Five First Steps toward Participating in Racial Healing

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How can white people respond to racial tensions and violence in a meaningful way? How can white people contribute to a collective work of racial healing without being overwhelmed or messing up in what we say and do? 

Racial Healing

It can feel overwhelming to try to address the long history and extensive contemporary complexity of racism and injustice in our nation. Even if you care deeply about these things, it is easy to feel powerless and helpless. It is easy to think you can’t make a difference, that you can’t contribute to racial healing, or that you’ll mess up and offend someone if you try. 

You cannot fix racism in America. You cannot understand the complexities and historical context overnight. You cannot learn all the “right” language. You cannot build relationships with people from a different cultural context quickly.

But there are small steps that you can take to understand the context of racist incidents. There are small steps you can take to understand your part in that context. There are small steps you can take to participate in making things better. And if we all take small steps, the collective work will transform our lives. 

Here are five steps towards understanding and healing:

1. Learn more

In January, I spoke alongside my friend Natasha Robinson, an African American Christian woman and author of A Sojourner’s Truth. We talked about the reality of racial divisions and the pain and suffering that so many black Americans have endured. At the end of our time together, someone asked Natasha what white people could do in the upcoming week to respond to this reality. She said, “Learn more.” She went on to detail what she meant: read books or watch films or listen to podcasts that help you understand not just the current news but the history and context it comes out of. In other words, don’t rush to action until you have taken the time to listen and learn. 

(For a list of places to start learning, see my free ebook Head, Heart, Hands and check out the end of the “use your head” section.)

2. Talk to your kids.

I used to think it was my responsibility to protect my kids from the tragedies and horrors of the news until they were “old enough” to understand. My friend Patricia Raybon (also an African American Christian woman and author of many books, including My First White Friend) challenged me to see my silence with our kids as complicity in the enduring pain of racism in our nation.

I wrote about the way my thinking progressed on these things in White Picket Fences (chapter 2 in particular). We now talk with our kids about race and racism regularly. This week, I sat each of our kids down and talked to them about George Floyd. I showed them pictures of him as a son, a church member and leader, a friend. I showed them a photo of him on the ground with a knee on his neck. We talked about why this happened and how it connects to other similar stories. We talked about why communities in cities across the nation responded with violence. Studies suggest that only six percent of white parents talk regularly with their kids about race, but the more we are willing to open up these conversations, the more they can ask questions and start to understand the dynamics at work

3. Celebrate leaders who are people of color.

Again, every day in this country offers an opportunity to talk about race, and not only in terms of systemic biases and acts of injustice. White parents can also follow the lead of black parents in celebrating the lives of people of color. Our kids have loved reading biographies of Harriet Tubman, watching films like Hidden Figures, and learning about figures like John Lewis

4. Speak up among friends.

If you’re at a family gathering or a cocktail party (or a socially-distanced bring-your-own-whatever) and someone makes a comment that denigrates (knowingly or not) a person of color, speak up. You don’t need to be confrontational. You can ask questions about why they think what they think or where they got their information. You can share a different perspective. 

5. Pray.

I’m amazed at how often I forget about prayer when it comes to taking meaningful action in the world, including racial healing. And yet I have seen the power of persisting in prayer. I have been humbled by the witness of Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s who lived out their enduring hope in the God of justice and love and who prayed even for their enemies. Alone, together, even when you don’t know what to say, especially when you don’t know what to do, pray. Pray for guidance. Pray for healing. Pray for connections with other people who want to pray. 

These are first steps on a lifelong journey towards a richer, deeper, fuller understanding of how we can celebrate our diverse identities as we embrace our common humanity.

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