I Could Not Know

Post Author: Jessica A. Harren

This is the testimony of a white woman, written primarily for other white people.

I did not know, I could not see. I had no idea. Now, years later, I’m frustrated that my not knowing, my not seeing, was hurting people. I’m finding ways to live with discovering the harm I’m causing without reducing myself to paralyzing shame. I’m slowly in a process of unlearning defensiveness. To do this, I need to know where I’ve come from and how different parts of my life and the system interact.

The place where I was first taught that white bodies mattered the most was in church. Before I could read, all the pictures of God and Jesus were white. All of the children sitting on the laps of the deity in the painting were white. All of the children in my Children’s Bible illustrations were white. This, despite the fact that Jesus was a brown Middle Eastern Jew, as the children in his company would have been, as well as his disciples.

This is what I mean when I say that I was taught to ignore some bodies and to value others from an early age through pictures. And I had no idea. Now, I wonder how black, brown, and indigenous children walking into our churches understand their place (or lack thereof) in the kingdom of God, when everyone pictured in it is usually white.

My school books were the same way: mostly white characters, mostly male characters. Some people are the main characters in stories (white males), while others are either nonexistent or there to support the main character.

The adults in my life, without intention, taught me to have stereotypes: People who don’t speak English are stupid, “colored people’s time” is about people being late because they are lazy, people who are unemployed just don’t want to get jobs. No one admitted that they were subtly teaching these things through offhand comments while reading the paper or watching the news. People said, “We’re nice to everyone and value them equally.” I could not see that simply saying and believing we can be nice causes harm, because the world does not treat people equally. This is not only about me being nice to people of different races; I also need to understand that the world does not treat them as equal and work toward changing that.

Thanks to Brene Brown, I am aware that my shame over being a racist will only paralyze me. Thinking of myself as a terrible person, or hearing that I’m a terrible person when someone calls me a racist or tells me to behave differently to cause less harm, does not help anyone. It only gets me stuck, and only serves to protect my ability to do harm, instead of helping me learn to do less harm.

So how do we not get wrapped up in the guilt and shame of understanding that to be white is to be participating in a racist system? How do we white people live with knowing we are racists by definition of having power in a system that values us and gives us resources over others? How do we live with knowing the stereotypes we carry in our heads are wrong and learn to stop ourselves from saying them out loud and to stop causing harm in all the other ways we do?

What helps me the most is knowing that I did not make this system. I was born into this system; it has been going on for centuries. I still condone it and am complicit in it by not knowing, by not seeing. Jesus still calls me to change it. However, I did not create it. We need to learn about the harm we cause others, but it cannot end there. When we start to learn about the pain we cause, what will we do about it? Will we define being an ally in our white terms, or in the terms of the people we’re trying to ally with? I put a safety pin on my facebook page after the election without knowing that I had not done the work to even know what it meant to be safe to a person of color. I thought I could just be a nice person who would listen to them, and that would make me safe. After finding Safety Pin Box through a news article, I realized how wrong I was, how much work I have to do, and how I do not get to define what helps and what doesn’t. Instead of just putting up a safety pin, I wanted to work for real justice and be accountable to the communities who need justice the most.

From Safety Pin Box, I have learned that my white guilt is only helpful if it translates into action: learning more about the world and the ways I am racist, trying to cause the least harm possible as a white person, following the leadership of those most affected by racism, and shifting resources to the people of color doing the organizing and justice work. The most amazing thing about Leslie Mac and Marissa Jean Johnson, who created Safety Pin Box, is the way they slowly guide us through tasks to come to self-understanding at the beginning of the month, which enable us to be doing anti-racist actions by the end of the month. They do this all without inducing guilt or shame, and the Pin Collective Facebook group is a safe place for people to ask questions and process their own stuff in a way that causes less harm to people of color, because we’re not doing it publically.

As a follower of Jesus, I believe in the full humanity of all people. Jesus demands that I own my complicity in the system and my impact in harming the humanity of others, regardless of my intentions. Often, for me, that means admitting to being a baby about race conversation, since I was taught to avoid it altogether for so many years. It also means admitting that I am a racist. It means owning the impact I have and letting go of my good intentions, because even my good intentions cause harm. There are still things I cannot know, and things I cannot see. Jesus, though, is always calling me into deeper relationship with humanity, all of humanity. For it is there, in the pain of others I participate in, am complicit in, and sometimes cause even without meaning to, that I see the face of the suffering Jesus. And, I see a Creator God who wants us to be whole and for the suffering to disappear.

As we are in this Easter season, the resurrection gives me hope that we can have a new life: one that counts each person as a beloved Child of God. One where the unfairness of the system is restored through justice and those who have experienced the most pain are lifted up. It gives me hope that Jesus is right by my side when that gets hard, or exhausting. The story of Jesus gives me the power to face the pain, because I know that healing, wholeness, and new life await on the other side. For all of us.

This article was edited by sensitivity reader Jess Davis, and the proceeds went to her. If the world is going to unfairly disadvantage those who are people of color, they should at least get paid when we do for talking about it. If you would like to pay her to be a sensitivity reader, you can send her a message through her Facebook page here.

If you want to learn more about the accidental harm you may be doing as a white person, listen to this podcast to learn how to stop.

If you need a basic primer on anti-racism work, get this Ally Backpack.

Jessica A. Harren is beginning a call at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago on May 15. She also consults with congregations on Open Space emergent postmodern worship services, both in person and over video calls. You can find Pastor Jess at her website, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Image by: Jessica A. Harren
Used with permission
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