Though it is impossible for white allies to completely relate to the suffering and fear of people of color, this does not mean that white people should not at least try to understand – on a personal level – what it means to be a person of color. The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda does so here, and with great power. A white mother struggling to understand what it means to be the womb and cradle for black children in our society, she reflects good and long on what it means to truly live and work against the white supremacy that saturates our society, and the full implications that it has in the lives of all white people, as well as people of color. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
I have felt a visceral sense of terror, a tightening in my guts, when I imagine how I would feel if my two precious sons were Black and, therefore, in danger of their lives every day and night at the hands of police violence and other manifestations of institutionalized white supremacy.
Wondering whether they would be shot for “walking while Black” down a street in a white neighborhood, stopped for “driving while Black” and then shot while reaching for the car registration. Would some officer plant drugs on them in order to make a needed drug arrest? How would I feel at night if they were ten minutes late and had not yet called? What would be my fury and unbearable grief if one of them had been thrown into jail, accused of a crime that he did not commit, and I was powerless to get him out? What kind of treatment would a young Black man get while there? How would it damage his heart and soul? What would it do to his belief in life’s goodness? How could I survive knowing what was being done to him in a privately owned prison transport van if they moved him to another place, still in custody for something he had not done?
I imagine teaching my sons all of the things that Black mothers teach their sons day in and day out – keep your hands at 2:00 and 10:00 on the steering wheel when they stop you for driving while Black. Keep your driver’s license out of your pocket and your insurance card and car registration out of the glove compartment so that you don’t need to reach into your pocket or glove compartment when they stop you. Don’t question; comply. Never walk together with more than one other young Black man if you are wearing jeans; they will suspect a Black threesome. The litany goes on and on, as it has for centuries – Black mothers teaching their sons survival skills in a racist society.
Once many years ago, I was taking my sons to a demonstration. I think it was against the war in Iraq. One of them – then a little boy – was worried about his safety, but felt safer when he learned that the police would be escorting the demonstration. I realized with a jolt that he would never have been able to say or feel that had he been Black. What would I do if my little grandson were Black and, when he was 10 or 12, wanted to play with a toy gun in a park with friends who were white? How could I tell him that he could not join in that play? How would I talk to the white mothers asking them to prohibit gun play when my son was with them, because white people who saw him with a gun might call the police who might shoot him?
I cannot fathom the pain of knowing my sons were being tormented in their young manhood by people who were likely to see them – even if on a subtle level or completely unconsciously – as demonic or dangerous or closer to an ape because they are Black. How would I feel when my white friends said things like: “But I don’t notice race” or “I see your son as just like all of the other boys” (that is, the white boys), knowing what these seemingly innocent words mean? The words would mean that white mothers did not get it that my sons’ lives were in danger, that my sons had to read the signs of danger when they walked into any situation and had to be aware of how police or shopkeepers were watching them, that my sons – gentle and good as they were – were less likely to survive because of what society does to Black people.
But I am a white mother of white sons. Therefore, I have the option to ignore what it would mean to be the mother of black children in this country. I could choose to not pay attention, to deny reality, to indulge white privilege.
I also am a theologian and have been thinking, writing, and speaking for some years about Jesus’ call to “love neighbor as self” (Matt. 22:37) or “to love as God loves” (John 13:34). Love as a biblical and theological norm is nothing like love in a Hallmark card. It is a steadfast commitment to serve the well-being of neighbor and that includes resisting systems of injustice (structural sin) where they damage neighbor. Here is the discomfiting truth: my “neighbor” in the biblical sense includes all people whom my life touches. In a white supremacist society such as ours, white privilege and other manifestations of white racism touch all people, damage all people; in biblical terms, we are all neighbors.
What does it mean for a white person in a white racist society to heed Jesus’ call to love neighbor?
That is the question. In all honesty, I would much rather flee from it. Often I do; but not always. Here, I call upon all white people to raise the question and not hide from it under the comforting cloak of privatized morality. Privatized morality allows us to be good to the people with whom we interact personally while avoiding the profound impact that our lives have on others through the tendrils of systemic racism that form white psyches and shape the institutions that determine life chances – institutions of education, criminal (in)justice and law, health care, housing, electoral politics, and so much more.
For white people to “love neighbor as self” includes an on-going commitment to see beyond the blinders of white privilege. This means listening to and honoring Black articulations of reality, and grappling with what it really means to have been shaped as a white person in a white supremacist society. And surely loving neighbor includes figuring out how – collectively and individually – to repent of institutionalized racism, resist it, and be a part of dismantling its structures developed for five centuries on this continent. That will include promoting public and institutional policies that seek to repair the damage done.
God does not call people where God does not empower us to go. Therefore, along with the call to “love neighbor as self” comes empowerment for “doing” that love. In the tradition in which I live, progressive Christianity, that is the work of what we call the Holy Spirit (or the Spirit of the sacred Source known by many as “God”). Said differently, while we white people will make mountains of uncomfortable errors along the way as we seek actively to renounce the sin of racism, the Spirit of God accompanies us and we join a marvelous band of justice-seeking people that spans the centuries.
Dear White Christians by Jennifer Harvey – http://www.eerdmans.com/Products/7207/dear-white-christians.aspx
Dr. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, an ELCA Lutheran, has lectured or consulted in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and many parts of North America in theology; ethics; and matters of climate justice and climate racism, moral agency, economic justice, public church (and whose “Public Church” commencement speech at LSTC in 2013 directly influenced that seminary’s current public church curriculum), and eco-feminist theology. Her most recent book, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Fortress, 2013), won the Nautilus Award for social justice. She is author or co-author of four other volumes and numerous articles and chapters. Moe-Lobeda is Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She holds a doctoral degree in Christian Ethics from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
For special information and materials for her most recent book visit: http://resistingstructuralevil.com/