Dear non-POC1 friends of CBE International,
If you are reading this message, congratulations. You’ve survived a year of global pandemic, economic recession, social distancing, wildfires, floods, an ammonium nitrate explosion, murder hornets, and likely the most acrimonious US presidential election in living memory. If you’re looking at this list thinking, “feels like something’s missing,” it’s because some of us didn’t survive the racial disharmony that was also a hallmark of 2020.
Almost thirty years ago, I watched Rodney King, the riots, the protests, and the blame shifting. I watched people march and politicians pledge. And this year, I watched it all happen again. I have been angry, sad, and everything in between. I have not been hopeless, because I know that change is possible, but doing what we did thirty years ago is only going to produce the same result it did then. If we seek a different result, we require a different solution.
So here is my big ask: I want you to be friends with your local racist.
There are two ways to fight racism: revolution and redemption.
Revolution works on the outside. It removes leaders, writes legislation, and starts wars. Revolution works through compulsion: laws, shame, ridicule, ostracization, and even violence. Legislation is a revolutionary methodology, but so is cancel culture. Revolution can change a person’s behaviors, but it cannot change their values. Because it cannot change values, it cannot change culture. George Floyd isn’t dead because it was legal for police to kill black men; George Floyd is dead because police officers obeyed their culture before obeying their laws. Such is the power of culture and the limit of revolution.
Our reliance on revolution is why we keep repeating the same pattern of majority-complacence, followed by instigatory white-on-POC-violence, followed by reactive protests/violence, followed by issue-fatigue and complacence again. Revolution regulates the external, but racism springs internal. I’m asking you, as my ally, to break the cycle of complacency and violence by changing your culture in a radical way. I’m asking you to help redeem a racist.
I don’t need your white privilege in the Capitol Rotunda or in an op-ed. I have my own voice. I have and will continue to advocate for myself and my fellow POC, just as I am now.
Rather, I need you at the dinner table, in the Sunday book club, on the ninth green, or in the bowling alley on league night: I need you to be present in places I can’t get into—in the places where racists feel safe to be racist.
Don’t get up in their faces. Don’t expose them on social media. That kind of revolutionary stunting only results in covert racism: that’s how POC get stabbed in the back instead of the face. If whites abandon “racists” to their own means and contexts, the only means and contexts these “racists” will have to fall back on will be the ones that made them racist in the first place.
The next time “racist” Uncle Walt talks about building a wall to keep brown people out of the country, next time Aunt Margie warns you to stay out of Chinese restaurants because you might catch “Kung Flu,” it’s OK if you are too shocked to confront them in the moment. I trust that your momentary silence will not become permanent. I trust you to prayerfully follow up with Uncle Walt and Aunt Margie. And when you do, I trust you to exercise a model of redemption, rather than revolution. I am not asking you to validate racism; I am asking you to not abandon your own people to the label of “racist.” You’ll know you’re ready to start when you can see them as genuine humans, not diseases or monsters.
I am asking you to listen to Uncle Walt about his time in the Army, over a beer or a coke. I am asking you to sit with Aunt Margie and let her tell you about what it was like to grow up without two nickels to rub together. You don’t have to respect their conclusions, but if you want to inspire them to change, you have to understand how they got to where they are.
Once you know their story, you can start showing them a different story: your story. Ask them about their assumptions regarding POC, then search for and diffuse the fears that underpin those assumptions. You might even be the one person in the whole world who doesn’t label them a “racist” and shut them out. You might be the only person they can turn to.
If Uncle Walt and Aunt Margie can change, they will do so not because they care about me, or any POC, but because you earned their respect and they care about you.
Paolo Freire writes that the oppressed can never liberate themselves: they can only liberate the oppressor and thus find liberation for all.2 The oppressed are trapped by the oppressor, but the oppressor is trapped by the oppressor’s own fears of the oppressed. Only liberating the oppressor from those fears liberates both oppressor and oppressed. Because revolution only works externally, and fear is an internal condition, revolution cannot extinguish fear. But redemption can.
Not everyone can be redeemed. Sometimes those in power need to be removed. But the end of power can sometimes be the beginning of redemption: if at all possible, don’t let the end of power be the end of relationship.
I will admit that redemption takes time. I will even acknowledge that POC will die today because yesterday’s white complacency signs the death warrants for today’s people of color. But I, as a POC, don’t have anything to lose by encouraging you to liberate racists among your own people, starting today. If your compassion can inspire your own people to care about POC, then our collective tomorrow does not have to be a place that is culturally complacent to the unjust suffering of POC.
You don’t have to stand next to me to stand with me. We each have our own gifts, approaches, and experiences. Our hearts inform our approach, but our privilege determines our access. I’m asking you to love your enemy by using your heart compassionately, and your privilege responsibly to see your local racist as a fellow human being worthy of redemption.
With trust in you, and hope for our future together,
1. POC: People/person of color.
2. Paolo Freire, Pedagogia do Oprimido (1968), trans. by Myra Ramos as Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970).