MLK Day and choosing white discomfort

I don’t believe that remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement that he represented is supposed to be comfortable for us white folks.

And I wonder what we might learn if, on this national holiday created in his honor, we were to sit with his speeches that most challenge — not affirm — our worldview today.

I wonder what it would mean for us white folks, in churches, Catholic schools and affluent communities, to collectively step out of our comfort zones today and every day in his honor.

What if us white folks dedicated more time to listening to black activists today? What if humility became the root of our attempts at solidarity with diverse communities of color who are fighting every day for their liberation?

Every autumn for the past four years, I have facilitated three, three-hour sessions on issues of white privilege and white supremacy as related to experiences of foreign volunteer work for Franciscan lay missioners in training with Franciscan Mission Service. These sessions were born out of my lived experiences as a Franciscan lay missioner in South America.

In these sessions, we start with the basics.

I explain how I opened my eyes to the realities of racism only when I stepped out of the white culture I grew up in; in other words, when I stepped out of my comfort zone.

sketching
Annemarie’s original sketch “You Stood With Me II”

And we connect that experience to concepts of white privilege and white fragility that help explain how a college educated adult, like myself, could be so ignorant about issues of racism.

We also focus on history in that first session; primarily, the history of colonization worldwide and how that history implicated white folks, particularly white Christian folks.

We talk about why it is so important for white folks who are confronted with their own ignorance to respond by choosing to educate ourselves. And we cover basics like how to respond to issues and experiences related to racism that are new to us — namely, by choosing to humbly listen and learn.

We also directly deal with the racist stereotypes surrounding Catholic volunteer work. I share about my experience of being characterized as a “saint” who was “sacrificing” myself by serving in a country economically poorer than the United States.

I explain to the lay missioners in training how different the ways in which I was being categorized were from the personal expectations that I had for living in another culture.

I knew for myself that I was choosing to live in Bolivia because I was interested in their vibrant indigenous cultures and inspired by the grassroots social movements thriving there. I was choosing to move to another country to humbly learn and collaborate, not pity and patronize.

But the reality was that most of the white Catholic folks supporting my life as a Franciscan lay missioner assumed the opposite and so I had to learn how to respond to those folks and look for opportunities to not only educate myself but to share what I was learning with other white folks too.

It was a terribly uncomfortable process.

While I was confronting similar, local stereotypes where I was living and working — a testament to the destructive effects of colonization still so very alive today — I was also simultaneously trying to navigate how to communicate what I was experiencing and learning with folks in my own country who were as steeped in white culture as I am.

watercolor-painting
Annemarie paints in watercolor

The whole process has been full of discomfort and yet I would not have it any other way.

Why?

Well, just this past autumn a lay missioner in training asked me in the final session of our time together, “How do you find the courage to confront these issues of racism?” She, like me, was working through dealing with how overwhelming the discomfort can feel at times.

And in my own process I had found two possible responses to this question.

One came from a wise friend of mine who aptly taught me that no matter how hard I think confronting racism is for me as a white person it is always, always, more challenging, traumatizing and even life threatening for people of color.

As a white person I have the privilege to choose to confront racism, but for people of color it’s not a choice but a daily lived reality. Choosing to engage in conversations about racism with a white person is often an exhausting and fraught experience for people of color.

What I shared with the lay missioner in training that day is that this reality ought to, at the very least, inspire humility in us white folks while also leading us to another response.

I told her that I find the courage to confront issues of racism as a white person, not because I am an expert on issues of racism and certainly not because I am some savior who benevolently decided to care about these issues.

I find the courage to keep learning and confronting these issues because I have formed intimate relationships with people of color whose life experiences are very different from my own, and I care about being accountable to them.

The answer is both that simple and the living into it that complex.

But what I have found is that at the very least it does require a willingness from white people to get uncomfortable.

For-I-Thought-painting
Original piece “For I Thought I Was Alone II” in its completion (by Annemarie Barrett)

Today of all days is a good time to practice that voluntary discomfort — to stretch beyond what we know and have experienced as white people to listen and learn from the experiences and wisdom of people of color.

Here are some resources to engage that discomfort today:

“White Supremacy (Overt & Covert)”

“White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism”

“White Fragility and the Rule of Engagement”

“The White-Savior Industrial Complex”

“#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism”

The Importance of Listening as a Privileged Person Fighting for Justice

“True Solidarity: Moving Past Privilege Guilt”

“Black America should stop forgiving white racists”

“If You Think You’re Giving Students of Color a Voice, Get Over Yourself”

“The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement”

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ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett

Annemarie-BarrettAnnemarie grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

stories that shoot the truth

Last week there was a shooting at the Walgreen’s near the school where I work.  I couldn’t find stories about it online and it didn’t make the evening news. It probably will never make the news at all because the victim, a teenage boy, survived.

I found out about the shooting because it happened after school and one of my students went to the store to buy a poster board to make a project I had assigned.  “Sister, there was a shooting in the Walgreen’s before I got there. I saw the boy go off on the stretcher. He’s okay, his eyes were open, he just looked scared.”

I listened and was amazed. I was very upset, as I am every time my students tell such stories.  Every time I learn the truth about the violence my students live with I am stunned, speechless, scared and angry. I cry with sorrow and pain when I get home from work.  I am shot down by the stories; I am disarmed and powerless.

I know most of my students know someone who has been shot.  Many of them know someone who has been killed. Several of them know someone who is in jail.  When I learn the truth, I want to share it. I really want to survey all the students and uncover the statistics so I could publicize them to the entire world and compel others to care and pray and work for change.

A while ago I asked a group of my students how they felt about my survey idea.  I said I wanted to tell the world about what they have to live through.  I was surprised with their response.  They were very unenthused by the idea, not because it was unimportant to them or insulting, but because they didn’t think that it would change anything.

“Sister,” I heard, “if you really want people to know about the violence we live with, then gather a group of us and let us tell our stories.”

Of course!  Duh me!  I know that stories are more important than statistics.  I know compassion is developed through relationships.  I believe that Jesus modeled how to listen and to teach through storytelling.  When we serve and love we need to know the people we are concerned about.  This is ancient history:

The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.God is with you statue
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”Lv 19:1-2, 17-18

And then of course Jesus inspires us:

““You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?”    –Mt 5:43-46

We can’t love our enemies unless we really know who they are.  Once we really know someone and have heard what they have lived through — no matter what they have done — it is hard not to love.  God’s designs are perfect.  If we heed the words and the ways, the world will surely be changed. The kingdom of God will come.

In my classroom we discuss the challenge of loving our enemies, like Jesus and the Bible teach us.  The students understand the theories of non-violence very well, much better than I did at their age.  As they walk through real battlefields between school and home, their youthful ideals are challenged.

Yet, I know storytelling changes things.  My senior Peace and Justice students have been examining the influence and the power of non-violence by watching a documentary that tells stories, not statistics.  Through media, we are meeting people around the world who have really changed the oppressive systems by loving their enemies.   The film is appropriately called A Force More Powerful.

I admire my students very much.  Their hearts have been broken, yet they believe in the power of love.  I asked the students to tell  me why non-violence is called a force more powerful.  Here is a sampling of their responses:

“Non-violence makes the people who are hitting them feel bad because they are not being hit back.”

“Non-violence is more powerful than any other method of difference-making because it requires the most discipline, endurance and mental strength.”

“Non-violence is a force more powerful because it is showing ultimate love and resistance towards evil and violence.”

“Non-violence is more powerful because it makes people look at the opposed as if they are wrong when they become violent.”

“Why is non-violence a force more powerful? Because it makes a social revolution in the lives of everyone through reason and dignity.  Violence cannot do this.”

I teach non-violence in the middle of a war-zone.  Our entire globe is at war too, fighting for rights and freedom.  The cries for democracy in the middle-east and protests at state capitols cause us to wonder how peace and justice can truly emerge.Peace sign

What will it take for our rage to transform into love?  Parker Palmer, modern-day prophet, says that it is storytelling.  I agree.  When the real truth shoots us down, we have to reach to the other to rise up into change.