The Seventy-Fifth Letter: Shame on Me

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Dear Daughters, 

I am tall, brown-haired, freckled, and strong-willed. I am a writer, a poet, a blogger, and an editor. I am a friend, a mother, a Christian, and a Baptist, begrudgingly. I am a sister, a daughter, a painter. I am creative, a runner, hungry, tired, and thirsty. I am thirty-three, glasses-wearing, not showered, and relatively comfortable in my own skin. I am a reader, not an athlete, a tea-drinker, empathetic, and a complainer. I am someone who sees people, a lover of school supplies, a sender of notes through the mail, and a Subaru Outback driver. I am good at memorization, an academic at heart, someone who gets furious at injustice, and impressed by the things a three-year-old can learn. I am a lover of fresh paper. I am in a tiring season of life, trying to find balance, and trying to figure out what balance is. I am kind of phobic about people germs on grocery carts and not phobic about actual dirt. I am annoyed easily and not as patient as I should be. I am a pretty awesome mom. I am talented, smart, and healthy. I am a texter.

What a random list, right?

It almost reads like a poem. (Well, maybe except the last add-on one about being a texter.) It’s not a poem, though. It’s actually a list of fifty “I am ____” statements.

I grouped the bulleted list of fifty items into sentences so there was less repetition as I typed them up, but this is otherwise exactly the order the statements came to me during a brainstorming and freewriting exercise while sitting in an Artist’s Way class session back in the fall of 2015.

A few months after making this list for the Artist’s Way, I was on a guided retreat and tasked with the exact same thing: jotting down fifty “I am ____” statements as quickly as possible.

And then this last spring I made the list yet again—not fifty this time, but twenty-five—for a different writing project.

Yes, three times I’ve done this basic exercise in three years.

Try it a few dozen times. Fill in the blank: I am _____. And then do it again and again and again.

Are you curious how similar my three lists are, over that amount of time?

I sure was, so I just dug out those old notebooks and compared them. (This is the benefit of keeping old notebooks of nonsense writing.)

Of the fifty, only eleven items made it onto all three “I am ____” lists: tall, mother, daughter, sister, friend, tea-drinker, poet, empathetic, freckled, glasses-wearing, and driver of an Outback.

Seriously. Those are apparently some of the things that come to my mind when I need to make a long list of things related to my identity, especially if I have to make the list quickly. That I’m freckled. The type of car I drive. That I drink tea. That I’m empathetic.

You know what didn’t show up on any of the lists?

The glaring absence from each of the lists that I’m feeling convicted about?

It’s so obvious and so absent that, I’ll confess, it makes me a little unsettled deep in soul.

That I’m white.

Not once did it cross my mind to include “white” on these lists.

Girls, I’ve been thinking about race a lot lately, and I’ve been really convicted about the fact that I have the privilege to not think about it if I don’t want to.

I don’t know how to go about writing this letter, but I know I need to write it. I need to write it because I want you to know that even in my determination as a parent to provide you with books and movies with non-white, non-male protagonists, even in my attempts to be open and welcoming to our community, even in the ways I teach you that Jesus tells us to care for those who are not in positions of power, yes, even in all the ways I parent you so that you see every person as worthy of your time and attention and love, you are coming into the world to a place of privilege. I don’t want you to take that for granted or pretend that it’s not the case, and I don’t know how to go about talking about it without feeling awkward and embarrassed. I don’t know how to talk about it except to talk about it.

And keep talking about it.

This year, it’s been impossible for me not to think about race, and I’m not only referring to media coverage and the general socio-politico-cultural climate that has so polarized discussions in the media. Race and ethnicity played a huge role in the election last year and continue to play a huge role in recent months—discrimination, charges of reverse discrimination, immigration, refugee policy. And I can see with my own eyes the way race divides our country—it divides our town, it divides neighborhoods, churches, friend circles, accessibility to education and healthcare and myriad things I can’t possibly take into account because I am so blinded by the ways my race protects me. From talking to your grandfather who witnesses on a regular basis the way racism plays a role within the prison system, I know our justice system is struggling, too, though it’s easy to pretend America has all that justice-is-blind stuff figured out.

Girls, because so many systems are broken, and because we are broken people, race divides us.

Achingly and painfully.

And I’ll be honest: I’m embarrassed about my lack of thoughtfulness on the subject.

Achingly and painfully.

I’m embarrassed that I take my whiteness for granted, that it’s not even an afterthought. It’s a three-years-after-I-write-the-list-thought.

What I mean is, I didn’t even notice the absence on all three lists.

What I mean is, shame on me.

I guess what’s even more embarrassing is that what’s gotten me thinking about race this year is not current events so much as the books I’ve been reading for pleasure. Because I’m a literary nerd through and through, I think about the books I read a lot. Story is the way to my heart.

Of the twenty-one books I’ve read this year, just over half have been explicitly about race. After the first handful of them, I began to think that it wasn’t just a coincidence. Every time I opened a book, the dividing power of race was leaping off the page, and it’s been convicting. I’ve been wondering in recent weeks if the universe was trying to send me a message about race and my place of privilege.

The most recent selection was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but I’ve managed to read books—selected by my two non-overlapping reading groups—about the modern African American experience (both fiction and nonfiction), the Nigerian immigrant experience in the USA and the UK, race in the 60s, the Vietnam War, growing up Chinese in the USA, a leper colony in Hawaii, the slave trade and Ghanaian tribal warfare, and apartheid in South Africa.

Most of these books have been excellent. And most of them have challenged and convicted me, especially the way I take for granted the extent to which my own whiteness protects me.

I have no idea what it is like to not be white.

And I’ll say it again: shame on me for not even noticing.

Shame on us for pretending we know what it is like to be “other,” when we have never experienced otherness, when we are surrounded by people like us, in the pew, on our streets, when we—I’m talking about our close community—are more educated than the average American, healthier than the average American, with a safety net of community and family, with an inherent trust that the system has got our back and that justice is blind.

That this is how I experience the world—and I’m sure you will too—is, plain and simple, privilege.

Let’s not shy away from the shame of privilege.

It should make us uncomfortable.

But—and hear this, too, alongside the shame—it should not swallow us up.

I have a friend who always quotes Mr. Rogers on this: “Look for the helpers.”

That is, look for those folks who are working already to remedy injustice, to shine light into the darkness, to bring justice to the powerless.

Remain convicted, girls, that the world needs changing, and do not let yourselves off the hook, but also, also do not give up hope that it can be changed.

Though we have a long way to go for any of this brokenness to even begin to be healed, a long embarrassing heartbreaking overwhelming way, I promise you that there is hope to be found even now in the small cracks of light shining into the darkness.

There is always hope to be found in the midst of brokenness and injustice.

I’m not naively optimistic when I say the healing of divisions is possible.

I see the message of the Gospel—the clear, impossible-to-ignore message—of the Kingdom transforming the powers of this world, flipping the systems of injustice and holding those in power to account for the mistreatment of the less privileged. I believe that the church has a role to play in preaching the light into the darkness, and I think we can see prophetic voices in our own day calling for justice and, what’s more, tangibly working for it in towns across our nation.

I also see hope in the work of nonprofits trying to bring a fairness ordinance to my town and petitioning for the rights of ex-convicts, those organizations tutoring young elementary children in reading and other basic skills and offering mentorship relationships, my friends who are unflinching in their calling and petitioning of politicians who aren’t walking the streets of neighborhoods and seeing firsthand the effects of poverty and prejudice on their constituents. There is hope in these books that I’m reading, these books that won’t let me off the hook, that force me to see a world I can so easily ignore, that send story deep into my bones.

And I see hope in you.

I see how free you are of the cultural baggage of fearing the stranger. I see how it breaks your heart when we talk about people being treated unfairly. I see how you can’t fathom why people are mean.

Last night, we were watching a Charlie Brown movie as a family, and there were some bullies being mean to Charlie and his friends. You kept asking if they were really being mean or just pretending, and so your dad told you that they really were being mean, but if you would look closely, you would see that usually mean people are really just sad inside. He wanted you to have empathy, even for the unjust, and yet be aware of the reality of brokenness and cruelty.

You took this to heart, and I know you kept thinking about that because you asked me about it this morning, about how people can be so sad that they are mean to other people. I didn’t know what to tell you. But your lack of understanding in the face of injustice and sadness offers me a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Girls, the world is so broken. We can’t shy away from identifying injustice, even if it means calling out our own privilege and shame at the way we have benefited from the broken system. I want you to call a spade a spade, and to see me doing the same.

Don’t be discouraged by how broken the world is. See that brokenness, call it out as the injustice it is, and work to fix it. And when your are most frustrated, most broken-hearted, most anxious and afraid, I want you to look for the helpers. Gather them around you. Encourage one another to keep going. They need you.

And I need you.

Keep me on task, girls. Don’t let me off the hook.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

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