The other day I saw a video with an interesting message. In it, a presenter at a conference held out a glass partially filled with water. While one expected her to ask, “Is this glass half-full or half-empty,” she actually asked the audience, “How much does this weigh? Does it weight a lot?” People responded with their guesses, all giving quantitative measurements—10 ounces, 1/2 pound, 200 grams—all concluding no, it was not heavy. But she wasn’t looking for quantitative numbers. She said, “Well, actually, it depends, doesn’t it? If I hold up this glass for ten seconds, it’s pretty light. If I hold it up for thirty minutes, my arm is going to get pretty fatigued. If I try to hold it up all day, my arm will suffer permanent damage because of the weight.”
Her point was that little stresses at home and at work may seem like nothing—say, as “light” as a glass of water—but if they go unattended and are carried for long periods of time, even the smallest things can cause major health problems and psychological distress.
Besides being a helpful example for busy people in the corporate world to understand and combat stress, it is also the perfect example to describe something far more pervasive and much less discussed than stress: racism.
When we think about acts of racism, my guess is that many people—at least many white people—think of extreme and historical examples: Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, the Holocaust, Rwanda, apartheid, the Klu Klux Klan, and the treatment of Native American nations, to name a few. When we think about racism, we think about the large, conscious efforts of one group to suppress another with violence, making it easy for the majority of us to distance ourselves from it, or worse yet, to deny that it still exists today.
For most people, though, racism is not conscious and it is not violent. It’s found in the small and seemingly insignificant events of daily life, unnoticed by the majority.
Here in Mexico, this is felt in the near-complete absence of people of color on television. When I first noticed this, it was sort of humorous: being the only white person in a store or restaurant, I found it out-of-place to see only white faces on the screen, ironic dissonance. Now, however, it infuriates me. Telenovelas. Music videos. News casters. Even the commercials. All you see is white face after white face.
You may think to yourself, “Well, this isn’t really racism, is it? It’s not saying people of color are bad or anything, it’s just choosing to show other people.” It’s just a glass of water. But imagine it the other way around. Imagine that, when you turned on the television, all of the faces were different from your own. Imagine not seeing anyone like you. The glass feels a little heavier. Now imagine experiencing this as a child… as a teenager… for years and years; imagine never seeing someone like yourself on television. What does that do to one’s image of self? How does that make someone feel within the community? Now, something as light as a glass of water comes to weigh your whole person down and define who you are: different, not good enough, absent, silent, unimportant.
It is through this lens that I now experience the recent tragedies in the United States, the killing of two non-violent black men who were shot and killed by police officers when violent force seemed unnecessary, followed by the events that took place in Dallas last evening. It is through this lens that I look beyond the immediate injustice of the killings, as terrible as they are, and see the long term effects of these repeated occurrences. What does a situation like this do to the psychological stability of a minority? One occurrence is tragedy, for sure, but for many it is ultimately just a glass of water. But then another. And another. And you begin to notice that these sorts of things are not isolated to a particular place or situation, they happen everywhere and have happened for a long time. The glass gets heavier. And every time situations like these fail to bring justice to the victim and the police officer is let off with but a warning—a sentence unthinkable if the victim were white—people are forced to hold the glass up longer. That is the glass of water that many minorities carry with them throughout their entire lives, a glass of water that many white people will never even have to pick up.
It’s because of this, I truly think, that race relations fail to happen constuctively. When tragedies like this happen, or even when it’s simply acts of micro-aggression or minor inconveniences that affect people of color, people who are not forced to hold up a glass of water their entire lives fail to see the whole story. They can’t understand the stress, the anger, and the feeling of defeat that people bring to the situation in the first place. When Arab-speaking Americans are kicked off of planes because of a perceived terror threat simply because they were speaking Arabic (happened twice last year on SouthWest), Hispanic-looking citizens are required to verify their ID on demand because they “might” be illegal (thank your Arizona and Georgia), and African-American children on a field trip to the zoo are called “animals” by a stranger (actually happened at one of the friars’ elementary schools), it’s never about just the situation itself, no matter how difficult; the reaction is always the compounded effect of constantly dealing with an identity of other, different, less-than. “Here we go again…” many think.
Sometimes, the response is not so nice. Sometimes, it’s not civil and respectful. In 1988, the rap group NWA famously released a song entitled “F*** the police.” Vulgar? Yes. Angry? You bet. But rather than writing it off as “angry black men,” or “thugs,” rather than being offended by it or demanding that they be sensible, I ask myself, “What’s behind this song? What drives someone to feel so angry and trapped that this is how they need to express themselves?” I absolutely do not condone violence as a response to violence and surely don’t want to condone their message some 28 years later, but I do want to affirm their anger and their right to express it even if it doesn’t make me feel comfortable. While it would be wonderful for us in the majority if all reformers endured their injustice patiently, were polite to those who denied them rights or failed to come to their aid, and ended up being saints like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, the moral character of the oppressed really doesn’t matter. It is completely unfair to tell someone how they are allowed to get angry, and worse yet, to dismiss the injustice they endure (and turn them into the culprit) because they don’t meet the majority’s standard of morality. One does not need to earn the right to be free from racism and injustice by being a good person.
But some still expect it. When issues of race occur in this country, as is the case right now, the first thing that some people do is analyze the character of the victim. Did he have a criminal record? Was he a nice boy? If not, then he was just an angry thug. “I realize you’re angry,” some will say, “But why can’t you speak civilly? Why didn’t you follow the law rather than rioting and causing violence?” The words of someone who has never had the system fail them. The words of someone who has never had to hold up the glass for more than a few seconds and so cannot understand what is behind the anger.
And so the injustice is dismissed. For many, it’s not out of malice or hatred for another but simply out of shear ignorance or indifference. When one is a part of the majority, it is very easy to see only what benefits oneself without seeing how the current system may not be the best for everyone. “There are a lot of people that look like me on tv.” “I’ve never been pulled over for no reason.” “I’ve never had to prove my identity while at a park with my kids.” The world must be fine.
For many others, though, such injustices are dismissed actively and defensively because they pose a threat to one’s own way of life. There is no racism in America, they say. To recognize an injustice in the world opens us to the possibility that we might somehow be involved, that we might have to do something about the problem, and worst of all, that we might have to give up some of the undue privilege we exercise at the expense of others. Those who benefit from the status quo never want the status quo to change, even if it’s not good for everyone.
How do we as Christians feel about either of these responses?
For me, it is an issue that I have struggled with for many years as I’ve tried to live the life of a Franciscan friar. How does someone who is not a minority in any way (white, male, straight, young, middle class, etc.) live the life of a “friar minor”? The more I experience of the world the more I am sure that I have been given privileges as a white man that others do not enjoy. I have been sheltered from so many of the hardships that people of color deal with, not because of merit, but simply because I won the “womb lottery.”
This, to me, is not the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus announced to us. This is not the will of God that Mary proclaimed in her Magnificat. A world in which people are consistently held down and made to feel inferior while a majority class enjoys special benefits is not the Kingdom, it is the Roman world in which Jesus lived, spoke, and denounced.
Maybe you don’t see it that way and this post is a long, activist-driven rant that has more to do with party politics than it does Christianity. If so, thanks for reading. I promise the next post will be lighter (and shorter). But maybe you do see it that way. Maybe you do notice that the world is unjust and that certain people carry heavier burdens than others. As a Christian—as a white person, perhaps—what are we do to?
Short of taking experimental sun-tanning pills and getting a perm so as to experience the world as a person of color (the plot to the 1986 movie Soul Man), if we are white, there is likely no way that we will ever be in true solidarity on the issue. We simply cannot know the full extent of what the system does to people. But we can do something.
We can begin to notice. Maybe we have been so sheltered throughout our lives that we simply don’t know what people go through. It all starts with a relationship, getting to know someone different on an intimate level. When we do that, stepping outside of our world to enter into another, we learn things and we change. In my own life, I find it amazing how differently I saw the world when I started attending a black church in college, forced to hear other people’s perspectives and enter into their experiences. At first, it was jarring because it told me that my narrow worldview was not complete. But then I began to see a little wider, to see with their eyes (to a very small extent), and I began to notice so much more of the world. I saw things that had always been there but never seemed important because they didn’t affect me (e.g. an all-white cast in a tv show or movie.)
Having our eyes opened is a start, but it needs to go further. For those of us who do not share in the pain of minorities, we need to begin to share in their anger. When tragedies like these happen, it cannot be only a group of black people that mourn a casket; it cannot be only a group of black people that feel crushed and helpless. When tragedies like this happen, they happen to one of our brothers, a member of the human family. And maybe we do when they get tremendous press from the media and we’re inundated with the stories. But these are spikes on the radar, effects that don’t always reveal the underlying issues and the countless other, smaller events that led up to it. Do we get angry at the micro-aggressions and minor inconveniences, the fact that many stores and banks won’t build in black neighborhoods, the distrusting looks or snide remarks, the slightly racist joke that’s “just a joke”?
Once we’ve seen and begun to share in the anger that is already present, we as Christians, those meant to build the Kingdom of God, need to be a voice for change. In many ways, this is a black and white issue: if we have had our eyes opened to the injustices people endure, we have to do something about it. We have to. It is not politicking, it is not liberal activism, it is not communism. When there are those who have rights and privileges that others do not, and these rights and privileges prevent people from authentic human develop free from undue burden, the Gospel calls us to fix the situation. Sometimes it means questioning and removing the structures that keep people apart, as Jesus did with the Pharisees, with the ritual purity laws, and in the Temple. These things are easy for us to conceive, and the don’t require us giving anything up. The change is out there on a large scale. But sometimes the answer is quite the opposite: it is close to our lives and requires a major change in us. Sometimes it means imitating Jesus’ kenosis, acknowledging that we, white people, have something that others do not—a privilege that we did not earn and do not deserve that protects us from so much of the frustration and humiliation that others have—a doing our best to give that up. Jesus did not want to be treated special, he came as a lowly peasant. He did not demand rights that others didn’t have. And maybe we shouldn’t either.
This last part is particularly difficult and some will argue that it is impossible for white people to give it up anyway; what we possess is a universal currency that cannot be renounced. Maybe that’s true. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and that starts with acknowledging that it exists. Acknowledging that the world is not the way it should be, and just because something seems light to us, just a glass of water, does not mean that it is such for other people. We may not be able to hold up the glass for people, but we can work to make sure everyone knows that the glass exists and do everything we can to make it disappear.