By Conference Minister Diane Weible
I want to begin with a few of the statements I heard this week that hit me to the core:
-“I’m not o.k.” (Every panelist on Sunday’s “Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery” event)
-“He was not killed because he was black; He was killed because you are white. #GeorgeFloyd” (Marvin K. White, posted on his Facebook page)
-“The virus we are addressing is not just COVID 19; we are still dealing with COVID 1619.” (Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., referring to the virus of slavery that came to this country 400 years ago and that still exists today, albeit in an evolved state (from slavery to Jim Crow to Lynching to Mass Incarceration)
The protests are rising around the world because of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the attempted lynching of Christian Cooper in Central Park. I confess that I did not hear about the deaths of Mr. Arbery or Ms. Taylor until Mr. Floyd’s murder and Mr. Cooper’s attempted lynching. My privilege allowed me to shut my door and shelter in place, shutting my eyes and ears to the reality that my siblings of color cannot ignore.
If you look at the images from the protests, you will notice something else. We see images of police standing still while white supremacists scream at them. Those pictures are contrasted to images police beating black and brown protestors and spraying them with pepper spray.
People are not protesting in Minneapolis (and around the world) just because of the murder of George Floyd. They are protesting because in 2017 a white woman was killed by a bullet shot by a then-Minneapolis police officer, Mohamed Noor, a Somali-American. He was immediately arrested and is now serving a 12.5-year sentence. Yet, when George Floyd was murdered by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a white man, it took four days before he was arrested.
They are protesting because our society treats white perpetrators differently than black perpetrators. Our society treats white victims differently than black victims. If you saw the movie “Emmanuel,” you saw the real-time video of the arrest of Dylann Roof. The man killed 9 people and as you watched the respect with which he was led to the police car, you would never know what happened in that church. Compare that to the images of George Floyd laying on the ground handcuffed as two policemen held him down and a third policeman pressed his knee into his neck ignoring his cry, “I can’t breathe.” And, what was Mr. Floyd suspected of? Passing a $20 counterfeit bill. Hold those two images in your head and then you tell me if you think we don’t have a huge problem in this country.
I was talking with members of one of our small group conversations on race last week. I said that every time something like this happens, I am outraged, I cry, I scream, I feel despair. I do my best to give a donation to the Bail Project. And then I embrace my privilege and go back into my home, shut the door, and am able to set it aside, sometimes for just a little while, sometimes for a long time. Our black and brown siblings do not have that privilege. They cannot shut the door on what is happening—they are forced to live with it every day—live with the fear, live with the necessity of conversations with their children, of choosing carefully what they wear and where they walk when they go outside, of wondering whether when the police show up will they live to see another day.
I am working hard every day to move to the place in my journey where I do not shut the door, even if my privilege tells me I can. If others can’t, why should I? Until everyone feels safe, no one is safe.
We have small group conversations on race and privilege happening in this Conference. They have been happening for a couple of years. Those of us who are white in these groups know that the only way we have a hope and prayer of changing the four-hundred year legacy of privilege that is steeped in our very being is if we have these conversations often and always. We cannot save them for those times when we are stirred from complacency by events like those of this past week. We cannot save them for a time when we have room on our plate. We cannot save them for conversations that stay in our heads and do not envelope our entire being.
Amy Cooper, the white woman in Central Park who, when confronted with being asked to follow the law and put her dog on a leash, was screaming and threatening to call the police. We saw the video. She wasn’t afraid of the man holding the camera and her words belied the truth of her heart—“I’m going to call the police and tell them an African American man is scaring me!” Whether she knew in her head that she was unleashing (pardon the pun) a lynching squad on this man by her actions or whether she was only acting from her heart, her impact would’ve been the same. I don’t know Amy Cooper. I read that she is a registered Democrat with a liberal ideology. Most likely, she would profess that she is not racist and she understands white privilege. And yet, her head and her heart are not in sync.
She may know in her head that racism, white privilege, and white supremacy need to end but the water she has been swimming in all her life and that swirls in her body from generations past, cannot be overcome just by knowing it. Her head may understand racism, but her heart and her very being acted from generational trauma that taught her how she can use her power to get her way, even if it means inciting violence against a black man. Ron Buford, Pastor of Sunnyvale Congregational Church and the creator of “Racists Anonymous,” is on to something vital—we need a 12-step program to address our addiction to whiteness. A twelve-step program needs our attention every day if it is to be effective.
Are my head and heart in sync? Do I understand that as a white person I am seen as dangerous to black and brown people who meet me on the street?
The leadership in this Conference is working hard to change the culture of how we BE the Church in this time. We already have some opportunities in place if you, in this very moment, understand how much this moment is an invitation to the hard work that is required, if we mean it when we say we want to be agents of transformational change.
- Small group conversations on race (some are and have been meeting and more are to come)
- Racial Justice Training (registration for our next training will open soon)
- The resolutions we are working to bring to Annual Gathering this Fall. We are working hard to draft these resolutions. Some people we have asked to help us with this work have been hesitant to do so because they are afraid these will be statements on paper without real action behind them.
- At our Annual Meeting this past Saturday there was a lot of conversation about changing some language in our Mission Statement. I’m all for that if the change we are looking to make changes to our culture as a Conference. I want the words in our Mission Statement to reflect a commitment to the work we need to do in our individual as well as our collective lives. I pray that the words of our Mission Statement will reflect a commitment in our Conference to show up for actions that address the racism that our siblings of color experience every single day, sometimes in our very own churches.
- What are the books you are reading? The movies you are watching? The TV programs you are viewing? Do those books, movies, and shows take you out of your comfort zone? Do they introduce you to a culture that is not the one you know? Do they show you the lives and realities of people that challenge what you always thought was “the right way”?
- We are not going to be meeting in our church buildings for quite some time. This offers us time for communal conversations around racism and privilege. Is this how God is inviting us to show up in the world to address the disparities, the inequities, and the white supremacy that is so tightly woven in our communities? What is God inviting us to work on in ourselves? Again, we have both individual and collective work to do.
Rev. Dr. Velda Love, UCC Minister for Racial Justice, concluded the Requiem event on Sunday with these words: “This is a journey. It is not a sprint.” The journey is to de-center whiteness in our society and in our communities. We will not get to the finish line in our lifetimes but if we commit to steps on the journey our children and grandchildren may be the ones to finally see the white construct start to crumble.