Unsettled

How can white people best honour Black History Month?

I HAVE A FEW confessions. First, I’m a white woman. So you should wonder why I’m writing an article about Black History Month. If a Black person was asked to write this, there is a risk that (s)he might have felt tokenized, or chosen merely because of a particular aspect of their identity. 

Another confession: I am deeply unsettled by racism in this country. I don’t feel that I’m doing enough to combat it. Many white people are afraid to talk about race. We are afraid of doing it “wrong” or offending someone; or we’re frustrated, so we carry notions like, “Can’t we just move on already? That was a long time ago.” I am even unsettled writing this – wondering how you will receive this: with doubt? Pessimism? Shame? I’d like to ask you to receive this with love – love for the Church and love for each other, with a desire to help make our world (including our churches) a place where we can all live in freedom and with dignity.

INTROSPECTION
A few years ago, I asked a Black activist from Toronto to speak at a race-focused conference we were hosting at Brock University. I’ll never forget what he said to me: “Kim, I am so sick of teaching white people about racism. I really wish more white people would step up to teach other white people about racism.” 

So here I am: a white woman, here to tell you that February is Black history month, and I have a few ideas about how white Christians might honour this month. One month a year will not heal the deep wounds of our racist and Colonialist past, but maybe we can begin to take some courageous steps forward and commit to learning more. I’ve learned from a Jewish teacher recently that beyond education, we also need repentance, which requires, “deep understanding of the harm caused . . . and transformation as a result of that understanding. It demands difficult and sometimes painful introspection to understand how you got there at all. It requires amends/reparations to whatever extent is possible” (Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg).

FOUNDATIONAL CRACKS
Another confession: I didn’t encounter many Black people in the pews around me as I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church. I was not taught how to have conversations about race; I was told everyone was the same, reiterated in the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children” with the refrain, “Red and yellow, Black and white, all are precious in his sight.” Indeed, each human is created in the divine image of our Creator God. Yet human history – and Canadian history – has proven that not all bodies have been treated equally; rather, bodies that weren’t white have been (and still are) treated extremely poorly – exploited, dismissed, abused and even killed. So, to say we are all the same or equal is to ignore the foundational cracks in every social institution in Canada. To ignore the systemic and historical racism in this country is to perpetuate a myth that claims that we all have an equal chance in life.

My suggestion is that white people honour the present reality and resilience of Black people in Canada best when we acknowledge the painful past that brought their ancestors here. I suggest that along with celebrating the achievements and excellence of Black Canadians who have thrived in spite of oppression, we need to confront the horrendous abuses cast against Black bodies here in Canada – many of which were forced to come here as slaves, indentured servants, or exploited labour. 

REPENTANCE
Most white people I know do not consider themselves to be racist at all. But the past has created and shaped our biases (the ways we perceive and scrutinize bodies that are different than ours) without our awareness or consent. So even though I was taught that being prejudiced was not okay, I did not see Black people the same way I saw white people. I scrutinized and doubted Black people, I was skeptical of the intelligence of Black intellectuals, I perceived young Black students as more dangerous than white students. I still struggle with these biases; they don’t go away just because I want them to. My white body is often given the benefit of the doubt – while walking, studying, shopping, driving – people most often assume the best about me. This is too often not the case for Black bodies.

I invite you to be deeply unsettled with me as we dig into the past, and into our own biases, while we wiggle, poorly and awkwardly, toward repentance. This will require humility.

A few years ago, I took on a challenge from the Catholic Friar Richard Rohr: to pray for one humiliation a day, and when it comes, to watch how I react, and to watch how my ego tries to defend itself. The more I’ve listened to my ego try to defend itself and the false identity I’ve tried to concoct, the closer I’ve grown to God, who holds and loves all of me and who has a bigger identity in mind for me than I do. I wonder if we can take the same step toward racial reconciliation: to hold up the parts of our history that are especially difficult to encounter, admit and reconcile, and to sit in the pain of that and ask God what we can learn by noticing. I wonder if we can resist the urge to rush in to defend it, make amends, or fix it (which just disguises the root of the problem). 

Father Rohr also taught me that we can’t have healing without humility. I suggest that we can’t fix the racial divide in this country without honestly confronting our role in the ongoing perpetuation of racism; we can’t heal the deep wounds of white supremacy without humbly admitting to them and wrestling with them, and hearing how much pain our silence and complicity have caused. Then we can begin to consider repentance.

We have some work to do as people of faith, and it will be uncomfortable, perhaps painful, labour, both emotionally and intellectually. As white people, I think that we can – and should – take on more of this labour, though, and stop expecting or waiting for the Black people among us to tell us about their resilience and why it has been needed. Let’s do the labour, labour that will create a world where we love each other better – where we are moved to create freedom and dignity for all people. 

  • Kim is an Instructor at Brock University and a facilitator of various groups of people around Southern Ontario who are trying to understand and dismantle racism.

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