We were just leaving my mom’s assisted living residence, waiting for the light to change, when there was a sudden movement at the driver’s window. There was a black woman in very obvious distress, pleading tearfully for help. She needed $14 to take the Greyhound bus back to Wisconsin with her four kids; they had all been sleeping in their car and she desperately wanted to get back home. I quickly handed her a twenty dollar bill – and yes, I know it might have been a scam. Years of church work taught me that. But maybe it wasn’t.
Driving away, I was aware of several uncomfortable feelings. First, guilt. I have a terrible time with white guilt. Why do I have everything I need and more, and she doesn’t have $14.00 to get home? Why do I feel protected by the police, when people of color are justifiably frighted of them? Why do I get to live in this beautiful suburban neighborhood so far from the turmoil of racial unrest? Truly, my white guilt is of no benefit to anyone, including people of color, but guilt is something I do often and well. So, there you are.
The second feeling was more damning. I didn’t like seeing how needy she was. It was so emotional and so overt. I come from a line of quiet, unemotional people; public displays of emotion often make me squirm. But this was more than that. I knew there was a deeper story here, where it was a scam or not. There was a story, a sad, maybe tragic story – and I just didn’t want to stay and hear it. This was a human to human, mother to mother encounter, and truly, part of the reason I gave her $20 was to make her go away, which she did. And I got to drive away – that’s what privilege looks like.
If. I told myself. If it wasn’t for COVID and the fear of exposure, if the light hadn’t turned green, if I wasn’t worn out from our morning; if, if, if. Maybe then I would have gotten out of the car. Maybe I would have sat down with her and listened to the whole story. Maybe I would have learned something, Maybe we would have cried together. Maybe we would have prayed. But I didn’t and she was gone by the time we pulled away.
Anti-racism work is soul work. It requires a willingness to go into the deep, dark corners of your motivations and behavior. To question much of what you were taught and what you absorbed from the home and community of your childhood – and to acknowledge that some of it is bone-deep requiring serious emotional surgery. Anti-racism work means learning to see, to really see and recognize, your white privilege. Not to make yourself feel guilty – guilt is cheap and easy. But to begin the agonizingly slow work of heart change.
This is our work, my dear white friends. We, who so confidently claim to be not racist, need to learn how to be anti-racist. Our work for justice has to move out from our comfortable liberals mindsets and eager charity work to the long hard work of self-education, advocacy and a whole lot of listening to black voices. If you think it will be easy or quick or fun, you’re not paying attention. It’ll be none of those things. But it will be good.
If you are committed to this work, take out your calendar, digital or paper, and move ahead to early December, 2020, six months from now. Make this note to yourself “BLM, what have you learned? how have you changed?” Pray that when we get there, we’ll be satisfied with our answers.