As we stopped near the canned goods, she sighed, “Food drives can be the best and the worst. People often think that’s the time to clean out their kitchen cabinets. We expend so much time and human power picking through expired food. Time that can be used elsewhere.” I had brought my youth group to volunteer at a local food bank. Before assigning our various tasks for the day, the director was giving us a tour and describing the activities that take place throughout the warehouse. We watched as workers diligently sorted through containers of food, discarding items that quite obviously should never have been donated in the first place. Some cans and boxes of food were in such bad conditions, it was clear the contents were not fit for human consumption. She continued, “The proverb ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ is ingrained in their minds.” I later talked to a friend who was active in community and social services. She concurred, “Lots of folks feel that those who are disenfranchised should just be happy that they are given anything because ‘something is better than nothing’.” Her disappointment was visible, “People convince themselves that they’re doing a good thing. But they aren’t really being thoughtful. For them, it isn’t actually about the people receiving. The only thing they are thinking about is ‘what a good person I am because I gave’!” I doubt most of us think explicitly in those terms. But sometimes giving is done with carelessness. I had to admit, before that moment at the food bank, it hadn’t really occurred to me that I needed to put more intentionality into the act of donating – whether food, clothing or other items. When pointed out, it’s undeniable that it is incredibly selfish to think others should just take whatever is given. And it’s even more shameful when that attitude is aimed toward those who are vulnerable and marginalized. Is this about them or me?
All over the world people are having discussions about race. People who thought that their pocket of the world was immune to such tensions have been surprised to be confronted with reality. They’ve been shocked to hear the testimonies of their neighbors who have been discriminated against, and who now feel empowered to talk about their pain. For those who have been privileged enough to live in a state of obliviousness, it can be quite a jolt to be made aware of injustice and discrimination that has been present all this time. Even so, it is encouraging to witness individuals who have been compelled to speak up for others and who are willing to have difficult conversations. And they will be difficult.
In my last article I mentioned that it is necessary to be uncomfortable if one is going to take an active part in dismantling racism. There are going to be some ideas and biases that you may harbor that are destructive. Racism is not just overt bigotry. It is an insidious and pervasive concept that infects society to such an extent that racist beliefs appear normal. So normal that it may seem petty or even offensive to the privileged to call attention to some inequities.
A middle aged Black man recently became emotionally overwhelmed that he had a bandage that matched his skin for the first time in his life. A milestone for him is an everyday fact of life for others. Many are privileged enough to have never contemplated this because their skin tone is the default color for bandages, and their skin is the same as the “flesh toned” crayons, and their skin is the lighting standard in photography. This is normal. This is the status quo. This is life. That is why the thought of removing statues of kidnappers and rapists seems like it’s a bridge too far. And why people are so resistant to changing their familiar surroundings that they will concoct fake memes about women whose likenesses were used to perpetuate myths and stereotypes of slaves via pancake and syrup packages. Casual racism is so ubiquitous, it is impossible to avoid having some of its influences creep into one’s subconscious.
This is the exact reason why those who have decided to be anti-racist need to be prepared to be uncomfortable. They will almost certainly, at some point, say something that still reflects some of these ideologies. Like learning a second language, you are bound to mess up. But you will never improve if you are afraid of correction, or get defensive when challenged to reassess. The unwillingness of some to be uncomfortable is one of the biggest stumbling blocks toward real progress.
Not long ago, a pastoral colleague boasted about having the courage to finally preach a sermon on discrimination in the church. But as I listened to him unpack the message it was full of statements reinforcing dangerous tropes. He was disappointed when my reaction was not the pat on the back he was expecting. When challenged about some of his sermon’s content, he explained that he purposefully excluded concepts that might make his congregation uneasy. Otherwise, they would be less receptive to hear anything at all. He chided me that I should be glad he even broached the subject. He had decided that it was best to avoid confronting his members with terms that might chafe them, like “privilege”. He admonished me that Black Christians would fare better if we adopted his approach to these conversations. After all, making White people uncomfortable “might risk losing their support” (his exact words). Essentially, his attitude was the same as the people who donated the lumpy cans and expired boxes of food: “you should be happy with what you’re given and don’t complain. You’re lucky you got whatever I give – be grateful and be quiet. Wasn’t I gracious enough to give you something? You could have gotten nothing from me at all”.
My colleague’s sentiments are not uncommon. In a viral video, megachurch pastor Louie Giglio suggested renaming “White privilege” as “White blessings” to make it more palatable for White people to discuss the atrocities of slavery. He reasoned that if the terminology is the obstacle to White support, change it so it is more soothing! It did not even occur to him that this mindset was itself a manifestation of racism – centering White emotions and sensibilities is at the core of what racism is! The belief is that if you don’t, you run the risk of bruising White people’s emotions to the point where they won’t be willing to care about the plight of the marginalized. White fragility is always the primary consideration. To his credit, Giglio was not recalcitrant when this was pointed out to him. He didn’t rush to take a defensive stance. He owned up to what he said.
It injures the ego when you realize that something you are offering could be improved upon. Moreover, it shatters the illusion of fulfilling the Savior role, which is promoted not only in White culture but especially in Christian cultures. That’s why it can sting to reflect and admit that if your motivations were truly other-focused and not merely self-centered, you would ask and listen to what others need instead of adopting a stance that they must take whatever you give without complaint or critique.
Though that was my first day volunteering at the food bank, it was not my last. Nevertheless, the lessons from the first day are the clearest in my mind. Now if I volunteer to give something, I ask what the needs are first. And I listen. If I don’t have what is actually needed, I make a concerted effort to obtain those things instead of simply insisting that others should be satisfied with whatever I feel like giving. Those who have been disenfranchised are people. We all have the same level of humanity. It is an added injustice toward marginalized communities to trivialize their opinions. It denies them the dignity of agency. Therefore, if I’m going to be a true ally to the vulnerable, then I have to remember – it’s not about me. So should you.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
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