Wagging White Fingers
I’ve hesitated to say much in response to the grim spectacle of America ablaze with protests against the racism, police brutality, and appalling murder of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis. My justifications for silence often wander down familiar trails. What can I say that others can’t say or haven’t already said better? I’m not American; what right do I have to say anything about a social reality that is not my own? What good does adding to an amorphous chorus of condemnation/white guilt really do? Isn’t ninety percent of what’s going online today a flailing combination of virtue signalling and emoting out loud? What good is one more wagging white finger against racism?
This post proceeds with none of the above resolved in my head. The next seven hundred or so words could just be another example of that whole toxic stew, another useless wagging white finger. But it’s difficult to watch what’s going on south of the border and not have something to say as a pastor, a Christian, a human being. I could say that I am horrified by what happened to George Floyd (and so many others), which I obviously am. I could say that something is deeply broken in the fabric of our society, which I believe to be true. I could say that racism is antithetical to the gospel of peace and an affront to the person of Jesus Christ, both of which I am convinced of.
I’ve been reflecting, instead, upon my own role in engaging the racial other as a white man. I grew up in the context of racism toward indigenous people. As I’ve written about before (here, for example), it was just kind of in the air we breathed growing up on the Canadian prairies. And then, in 2001 my wife and I adopted indigenous twins which sent our lives off on an entirely unanticipated and beautiful trajectory. It was (and is) a desperately necessary corrective in how I thought about matters of race, identity, belonging, suffering, and reconciliation. It was (and) is an education on what it means to look at the same reality through a different set of lenses. It was (and) is a daily reminder of how easy it is to revert to “white saviour” narratives when it comes to how I think about adoption.
I’ve dropped down here and there into other realities, other stories. I have spent time listening to the story of my wife’s Japanese ancestors who were forcibly relocated to southern Alberta from the west coast during World War 2. I have friends and acquaintances who have adopted black kids and whose experience growing up in a predominantly white area has had or almost certainly will have challenges. I’ve traveled to the occupied West Bank where I’ve heard the stories of the suffering and oppression of Palestinians. I’ve been to Colombia where we bore witness to the mistreatment of Afro-Colombians and other displaced people. I’ve entered into the story of Syrian refugees and what it’s like to be a Muslim and or Arab in Canada in the twenty-first century. I’ve dropped in on hearings and ceremonies and conferences across Canada where indigenous neighbours shared their experience of Canada’s history of colonialism and white supremacy and all the ways that this bleeds into our present moment.
As I look back on my limited experiences with entering into the suffering of racial minorities at the hands (and words and assumptions and attitudes) of mostly white folks, I struck by a pretty basic fact. I can always leave. I can always opt out. I can get on a plane and fly away. I can go home (physically, politically, relationally). I can tell stories from a mostly comfortable distance (and receive praise for doing so). I can move through my days secure in the knowledge that nobody looks at me suspiciously because of the colour of my skin or the way I talk or the way I dress or the place I worship. I never worry that someone’s keeping their eye on me. I’m not a “person of interest” to anyone. I don’t cringe every time someone with brown or black skin does something wrong wondering how it will blow back on me. I don’t carry the weight of a history of suffering in my bones that so many black and brown people do.
In short, the system works pretty well for people like me—people who play by the rules, who don’t rock the boat, who know how to take advantage of advantages offered, who can afford to be quiet, for whom nothing personal hangs on the status quo remaining unchallenged. People who are, well, white. I can wag a guilty finger here and there and say that racism is bad and talk and about how white cops shouldn’t kill unarmed black men and about how God desires equality for all. I can even believe it all deeply (which I do). But I always have the luxury of wagging my finger from a distance.
I wrote a few paragraphs trying to tie all this up in a nice Jesus-y bow, but I could hardly read them myself so I figured I shouldn’t inflict them upon anyone else. Perhaps now is simply a time for honesty, anger, and sorrow, a time to say the things that should not need to be said but still do. The blood of black and brown sisters and brothers cries out, like Abel’s, from the ground. We dare not make Cain’s mistake and ask if we are our brother’s keepers because surely we ought to know by now that we are.