Yesterday I had the chance to have an intentional conversation about racism.
The context was statewide Synod Assembly, the annual gathering of the New Jersey congregations of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). As part of the agenda, there was set-aside two hours of intentional time devoted to struggling – through listening and conversation – toward a better understanding of how we as individuals and communities are called to respond to the realities of racism in our society. The conversation was opened by viewing the Ted-x talk by Jay Smooth about how we talk about race (well worth the 12 minutes, by the way). We then broke into randomly assigned small groups to respond to a series of prompts.
At least from where I sat, the dialogue in my group felt thoughtful and encouraging. We were young, old, and in between. We brought a range of experiences and perspectives, and each member had the chance to share from that experience. We talked about racism existing on a spectrum, rather than as the binary opposites of racist/non-racist. We explored the power of recognizing the many lenses through which we all see the world. Several of us have had some level of exposure to anti-racist training, and there was a positive ebb and flow between story and analysis. I have been part of many such intentional conversations, especially in the past two years, and this conversation, though certainly not perfect, felt generative. I felt incredibly hopeful about the capacity for listening and learning.
In the last five minutes we were asked to consider action steps: what do we actually plan to do about what we have been talking about when we go back into our congregations?
Five minutes is clearly not the right amount of time to engage that question in a group of ten people. I’m not sure what the ideal time allotment would have been, but I do know this question posed a deep, challenging task that we needed to grapple with.
Several of us in the group took a deep breath. I assume that the others were, like me, trying to get our heads around how to approach this challenge with thoughtfulness and integrity, consistent with the preceding conversation.
And into that silence stepped the group member who had, perhaps, been the most binary in his understanding of racism; the one who had been the most defensive about how he didn’t have a problem because he got along with everyone; the one who raised the straw man of political correctness and suggested “they” were being too sensitive.
He raised both hands in an expression of self-congratulatory confidence and declared: “really, I think it all comes down to the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If we all just do that… problem solved.”
It was placed on the table like a perfect, gift-wrapped package, complete with the over-sized red bow. Nothing more need be said. I’ve got it all boxed up nicely for you. No need to thank me. We can all be on our way.
Except, we couldn’t. This was not at all where our conversation had been leading and so I tried to explain why our answer needed to be more thoughtful. I tried to explain how “doing unto others” doesn’t work if you impose your preferences on them and treat them how YOU want to be treated, rather than treating them how THEY actually want to be treated. I tried to explain that really listening has to precede doing (and certainly doing for) when there is a gap of culture, or experience, or opportunity. I tried to gently but firmly challenge the presumption of hegemony contained in the simple-formula solution. In essence, I tried to pack several hours (or days, or years) worth of consciousness-raising about privilege, equity, and listening for the perspective of the oppressed into what was left of our five minutes. Of course I failed utterly.
A few other ideas were thrown out about books to read as a congregation, and ways to be intentional about listening. The group broke up with warm smiles and affirmations of the work we had done together. The jarring note of the conclusion did not irreparably mar what was otherwise a strong, equipping conversation.
But I am a perfectionist, which means I have a hard time letting go of my failures. I have been mulling over those damned five minutes all evening and trying to figure out what I could have said more clearly that maybe, just maybe, could have broken through this brother’s consternation about how I could possibly challenge his presentation of the Golden Rule as the definitive answer.
So, this is what I have come up with.
The Golden Rule presents us with two people or groups of people: “others” and “you.” So far, so good, if you are using this rule as a guide for your interactions with other people. All involved parties are included in the premise. But we run into a problem if that inclusion is only cursory. The “other” has to really be considered, in their own right, and not just as a blank slate on which to superimpose your own desires.
I hope an example will help to explain what I am talking about. (This is where the cheesecake comes in.) I LOVE cheesecake. The sweetness and creaminess, combined with just the right amount of buttery, crumbly texture from the graham cracker crust…perfection! I could actually, probably, write a whole blog post just about cheesecake if that would not seriously sabotage my healthy eating plan.
So, given my passion for cheesecake, what I would “have others do for me” is to give me cheesecake. At least, if the doing has to do with preparing a special treat for me… please, cheesecake!
However, my husband dislikes cheesecake. I really cannot understand it, but given cheesecake as the only dessert option, he will pass. He just doesn’t like it.
So, in the event that I want to prepare a special treat for him, I don’t make him cheesecake. I make him lemon meringue pie. That’s his favorite, so that’s what I make (although not nearly as often as he would like, I must confess).
In so doing, I think I am fulfilling the Golden Rule, even though I am not, in fact, doing unto my husband as I would have him do unto me. If I were, I would give him cheesecake, because that is what I like. But he would hate it. That’s why “doing unto others” doesn’t work if you impose your preferences on the other and treat them how YOU want to be treated, rather than treating them how THEY actually want to be treated.
And that’s why the Golden Rule isn’t a simple answer at all, when it comes to trying to reach across the reality of the racial divide in this country: because it requires you to actually find out how the other wants to be treated. I have been married to my husband more than 15 years, and in that time I have learned a lot. Even in our relationship, though, there is still so much left to learn. And our stories do not even start all that far apart!
Unfortunately, the reality of racial inequity in America creates a strong likelihood of a much larger divide in life experience when I am interacting with a person of color. This is not to say I should ever assume total dissimilarity. We may very well be more alike than different in any number of ways. But I need to take the time to find this out. This is the problem with “color-blindness” as a solution to racism. If I try to be color-blind, I am intentionally seeing less, not more of the story of those who, in one way or another, are “other” than me.
If the person I want to “do unto” is coming from a position of vastly different life experience, no matter how sincere my intention, I am liable to make a big old mess of things if I don’t start by listening. This is particularly true because our culture sees me as White, and therefore I have lived my whole life in a context where my needs and wants have received priority.
To stick with the earlier metaphor, I’ve already had dinner served to me, so what I want is dessert. But I can’t just assume everyone else wants dessert. Any other given person may be hungry for some protein, or fresh vegetables. Or… maybe what they actually want is a table of their own before they worry about what food is on it. Maybe what they want or need is a whole lot more complicated that whipping up a cheesecake, or even a lemon meringue pie.
Complicated is hard, but it is important, and I think the Golden Rule actually calls us to this kind of complicated.
And part of that complicated is confessing when we screw up.
By my own standard of Golden Rule love, I screwed up yesterday. I failed my own test – I didn’t listen carefully to the man across the table from me. I did not listen to his earlier defensiveness, which suggested a clear need to be heard – to know that his intention had been understood, even if I had a different perspective to offer. I jumped right into correcting without affirming, and that’s a pattern that derails so much of the necessary conversation about racism.
So, for what it’s worth, I want to recognize what I heard of his intention here. What I heard was a desire for unity, and mutual self-giving love. That’s a beautiful desire, and one I share. It is an important goal for us all to hold before our eyes as we do the hard and complicated work of struggling with racism in our society and in our church. That’s the dessert we can hopefully get to, once we build a table big enough for everyone, and make sure everyone is fed the meal they want and need.
And once we do that, and it’s time for dessert, I’ll bring the cheesecake.