A couple weeks ago Trevor Noah covered Obama’s speech on new gun control measures in a way that brought me back to my investment in racial equity as a white woman. Noah, the host of the Daily Show, responded to right wing critique of Obama’s emotional delivery. He flips between clips of Obama and jokes characteristic of the show, even comparing the situation to a raccoon with cotton candy. But Noah also delivered one line, with a sobering reminder to my daily work.
Noah plays the clip of Obama pausing to regain his composure whipping away tears as he speaks of the first grade victims in Newtown, Conn. The screen cuts back to Noah who also pauses and responds,
“See that thing you’re feeling right now, that pain in your chest, that comes from watching someone weep on national television that society can do better than to file the shooting of children under S*** happens, that’s how you know you’re human.”
Noah goes on to say despite one’s policy beliefs, in our humanity, we must “acknowledge and respect the raw authenticity of emotion” in response to pain. He quickly goes back to humor, but I was left in that moment. Frozen in that pain and sense of injustice.
As a white woman in racial equity work, I desperately need moments like this around race. I need moments where I viscerally am reminded of what I know. Racism is a horrible, dehumanizing, painful thing. The systemic inequalities, racial predictability of academic, wealth, criminal justice, and physical health outcomes is depressing and infuriating. I could go on and on. But left to my own conditioning and tendencies I don’t stay present to that. I run to individualized effort focused solutions. “I tried”. I run to intellectual theories. “The roots of this come from a list of factors…” I run to beliefs of helplessness. “This is too big…”
That’s why I need these moments. They pull be back to my humanity. These are not moments where I feel bad for “them”, whatever group that might be that I am inclined to otherize. These are moments where I FEEL human for US. That part of me I have been conditioned to minimize or trivialize emerges.
I need these moments because they are where my whiteness breaks down. The lies that I have constructed about others and about myself falter and I see my best-self as it is tied up in the well being of others. They are moments where I again find my purpose and why I care about this work at the deepest level of me. I am reminded of what I know.
As Robert Jensen puts it,
“Somewhere down in our guts we understand that in an oppressive system such as white supremacy, the unearned privileges with which we live are based on the suffering of others. We know that we have things because others don’t. We may not want to give voice to that feeling, but it is impossible to ignore completely. And it doesn’t feel good, in part because to be fully human is to seek communion with others, not separation from them, and one cannot find that connection under conditions in which unjust power brings unearned privilege. To be fully human is to reject a system that conditions your pleasure on someone else’s pain.”
It is my work to slow down and feel that pain in my chest around the truth of racism and the dehumanization of whiteness. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, if I try to experience it and manage it on my own it can be paralyzing. But I am also convinced my humanity depends on it.
This isn’t about sitting in white guilt. When did guilt become white people’s go-to emotion around race anyway? Guilt can act much like denial in shutting down personal investment or one’s ability to hear multiple perspectives. In the moments I have surrendered to white guilt I ran from courageous racial conversations, rather than to them. But what I am talking about is about being a witness to the continued atrocity of racism around us and amongst us. It is only from that space of honesty and painful truth can I hope for healing to begin. As James Baldwin put it, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” I need to face the real emotions that my whiteness has tried to hide from me. I need to feel that pain to be reminded that I am human, and to see our well-being on the line.