people who have been saying some of these things for a long time. <<<

When I was 6 or 7, my hands slipped off a wet metal rail I was swinging under, landing my head smack into the broken cement steps just below me. I sat up stunned, then started screaming after I felt my hand to the hole beside my eyebrow and realized that wasn't just rain I felt, there was also large drops of blood dripping down my face.

My mom rushed me to our family doctor, and 8 stitches later I was good to go. Kind of. I mean, it still hurt and was a gross wound for a little while as it healed. I would even feel sharp twinges and discomfort in the years that followed as the skin changed. But time did its job, and all that's left now over twenty years later is a scar that's only sometimes glaringly obvious.

Sure, time healed--only with the stitches it took to repair the hole. Without that, well, I don't know, I'm not a doctor. The bleeding likely would've continued, the wound wouldn't have healed, and I'm pretty sure a dangerous infection would have appeared. I'm sorry, this is getting gross.

Where I'm going with this, if you haven't already deduced for yourself, is that time heals in the course of history, too. But only with the proper care and tending to set that healing in motion.

It's all too tempting for white people to look back in the not-too-distant past of black history in America and think, "Wow, those were rough times. I'm glad that's over!"

But has enough time passed to heal any of those wounds? And has healing even really started just because those tragedies are over? I believe there's still more we can do to reconcile. We're not as removed from that scarred past as we believe. People my parents age were born when these awful and open forms of hatred were still being played out. And people my grandparents age likely saw these injustices firsthand.

Mississippi Burning (a movie I saw a few times as a kid and still impacts me) is a fictional story set in some of the actual horrific events in the south in the 60s with police officers as KKK members doing some of the cross burnings and lynchings.

That is the dark backdrop of Martin Luther King Jr.'s work and the whole civil rights movement. A time when Ruby Bridges was the first black child to de-segregate an all white school in Louisianna, and as a small girl had to be escorted by U.S. marshalls through an angry mob of adults. She's now only 62.

How do people who lived through those times go from fearing for their actual lives without knowing if law enforcement would help them to simply putting it all behind them? If you went through that, wouldn't you still have some trepidation? Wouldn't you need to see some effort from people of the other side to help care for you and tend to you as you heal? Wouldn't you still raise your children to be cautious and careful with their trust of such people?

I know I would.

And what about the KKK members and all the white people that actually supported segregation and yelled and did hateful things in retaliation to the civil rights movement? Did this hatred and divide just disappear because civil rights leaders said for it to? Did all of a sudden everyone decide to love and accept and get on board with civil rights for all people regardless of skin color?

Perhaps people just got better at hiding it.

Real lasting change takes time. But it also takes the care and tending of real apologies and awareness and reconciliation from people with power--individuals and organizations.

Because, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "1963 is not an end, but a beginning." In some small way his mission and the whole civil rights movement continues when I learn to do better and when I help my children learn to do better. To help them be loving and kind to all people rather than falling into the easier assumption that different is somehow less than or not worth standing up for or, worse, needs to be silenced.

There is still freedom and justice to gain for all, and if we'd look around a little less defensively we'd see it. We would see areas where perhaps our brothers and sisters of color still aren't able to sing of the same sweet liberty we enjoy. And "if America is supposed to be a great country then this must become true. So let freedom ring..." (Quotes from King's "I have a dream" speech.)

While Black History Month may be a time of honor (both lamentation and celebration) for black people, I'm realizing perhaps it's a time of awareness and an invitation for the rest of us to finally be attentive to real and present wounds for black people and all people of color. (I'll save the other racially scarred parts of American history for another post.)

Ways to Be Aware and Attentive

Below are a few ideas I've learned of what this awareness and attentiveness might look like. I don't share because I do this perfectly; I share because we have to start somewhere. I know this is late in coming now at the end of February. Thankfully Black History Month is a yearly glimpse of awareness, and we have all year long to do the attentive caring and tending and reconciliation.

1. Shut Up

This is first and crucial. We all have opinions and generally form those from our own limited perspectives and are quick to spew them out when given a chance. When we are not the people personally lamenting or hurting, then we have to be quiet. We have to stop talking to be able to hear and listen and tend to others' pain.

I learned this firsthand last year when my husband and I were talking with friends about protests that had been going on. We were sitting in an iHop near the only other table filled besides ours, where a black young mother sat with her two young daughters. We had just mentioned these recent events and barely started discussing it, when the mother, noticeably shaken up, turned around and asked us to not talk about that there. We apologized, and changed topics.

We left the restaurant with pits in our stomachs. We had clearly hurt her where she was already wounded, and we truly believed we were for her. My husband pointed out that we just don't know. We can listen and even agree, but the pain is not our own and therefore it's not always ours to talk about, even if we side with the hurting. We need to be more careful of when we speak, especially when "discussing" current events in public places like online and in restaurants. We don't have to shut up forever, but it's easier to lovingly listen when we're quiet.

2. Seek Out

In the women of color panel at IF:Gathering, Amena Brown said a few things about this that stood out to me: "Let the marginalized speak for themselves--don't tell their stories for them. ... Look at our tables and ask who is missing. ...Then back up so someone else that doesn't have my privilege and power can speak for themselves."

We have to seek people different from us in order to hear their perspectives and expand our own. Sure, we could find people like us saying similar things, but we also have to let people different from us speak for themselves. A few ways to do that:

  • Read books from people of color. To start, see the suggestions in the comments of this Book List to Move the Conversation Forward. There are other similar lists if you search. I really appreciate Deidra Riggs' welcoming and calm presence in any controversial conversation, and I look forward to reading her soon-to-release book One: Unity in a Divided World.
  • Follow people of color online, including those sharing and talking about race in a way that speaks to you. A friend recently pointed me to Angela Belt, a designer who has been featuring 28 Black Taste Makers in her Instagram series for Black History Month. It's a beautiful and inspiring introduction to some talented people I may not have heard of otherwise.
  • Watch documentaries like 13th and The House I Live In to realize what "progress" has really looked like since slavery and civil rights, or movies like Selma to remember America's not-to-distant past.
  • Checkout Latasha Morrison's site Be the Bridge and get her free download 10 Things Every Racial Bridge Builder Should Know.
  • Include people of color. We can't be afraid to reach out and talk to and invite people who are different to our tables or our circles or our gatherings. Also, when we're in charge of programming for a church or another organization, we should consider how we might intentionally incorporate diversity. And make sure planning committees are diverse, so that a variety of ideas and perspectives are being offered to reach a variety of people.

Once we start seeking out these voices, we will find a beautifully diverse rabbit trail that leads past our preconceived ideas to beautiful, enriching, mind-opening worldviews.

3. Listen

This is really just a continuation of seeking people out. They can't just be present but silenced. We really have to read and listen and hear what they're saying and experiencing. Like this post from my friend Latrice, To All My White Friends Regarding Recent Events, where she writes: "I just wanted you to offer on social media the same compassion I know you would offer my family and I to our faces. ...Do you know what happens when we start a conversation built on a foundation of compassion? When you, as a part of the body of Christ, adopt a permanent stature of empathy and caring, even for those who are nothing like you, even for those you can’t relate to and don’t understand, even for those you actually disagree with? Well, then you start to make something beautiful."

We might have different experiences, but we can still listen and validate and empathize and care and bring Jesus' love.

When people are lamenting over current events on social media, read the comments from those hurting without jumping into writing your rebuttal. Feel their pain, if only for a moment. Maybe even tell them so, especially if it's someone you know personally. When you see a protest, resist the urge to be defensive and consider what it's really about. Hundreds, even thousands, of people don't show up for one cause if they aren't personally convicted.

This is where finding trusted voices helps. It can be hard to relate to strangers giving differing opinions, but even an uncomfortable perspective is worth listening to from a friend.

4. Stand Up

In the previously mentioned panel at IF:Gathering, Latasha said, "We don't have to fully get it or understand to lift up the hands of women of color and stand with them." This is important and helpful to remember. We shouldn't discredit or brush off the plights of others just because it's not our experience or our perspective.

In Deidra's blog post The What to Do Issue, she shares several really good things to do to move the race conversation forward, including speak up: "If you are speaking up about other issues, you can speak up about racism." Just because Americans don't own slaves, doesn't mean that a form of slavery doesn't still exist. And just because we all use the same drinking fountains and sit anywhere on buses, doesn't mean that racism has magically disappeared, so it's important to acknowledge it and stand up to it and apologize for it when we see it.

5. Pray

I don't see prayer as the least I can do, I see it as the most I can do, throughout each idea above. I pray for my brother, and people like him, with years behind him on the streets of Wichita as a police officer, and I pray for my black friends, many likely with ancestors who came to America as slaves. Both groups of people have struggles so very different than anything I have experienced or understand, and prayer is the only way I can find peace in the tension between.

Among those prayers, I'm also praying for a change a little closer to home--in myself and how I raise my kids. Quoting Latasha one more time, starting the panel at IF:Gathering she prayed, "Step into our biases and prejudices that would keep us from hearing You."

Yes. That. Jesus called us to love--love God and love people. And the more we shut people out and shut them up, the less actual loving we are doing, and the more we're disconnecting ourselves from God. Sometimes we feel justified because that's what prejudice and bias does--it tells us we're right and that's all that matters. However, our rightness does not take away someone else's rightness, and joining those conflicting perspectives with love is really all that matters for me as a Christ-follower.

So, while we as America have improved from slavery days and have improved from King's day, we still have lots of room for improvement. It seems the issues that feel like they revolve around a segmented population, might actually start with ourselves--how we view others different than ourselves and how we talk about those differences with our people. I am praying for Jesus to step into my own biases and prejudices so that I can shut up and hear Him through new voices with differing perspectives, and stand with people against their injustices. When we celebrate how far we've come in America, I don't want to forget how far we still have to go.

Now, heading back into silence to continue seeing, hearing, praying, and changing within myself and my own family.


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