On The White Write-off of Black Pain: Where Does Your Neighbor See Racism? (Part 2)
In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about empathy. I encouraged white people to see racism from their neighbor’s perspective and to lament with their neighbor. I wrote about how even I, as an African-American, am trying to change my question from “Where do I see racism?” to “Where does my neighbor see racism?” After all, my neighbor’s experience isn’t necessarily mine despite any commonalities our experiences might share.
Yet I also have to be careful when asking where my neighbor sees racism. Don’t hear me wrong: Empathy is a good thing. Job’s friends were terrible friends because they didn’t empathize with Job; instead they tried to correct him. But even if I weep with my neighbor as they weep, as God commands in Romans 12:15, there’s a particular temptation that can subvert the best of empathies. This temptation is subtle, like a snake slithering in a garden, and we are all susceptible to it; no temptation faces us except what is common to man (1 Cor. 10:13).
The temptation that lurks in the race conversation is to focus only on the pain racial injustice causes rather than the actual injustice itself. And beloved, if we don’t watch out for this temptation, we are susceptible to inflicting more pain on our neighbors—perhaps ourselves—and we may inadvertently perpetuate racial injustice. As one who both shares the racial injustices I experience and who has heard others share their experiences, allow me to expose the temptations for both parties—the one sharing and the one listening; I’ll write first to “The Neighbor” and then to the one who listens to them.
To My Fellow Black Neighbors
When we share our experiences of racial injustice, we’ll be tempted to do so only in terms of personal hurt. We have to watch for this temptation, especially when we share our pain in public settings, because focusing on our personal pain allows those causing the injustice, or those who are sympathetic with the injustice, to write it off—to write us off.
Before I continue, let me clarify that I am not saying blacks are responsible for white folks’ responses. I am not saying that there is a perfect way to talk about our racial injustices, and if we just do it that way, we will win our hearers. I am not even saying we shouldn’t talk about the personal pain racial injustice causes us. In fact, sharing our pain is good. David wrote psalm after psalm in part to share his experience of pain and God’s faithfulness throughout it. When we share our pain, we convey that we, as humans in a fallen world, are not just brains but hearts also. And often our humanity is the very thing denied us by people in the white, majority culture; so it makes sense that we’d want to testify about how we, too, are flesh and blood. When we share our pain, we give others the opportunity to affirm that truth; we give them the opportunity to be the means God uses to bring about healing and to lighten our burdens. So, we ought to share our pain with friends and family who can affirm our humanity.
As Eugene Peterson writes, “We don’t become more spiritual by becoming less human.” In this fallen world, sharing our pain is good, healthy, and human.“We don’t become more spiritual by becoming less human.” Click To Tweet
Yet when we share our pain, especially in public settings (e.g. the internet), some listening might deny it or ask us to validate it with some kind of proof. (That’s what Job’s friends did, isn’t it?) Receiving this pushback, we feel our burden of pain getting heavier instead of lighter. The pain doubles when we realize that merciless people claim to know a God of mercy.
There is a place for public lament, so I don’t think the answer for everyone is to only speak to those who affirm us, though I fully understand why some blacks would choose to do that. If that’s what you need my black brother or sister, by all means, please do that.
But for those of us called to share the racial injustice we experience despite people who may push back, we should be leery of talking about that experience only in terms of how badly it hurts us. Thabiti Anyabwile, a pastor of a black church in Washington D.C., made this appeal and it struck me.
It struck me because if we speak of racial injustice only in terms of our personal hurt with those who might deny that hurt, we allow the ones causing the pain—or those sympathetic with the ones causing it—to overlook the injustice and/or write it off altogether. In other words, if minorities only talk about how hurt we are, we run the risk of allowing the majority to make the issue our hurt instead of the actual fact of injustice. If blacks only talk about racial injustice in terms of personal hurt, then we run the risk of allowing whites to say, “I’m sorry you feel that way” (at best), or we run the risk of letting whites use our emotional appeals to pathologize us (at worst); the pathologizing of black plight is a particular proclivity many white brothers and sisters have. Either way, whether it comes as a shallow apology given with the best of intentions or a hostile accusation, this reaction by whites is what I’m calling the “white write-off.”
Though it can be something worse, typically the white write-off comes in the form of whites accusing blacks of being overly emotional; thus, the stereotype of the “angry black man (or woman)” is alive and well today. This accusation makes an emotional response the primary issue; it suggests that there is no such thing as righteous indignation or sinning without anger (Ephesians 4:26). This accusation also suggests that distant, icy, “logical” thinking is the only appropriate reaction in all situations. On his latest album, Crooked, Propaganda described this way of thinking as the “thinking of our colonizers.” (See the song “Crooked Ways” and pick up Prop’s album!)
Yet this accusation is largely a farce, a guise of sorts. It’s a red herring that allows the offender to distract from the real issue—the actual racial injustice. When the offender makes the emotions of the offended the issue, they can be the “bigger person” and claim that they’re acting in a reasonable way. In doing so, the offender make it seem as if the offended is the weaker party who is simply out of step with the truth and in need of correction.Do you have the mindset of colonizers? Do I have that mindset? We crooked. Click To Tweet
All the while the actual injustice doesn’t disappear; it simply fades to the background—unresolved and allowed to fester. And my fellow black neighbors, as it festers, that unresolved injustice will likely continue to inflict the very pain we lament.
But there is good news, and Propganda speaks to it in his song “It’s Not Working” (another song on Crooked). He reminds us: “No evil has ever gone unpunished.” He reminds us there is a day coming when racial injustices will end, when all injustices will end. He reminds us that God is on his throne of righteousness and mercy—that he sees and knows everything, and his son, Jesus, is coming again.
This is good news, but only if we are turning from sin and trusting in Jesus. So let us not only consider the wrongs done to us by others, grievous as they may be, but also our own wrongs before God. And if we are considering, confessing, and repenting of our wrongs—let us ask God for grace to share our pain over racial injustice with the innocence of doves and the wisdom of serpents.
To Those Listening to Their Neighbors
For those listening to their neighbors who share about the pain racial injustice causes them, I’m praying for you as I’m praying for myself; I pray for myself because again, as Prop rapped—there is a monster in all of us. (Yes, that’s my third push for the album because it’s that good.) By God’s grace, I am working on me as much as I’m inviting you, by God’s grace, to work on you.
And my prayer for us is that God would give us grace to not think our job is done if we have empathized with our neighbor because justice requires more than empathy. And what does the Lord require us but that we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with him (Micah 6:8)?Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8) Click To Tweet
My prayer is that we would remember that empathy is one of the first steps, not the final step, in justice. My prayer is that we would resolve to be willing vessels whom God uses to bring about justice. My prayer is that if we’ve caused racial injustice, we wouldn’t just give vapid apologies that sound like, “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” My prayer is that we would repent of actual racist actions and mindsets. In other words, we need to continually repent of actual racist mindsets and actions, not just apologize for the damage they cause. The action is the issue; the pain it caused is an effect. This distinction is why Martin Luther King said to white clergymen, “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” Hence, my prayer is that we wouldn’t spend more time defending our racial innocence or pathologizing our neighbor than we do confessing our racial wrongs.
In short, my prayer is that we’d never write our neighbor off again.
God help us all. In Jesus’ name, amen.