Even being “anti” can open up dialogue
Not speaking up is the privilege of those who have never suffered from racism
By Sarah Mundell
Not long ago a video from The Guardian explained the difference between being “non-racist” and “anti-racist.” It kind of startled me back to consciousness. In it Jamaican novelist Marlon James listed a few scenarios I had found myself in at different moments of my life: “I don’t sing that n-word”; “I’m not burning any crosses”; “I didn’t vote for that guy.”
Sure, avoiding those things doesn’t make the problem of racism worse. But what am I actually doing to stop it?
“Your going to bed with a clear conscious is not going to stop college students from getting assaulted,” James said. He invited the listener to take a more active stance, to speak up and say, we are against this, “that what hurts one of us hurts all of us.” That’s where we have to move from “non” to “anti,” he said.
As someone committed to dialogue and to bringing the human family together, I am not at all in favor of racism. But I’m also not generally a person who likes to be “anti,” because I feel that “anti” often builds up walls instead of creating understanding and open discussion. Perhaps it’s because we sometimes argue against each other instead of about the positions we hold. Just because one sides’ voice gets louder does not necessarily mean a consensus has been reached.
But that video helped me see how being “anti” can also be positive for dialogue. If being “anti” means actively doing something to be part of the solution that respects everyone, I’m in. What I am against, though, are racist attitudes and behaviors, not the person who has them. That person is still a brother or sister of mine, even if in the wrong.
We were enjoying some pizza together in a youth workshop when the conversation took an unexpected turn. One participant shared his dismay at being stuck on the train near “some black guy,” and it made his whole ride horrible. “Because he’s black?” I asked. “But he was drunk and smelled funny, and he was saying things that didn’t make sense. I can’t stand them!”
I was shocked. He had assumed that the man was a drug addict or a gangster simply because the color of his skin and the hoodie he was wearing.
A nice non-racist — perhaps myself a decade earlier — might have been content in not adding to the mean-spirited discussion. But in the last few years I’ve learned that being quiet is the privilege of those who have never suffered from racism, who don’t realize it is part of some people’s experience every single day.
So as a white woman who does believe that “what hurts one of us hurts us all,” for me being quiet is no longer enough. I had to say something because, that man on the train, his struggle is my struggle. He is a child of God just like me. And that boy’s struggle, to face those who are different, was also my struggle, and I believed in the goodness of his heart. So I continued my questions.
“How do you know he was drunk and not just a little upset?” “He just was.”
“And what does that have to do with him being black? It could have been a white guy who was drunk, if that was the case at all. Would that have bothered you? Would you have had more compassion? What if he had just lost his job and was grieving, or what if his dad just died?”
He responded: “Why do they have to be on the train? I hate riding on the train because they are there.” So he was uncomfortable.
“Are there any black kids at your school?” No. “So you don’t know yet what things they might know that you’d love to learn! Do you really think that every black person you might meet on the train is a drunk or on drugs or part of a gang? Come on, now!” He grinned sheepishly. “Maybe he works on Wall Street, or maybe he has the same hobby as you. Would you want to miss an opportunity to learn something from someone just because you were stopped by the color of their skin?” Attentive silence.
That was one time where I was able to speak up in a loving way. But there have been other missed opportunities where I have stayed silent, or didn’t find the right words and further hurt my neighbor instead of healing that wound. I’ll keep trying.
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