Lamenting the Evil We Loved
Dear White People,
Maybe this will sound strange to you, but I think the time has come for us to collectively mourn the end of white supremacy, not because it was anything less than evil, but because it did do something for us and unless we can let that something go, we will never be able to work to dismantle it.
As a nation, we tend to suck at lamentation. Admitting to feelings of grief is only allowed under very narrowly defined circumstances. It’s OK right after the death of a loved one and for a limited, very limited, time afterward. We are expected to “get through it” on schedule. When grief shows up unexpectedly years later refusing to follow the path we prescribe for it, insisting on its own unpredictable rhythms, we do not make space for it and treat the mourner like there is something wrong with them for not getting over it “on time.” Similarly it is OK to publically lament acts of violence against “innocents” like children or “honors students” with as yet unsullied reputations but once we enter the murkier waters of life where less than perfect and/or unfairly demonized people harm other less than perfect and/or unfairly demonized people our sense of pain and outrage is pushed aside. We need that simple binary of “good” and “evil” in order to respond. The same works for warfare. If “our brave soldiers” die, we mourn them. When the “enemy” dies we do not. Those are the rules. Only when that which we all agree is good is destroyed by that which we all agree it evil do we permit ourselves to feel the pain of loss and admit to it. Even then, our public rituals of mourning are limited to the “right occasion.” Again, grief has to follow the rules.
Except it doesn’t. Grief is complicated. It happens when it happens. Time does not limit grief. Neither does appropriateness and, yes, people grieve over the loss of that which is evil just as much, if not more, than we grieve over the good because the awful truth is, we often benefit from evil and really don’t like for those benefits to end and, yes, we DO feel grief when they do. Ask any good psychologist about why it is that people have such a hard time giving up harmful behaviors. It’s because, as dysfunctional as these behaviors may be, people do get something out of them. Which brings me to the usual topic we talk about here – white supremacy.
Every time I post a “Dear White People” letter in which I suggest we, as white people, need to change in any way I get angry comments about how I must be “self hating” or how I am the “real racist” for suggesting that any of us are racist. It seems the worst thing a white person can say to another white person is “You are racist.” How dare I call you racist! How self loathing I must be to say that I am racist too! The beat goes on. It is utterly predictable (which means, dear reader, if you are about to send me such a comment please be aware that you are being predictable).
What is behind this outrage? I think it is a weird and lethal cocktail of shame and fear and grief. Deep down, underneath all the demonic systems of oppression and dehumanization that have become so normalized we don’t even see them, we still have enough humanity to know that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, lynching and everything that went into making it all seem OK – which frankly is a whole hell of a lot of “Christian” theology – is really, really, really wrong and deep down we ARE ashamed of ourselves and our race. But we dare not admit it because that is like saying we are bad people, that God must hate us, that we have no self worth. We can’t be “self loathing.” Heaven forbid. So we stuff all that shame into a box of denial and label it “stuff that happened many years ago that my ancestors had nothing to do with” and keep on stepping. Except we don’t. The shame is still there and we fear it will show up again, like when some smart ass preacher brings it up on her stupid blog.
We, as white people, particularly white Christians, have gone on like this for a very long time. As long as we were in the majority in our nation it sort of worked. But what happens now that we are headed toward an era where we are no longer going to be the numerical majority? What happens when brown skinned people start to outnumber us? What happens when, to make matters worse, brown faced immigrants who practice other religions like, oh say, Islam keep coming to our shores? Some of us seem to be dealing with this anxiety by voting to “make America great again” as if there was something truly great about our past which was lost and can now be found and saved, a time when white, Christian, Americans were the “good guys” providing a moral example to the world which, due to our goodness, we were destined to rule, a time when we could tell ourselves that our economic strength came from “hard work” not ill gotten gain, and when we were God’s chosen people. Of course that is a fiction, but it is a fond and beloved fiction that we did get something out of. We got to feel “great” and lots of us really long to feel “great again.” It is so tempting to want to build a really big wall around our “greatness” so that we can at least hold onto it a little while longer, so we don’t have to feel this encroaching sense of vulnerability that comes with change.
The problem is, our own scriptures warn us about this sense of “greatness” telling us that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1Co 1:27 NRS) The only greatness we can hope for is the greatness of shared vulnerability, of admitting to our foolishness, and a willingness to be weak just like everyone else. It is time to come down off our self made pedestal and join humanity. There is real hope in that. Shared, human, vulnerability leads to real love, the only true greatness there is. We can get there.
But first we must admit that we are grieving a real loss, which is hard because, while we may have rituals for lamenting the loss of something good, there are no rituals for lamenting the loss of an evil we liked. I am not even sure how we do this. I am just convinced that we must. Instead of dealing with our anxiety by building walls and embracing imperial “greatness” let’s deal with it by admitting we ARE anxious and we do grieve.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we derived a sense of specialness from white supremacy and we are sort of sad to see it go.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we really enjoyed it when whiteness was a synonym for goodness and it hurts to realize it is not.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we derived comfort from the idea that God’s love was tied up with white Christianity, the flag, and mom’s apple pie in a way that did not really apply to anyone else except our special selves.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we can’t even admit to how truly evil white supremacy was and is because we still gain from it.
Maybe if we can at least admit to how vulnerable we feel and lament the end of an evil we liked, we can finally begin to actually repent of it and be on the way to a whole other kind of true, and sustainable, greatness.