#metoo

I cheered when Diana Prince climbed the trench ladder and walked onto the battlefield. Incoming bullets smashed her steel wrist-plates and flew apart as her arms raised to meet them, and in that moment I think a lot of women felt a jolt of validation as we watched her charge forth across No Man’s Land.

Only a week later, I was walking along a sidewalk in West Harlem to pick up dinner, glancing at my phone here and there to check if I was going the right way (my friends know my sense of direction is…severely limited), and then my eyes flicked back up, catching something before my mind could compute it. Then it registered that my path forward had just narrowed. My eyes traced the lines of men framing both sides of the walkway, lounging, chatting, eating, and already I felt my heartbeat accelerate.

The space in the middle seemed to constrict, forming a tighter and tighter V, and I had seconds to make a choice. I could weave around to cross the street and keep going from there. I’d done that in the past where I just didn’t feel like dealing with it. This time I steeled myself, trapped in my stuttered breath and tried to keep my pace even–and I walked forward.

My gaze fixed on the corner bodega on the other side, and I tried to focus on anything, anything but the weight of eyes sliding over my body and the words already forming in the mouths of those who would judge it.

Hey sweetie. Lookin’ good. Sexy. Hey honey. Nice ass. Nice. Nice. 

Worse were the appraising nods I could sense but not see, but the corner was approaching and I was almost there, almost there–THERE! It was over. I made it. I let myself exhale but stayed vigilant, my eyes already on another group of men two blocks ahead.

I wonder now if No Man’s Land only exists in wars and myths because from what I could see as I navigated the sidewalks in NYC, everywhere is All Man’s Land.

What I don’t think a lot of men realize is that their bodies take up space in this land differently than my woman’s body does. Anyone can be a victim of crime on the street, anyone can be harassed, but when my body, presented as woman, walks through New York City, the space then made available to me targets its vulnerability–my vulnerability. That vulnerability is intensified by my identity as a woman of color because now I have this idea of the “exotic” attached to my body as well, a label that gives others license to define my sexuality and take advantage of it. This reminds me that more times than not, I will need to be hyper-conscious of the way I move through spaces dominated by men and prepare myself for all the ways it can go wrong.

I learned as a brown girl in a predominately white middle school that even in spaces where the gender demographics seem pretty equal, things can go wrong. I learned this when a white boy reached out his hand to grab my butt, smacked it, laughed, and then sauntered off through the hallway because he had nothing to be ashamed of. I stood still, mind blank, not sure of what to think or feel, not even later when I told the vice principal and she fluttered about me in distress, trying to get to the bottom of it. They never found him.

They never find a lot of them–the men who hurt my sisters, the ones who harass them, assault them, linger in the memories they try to forget, the ones who expose the grim reality that the space we take up is often less valued because the anxiety and pain that comes with it goes unacknowledged and unaddressed. I can only speak for myself and what I’ve seen and experienced, but I know of the stories of deep pain that were not trusted to be legitimate. I know of stories where my sisters did not know comfort, did not know justice. We all do. They may take up the space of a news byline for a day, but that is not enough. It never is.

I believe we have been created in God’s image and cherished as such, and I am disturbed when the dignity of that is threatened. We should not be in a land where I am used to having my body inspected and commented on by men, where I am expected to respond to their “praise” with smiles because I’ll be seen as ungrateful or rude if I don’t. We should not be in a land where the weight of this expectation compresses our space, inhibits us from moving fully within the freedom God intended us for.

And this space isn’t always physical. You only need to look at the way we talk about women in the media because apparently if we talk frankly about these things we’re framed as crazy, emotional, bossy, demanding liars in the workplace and in the home who want too much and hate men. I’m not even going to dignify the latter with more words than it deserves.

To present as woman involves this unspoken demand by society to tuck yourself in and resign yourself to the space allotted to you. I am to accept the space between the walls of catcalled words and reaching hands and should not expect or ask for more. I should not expect to take up more space in a conversation with a group of men without being interrupted or questioned. I should not expect to challenge attitudes that feed into rape culture and win.

I am expected to fear nights (and days) walking alone and carrying pepper spray and my mother’s stories.

But the God I serve did not design me to settle for fists clenched in fear, eyes averted, and a mouth clamped closed. I was born into a minefield with a desperate need for #metoo, but I’ve been liberated by Christ to be a conqueror, wondrous and woman all at once.

Charge into this truth together. There is much to conquer, and we need each other.

storm progression 

I saw a spider once. I was 14, absently pushing the lawnmower forward across my front yard, and then I froze. A web hung only inches from my face, suspended between the spiked branches of a fir tree. And there it was–the spider. The size of a glass bead, it watched me with a dozen black eyes that dared me to step closer.

Pincers whirling as they wrapped the mummified remains of a now-silent mosquito, the spider showed no awkwardness as its legs flit along its geometric net. The strands caught the dim afternoon light and became silver, and in that moment I forgot ever learning that only giants-the big and strong-deserve mention. Here was a tiny spider holding court on a kingdom of thread, and its every movement resonated as a defiance of gravity.

It probably felt the drops before I did. They began in whispers, falling through the fog that thickened the air, making every breath more labored than before. A drop fell here and there, dampening my jeans in spotted patterns.

It lay in wait for several seconds. Then the rain pounced, bulleting my skin, water dragging my hair down in tangled wet ropes. I fought to keep my head up as the rain roared, the threat of thunder bristling within now glowering clouds. No light remained, and still I stood there, hovering over the spider.

Legs only flickers in the gloom, the spider darted in circles, spinning defenses into every line that tied the web to the tree. But there was no way to evade the drops, no way to diminish their weight, and with another roar the wind soon joined them. The web swung and shook as the wind hammered it, and through the slit of my eyes still open, I saw the spider center itself in the web and go still. The clouds sagged further and unloaded their wet wreckage upon us, muffling a teenager’s prayers for a spider’s survival.

I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe I returned to the warmth of my house and wrung out my wet clothes. Maybe I stayed longer. But I remember the spell of watching the spider, palms slick and grasped together as I waited in the dark to see if it would hold on.

A childhood of Animal Planet documentaries taught me that the world is treacherous. A sudden surge of rain can rip a creature’s home apart, ending lives in an instant. But pain, tragedy, can also be an insidious slow crawl. It starts with whispered hints of wetness, innocuous, soft, cleansing. Then it builds and builds, saturating the earth until it’s drowning and choking the air until finally all you see are walls of water crashing around you. And sometimes…it’s both at once. Sometimes it depends on who is the spider and who is the one watching.

That is how oppression works. It’s not one incident, one blatant display of violence. It’s in the murmurings about “those people,” the slipping away of black people from neighborhoods they once lived in for decades, the slow encroachment of hotels and chain restaurants on indigenous land. It’s in the measured accumulation of choices that prioritize the interests and livelihoods of the chosen groups over the less favored.

This is the hardest part for the privileged to grasp: the rain that parches their thirst and feeds their fields can be the threat of drowning for a spider.

Certain storms pass (hey we don’t have segregated bathrooms anymore!), but the additional danger rain presents is that it can oh so easily wipe away all the evidence of what happened before, giving us license to pretend that we don’t walk upon soiled ground.

We could pretend for years that we have progressed differently than we have, and that we have become all-enlightened in that span.

We have progressed. We have progressed from Mamies to the black nannys I see pushing strollers of white toddlers through Washington Square Park. We have progressed from plantations to prisons where black bodies outnumber white by a nearly 5 to 1 ratio. We have progressed from ni***rs to thugs as names to frame our undesirables. We have progressed from auction block sketches to our body parts partitioned and sold in the form of butt lifters and lip plumpers and tanning lotions. We have progressed from lynchings to black boys left bleeding out on streets because they still looked too threatening to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Rain is recycled, moving from pools and reservoirs to the well of mouths and then back to earth and returned to cloud. In a similar way, oppression (simply put: the unjust and often exploitative systematic treatment of a group of people for the benefit of another group) is recycled. It takes new forms, finds new ways to seep into the next generation, and it feels utterly normal…except to the ones who feel the wetness as a threat rather than a giver of life.

But here is where the analogy ends: unlike rain, the repetition of oppressive forces like racism is not natural. It is deeply unnatural as it is a distortion of the intimate community God designed us for. As a friend put it to me: It is “incompatible with the Gospel” many of consider our core truth, yet it is diffused into our everyday life because our world is imperfect. With each new history I learn, I realize how long and wearying this constant threat towards your personhood must be for the people who have lived to see the same patterns emerge in the next generation.

This is not to say that nothing has changed: I sit here typing as a black and Latina woman, educated with a Master’s degree, and I sit on buses with white neighbors and walk through the city most days after sundown. My sister is happily married to a white man who cherishes her; my brother is studying engineering. We are our ancestors’ great hope.

Yet this coexists with the reality that racism and its foundation in white supremacy very much persist in our country (and globally I might add). I may not fear sundown, but many with my skin color fear what will happen their children when hooded and playing after dark. I may have an advanced degree, but I have also been in schools in the South Bronx where too many black girls and boys sleep in a shelter or have a family member who is incarcerated. Interracial marriage is embraced far more easily now, but my darker-skinned sisters are still not approached as equally beautiful, equally desirable, and not defined solely in terms of their strength and stoicism and sass.

As a member of communities in my country that face these struggles, standing through a storm means I hold two truths in tandem and in tension:

  • The first is that you stand on a home, the good things that have been crafted from the labors of those you came before you. They toiled for your benefit so you can live out their unrealized dreams, and opportunity is more available for you now than they could have ever imagined. There is hope wedded to that reality, that there is much for you to receive and then also so much more for you to give back so others can be lifted too.
  • The second is that you stand under threat from the same forces of division and loss and death that your ancestors faced. It can be demoralizing and so, so tiring to feel unsafe within your skin and feel like you are crying out for an end to the injustice and few people around you are listening or are willing to stand by you. Whether you stay quiet or scream out, seeing the evidence that your people have been positioned as less valued in your country is a very real and daily hurt.

But there is this: there is also progression when you are in motion as the rain falls. Despair paralyzes our movement-and how tempting it can be-but when you have hope tethered to a truth outside of yourself, you will not crash to the ground. I believe I have found that hope in Jesus Christ, and the only reason I can challenge what is evil and wrong in this world is because he loves me and cares about all those things too–and definitely more than I am capable of. 

Sometimes getting up each day with a prayer on your lips and your eyes open is an act of defiance. Sometimes watching the news, having a conversation with a friend, going to work the next day is an echo of resilience. Helplessness is an easy sinkhole when you are struck just how much pain is around you; I felt it many moments these past weeks as I watched the events in Charlottesville, in Texas unfold. It feels sometimes like I am doing the bare minimum by just waking up and mentioning these, but if the alternative is checking out entirely, then I choose to give what God enables me to give.

I want to end by affirming you, my sisters and brothers who are black, for weathering the storm–not because you are heroic or romantic or tragically noble, but because you are making choices each day to keep going.

I affirm you for choosing to get up each morning, even if you find yourself too heavy-hearted to walk out the door or too tired to watch the news again as you head to work.

I affirm you for teaching in schools where others might have have given up on the “bad kids” and fighting for those children.

I affirm you for building friendships outside of your race, for intentionally reaching out to build bridges even when it’s hard to share your stories or keep explaining how real racism is for you.

I affirm you for forgiving those who hurt you, even if they never understand why the impact of their actions looms larger than their individual selves.

I affirm you for creating hair products that embrace our God-given features and clothing that connects us to homelands we were taken from and homelands we migrated from.

I affirm you for studying our histories so you can shed light on what’s been hidden.

I affirm you for listening to your friends when they are depressed and angry–and for laughing with them and celebrating good times together.

I affirm you for challenging the powerful through your voices and essays and blog posts, for preaching resistance and lament and reconciliation to your communities when bitterness and separation would be so much more bearable.

I affirm you for hugging your kids and telling them they are precious.

I affirm you for cleaning our buildings and restaurants and parks and making at least a few spaces cleaner than what the world would abandon them to be.

I affirm you for staying on top of not only what’s in the world news, but also what’s happened down the street from you–for cherishing the local and making it matter.

I affirm you for celebrating the diversity of us, whether that be from the Caribbean or West and East Africa, or from distant parts of Europe and Asia, or a line of ancestors rooted in this very soil.

And I affirm you for resisting the rain and declaring: “This day it must end.” It may not stop with that charge, but neither will it dampen the ground where you take space and keep it dry.

 

fragile

I wrote these words two months ago, but the events of the past weeks in regards to Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles drew me to revisit them today and finally post this…

I take a seat at the diversity training the way I usually do: leaned forward and legs crossed. I nod at a few familiar faces (didn’t I see you at the last workshop?) and settle in for three hours of pair-shares, somber documentary clips, and a zoom through the social justice lexicon. I’m a race vet, fingers stained with ink and eyes hyper-vigilant.

The PowerPoint presentation flickers into being, and I enter the trenches of race education once more.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve attended trainings, seminars, workshops, conferences, and lectures about racism and oppression. It started in college when my brown-black self was still waking up to the words that began to build frameworks around my experiences, around the early moments that prickled because of some then-unknown source. The moments where I felt…off and didn’t understand why. I went to my first race talk on campus as a freshman, and suddenly those sensations took on names.

Microaggressions. Internalized racism. Whiteness. Assimilation.

Learning those words, saturating myself in my country’s history of racial discrimination held a quaint sort of tragedy: it liberated me from the belief that the summary of my past experiences amounted to little more than paranoia. It also clamped hard on my heart when I realized that I have always been an alienated body. Few people named the reality for me, so until that moment in the college auditorium when other students shared their stories, the moments of feeling inferior fell through my fingers–unacknowledged.

I know now there are no stages of grief. There are also no stages for waking up and realizing how black you are. Words were given to me that clarified colors once blurred, so I understood why being the only brown girl in my elementary school class made me self-conscious in crowds, why being praised as “exotic” by strangers raised this gilded fence around my self-image so I was approached as special but also less than normal. Why I lied when my cool Latina classmate in middle school mocked me for getting straight As, and I told her I got a C because only the white kids flaunted their high grades and honors classes. Why my fingers twitched when my white friends reached to twist their fingers in my hair. Why I divided myself into percentages when asked the question triggered by my skin: What are you? 

Why I carry the memory of Amadou Diallo’s face years after I saw his story play out on the news when I was a 7. He haunts me still.

Once I had words, sieves to contain and interpret these feelings, these experiences, I craved more. For so long I felt denied from experiencing the weight of all this, these sins done against the communities tied to me by shared story and shared blood. Now I wanted to know all our stories and hear them affirmed again and again and again so the fire ignited in me would never dare die.

But knowing is one thing. Dealing with the cost of that knowledge, the hows and whys of your people’s suffering is another. And in my stubborn, self-righteous heart, I thought that all the interracial dialogues and real-talk had armed me for it, trained me to process my past quickly so I could march to the next battlefield. I tried not to look back, convinced that what lay there couldn’t help me. So I bound past hurts to my chest, reined in my tears, and made smiles my armor.

Then I attended what I thought would just be another diversity training, and we read the article Why I Am An Angry Black Woman by Dominique Matti out loud. These words struck me:

Because when I got married people assumed I was pregnant. Because people who know I’m married call my husband my “baby daddy.” Because my pregnancy with my son was plagued with videos of black lives being taken in cold blood. Because their murderers still walk the streets. Because the nation sent me a message that my son’s life didn’t matter. Because when Tamir Rice was murdered I curled up on the bed and sobbed, cupping my belly. Because my son heard me sobbing from the inside. Because they don’t care about us. Because when I was 7 months pregnant my neighbor asked me to help him move a dresser up a flight of stairs. Because I am not seen as a woman. Because I am not allowed to be fragile.

The moment teetered, held still for a quiet, pregnant moment, and then I dropped away into a crashing wave of everything because that’s what I felt–everything. Every childhood slight crystallized, every silencing word made louder, every murder seen, every spot of color lonely and lost in a pale world–I felt it all. Salient identity in that moment? black, black, BLACK.

The staff and students in the room kept talking, their voices passing over me like distant breezes, but I was untouched. My fingers fisted into the folds of my dress and I tugged hard on my tears, ramming them back inside that pit where Black Girls’ neglected feelings pool.

I am never prepared for those moments where it hits me all over again that I, me, not just a person on the news or in a class lecture, hurt at the hands of Racism. Not as much as others, a voice whispers, and in many ways, that is true. There is so much suffering I have never known. But as a friend reminded me, “Pain is pain,” and when the cobbled walls of a well of pain is pricked enough, with a crack it opens and all that grief floods out.

It’s not even all my pain–it’s the weight of wrong done against people who are treated with suspicion, doubt, and dismissal in my country. It’s seeing it in the news everyday, seeing our government cast blame onto black people, immigrant people, my people while simultaneously neglecting to hear their cries for justice. It’s seeing the polite apathy in too many churches because “our” issues are too political and divisive rather than daily realities.

And yet…when I leave the training shaking, it’s not because of these huge overarching issues. It’s all there in some amorphous sea of grief inside me, but in that moment, I cry for myself. I rarely cry for the little exotic brown girl and the preteen mixed kid who called herself a mutt and the anxious college student on the margins of too many places and the adult woman more comfortable discussing other people’s racial pain from an informed distance than acknowledging her own.

I don’t feel my feet as I cross over pavement because I’m pouring out, every emotion vivid in orange and red–like the dots smarting in your eyes when you look straight at the sun. It’s all there, inescapable because my walls have collapsed. I don’t even care enough that people on the sidewalk can see my tears–I don’t care.

Every thought swells to the surface, unfiltered, and I cry for myself at last.

I am fragile then, whispery cracks webbed across my body so even as I catch my breath and return to work and the day ends, I feel that any slight pressure, a glance, a brush of compassion, will undo me again. I find myself yearning to talk to someone and resisting the urge because I’m afraid that I’ll pour myself through and drown someone else. I have no energy to prop my walls; I want a cocoon where no headlines exist to catalog black tragedies.

What happens to black and brown girls when we stop being strong like the world tells us to be? 

I pray that God finds them like he finds me again and again, stumbling on blurry sidewalks, huddling silently on kitchen floors, hugging my pillow under the covers of hushed dark in my room. I have only feeble begging on my lips, but he finds me in that place where the world is too heavy for me and I have no way of handling it.

He calls me hija, quelinda, beloved one as I curl inwards, trembling from the memories he watched unfold.

I don’t ask him for the strength to fix myself and the world and feel better. I sit in my shuddering fragility and ask for Him. There is nothing there but his black and brown daughter, asking for permission not to be strong.

He says yes, and the soft silence that follows trundles me as I pour out into his waiting arms.

 

being ethnic: part I

What are you?

Human–unless aliens a la Star Trek secretly inhabit my body (sometimes I do wonder…). I also happen to be, as you see, brown of skin with curls that I am currently avoiding the impulse to drag my fingers through. I am also a loquacious nerd with an affinity for Thai curry, but somehow I don’t think that is the answer you’re looking for.

It’s an innocent enough question, one I’ve answered from age 7 onwards (basically once I had a firm grasp of reasoning and language). You’d think it would be the most innocuous getting-to-know-youism, the kind of thing that crops up in Censuses, countless work applications, and most civil conversations. And when someone poses the question, offhand, eyes eager, my responses have ranged wildly from a practiced statistical breakdown of my family genealogy to a shrugged “Mutt.”

Now I wonder if I ever owed anybody but myself the answer.

Why am I approached with this question a disproportionate number of times compared to my white friends–even some of my black and Asian-identifying friends?

Welcome to the world of the Ambiguously Brown.

There are no borders in this land, only a blurred ombre of colors shifting on their spectrum. If you reach the places where they turn opaque, you may be granted exit. But know this: this realm welcomes more people than it allows to leave, and the ticket for entry is easy to come by.

Tan/olive/light brown skin. Check.

Curly, wavy or undefinable hair texture. Check.

Eyes slanted a few degrees or more. Requires review. Additional mark if the eyes are an unusual color. 

Seeming mismatch of lips, jaw, nose, and brow. Check.

The first surveying question relegates me to Ambiguity, the Indiscernible because at first glance, I cannot be figured out (why do I need to be?). Other mixed people can easily spot me–we tend to recognize our own- but with people still unused to the reality that humans take form in millions of permutations, my body amounts to a question mark.

What are you? functions as a hypothesis, and my answer will either corroborate their theories or result in further confusion if my answer fails to fall neatly into packed categories.

I danced with a older guy a few months ago in a crowded Midtown studio, trying to follow his swiveling salsa steps when he suddenly leaned towards my ear and whispered, “So what are you mami?” Words bursting out before my mind even wrapped around the question, I said: “Dominican on my mother’s side and Black with some Chinese on my dad’s side.” His smile was instantaneous, and if his hand was not gripping mine in that moment, I was sure that he would have pointed a finger at me in triumph. “I knew it!” he crowed. “I knew there had to be something else mixed in you.”

Congratulations. You have solved my genetic puzzle.

I wish I could count on two hands how many times I’ve smiled indulgently when another person has “figured me out,” but I can’t. My features present an enigma to people who are not familiar with the combinations they can make, and there is a sense of vindication when they can confirm that I am beautiful, I am exceptional simply because I’m not “just black” or just any one thing. My face is a solvable equation, elements to be discerned and separated out.

It’s not even as if What are you? is some terrible question. It can arise out of honest curiosity, a desire to know me better, to understand, but it is all too often married to the assumption that I don’t present as something easily categorizable. The subtext of the question makes my skin prickle. In that moment, I am made aware of my deviation from some unspoken norm when a few seconds ago, I was just Joanna. Rather than representing a cause for celebration, the multiplicity in my identity contrives distance between me and my ethnic communities because I am framed in a way that sets me apart from them. I am congratulated for transcending them (see: colorism), for ascending to an aspirational plane when all I want is to be normalized (see: not exotic). I am not White, yet neither do I belong fully and wholly to another category; I am in limbo.

Those of mixed heritage or of backgrounds not conventionally realized within American spaces (I think of my friends who are Arab, Indigenous, Latinx of all shades, Mediterranean, Pacific Islander) encounter this challenge to their identity because our features render us indissoluble. Once you are known, people can access your self-hood, compute your stories and locate them within their preset schemas. When your features defy easy definition, you remain a mystery, a beautiful, uncomfortable mystery that designates your status as a Passer.

There is a reason Latinx actors have played characters from every race. Even JLo has been Italian, Mediterranean, and even, on occasion, Latina on the big screen. Those who can pass for multiple backgrounds present an opportunity for society because they can be plugged in when needed, versatile tools activated when the situation calls for it. Blended into backgrounds with ease, manipulated to fit a variety of narratives, our bodies cease to become our own. Can you belong to yourself when so many others claim you for their use?

There is power in passing–I acknowledge that. A connection is forged by the bridge of my brown arms, and I am received into communities I do not even belong to by blood. I am, strangely enough, the embodiment of Paul’s assertion to be “all things to all people.” Outside of American borders, I may even enter lands with less suspicion because brown equates to safety, alludes to the comfort of kin rather than the fear of pale imperialist conquerors. My sister visited India last summer and passed through the borders and into open arms. The residents could hardly believe her when she told them that she was not, in fact, Indian. They clothed her and fed her as one of their own anyway.

Our ambiguity can draw others to us, allow for communion amidst perceived similarity.

But with passing also comes a strain of loneliness in being the New World, an entity and category unto yourself. Strangers may exult in discovering in you what you have always known to be the everyday and banal. Those of us indigenous to this mode of existence have crafted new ways to name ourselves, be they Afro-Latina, Blasian, or Desi. Some may deride this action as pandering to identity politics; I call it valuing the diversity woven into our stories, our skin by generating more lenses through which to interpret them. We give breath to our realities and resist the gazes that cast them as perpetually foreign and novelty. 

A recognition of fluidity is vital in this endeavor since, “We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience,” as Michael Ondaatje asserts in The English Patient. I am American. I am Black. I am Afro-Latina. I am multi-ethnic. I am descended from that vast continent called Asia and that dear, distant motherland called Africa. The heartbeat of each identity becomes pronounced, drums louder depending on what space I inhabit and whose company I am in.

Inside the walls of the places I call home, all these things thrum inside my veins simultaneously. There is no division there, no fractions concerning my grandparents and great-grandparents to work out. Then I step out my door and board the 1 train to downtown Manhattan, watching the mosaic of faces around me shift colors, and somewhere along the rail, amidst the shaking and rattling through neighborhoods, I become Ambiguously Brown. I become what the Seventeen magazines I used to read as a teen call “ethnic.” I feel then the weight of others’ gazes, cemented from over two decades of probing questions. Though devoid of green skin and Klingon brow ridges and spiked antennae, I become alien–again.

 

the sisyphus prayer

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”  Albert Camus

Last night I committed an act of resistance: I allowed myself to feel.

When the hashtags announcing the death of another person of color cease as a trend and become a weekly inevitability, numbness feels like less of a choice and more of a mode of survival. I keep scrolling through my Facebook dash. I avert my eyes from the TV screen. I quiet the clamor of the world with headphones and absorb myself in little happenings that don’t cause my heart to crack.

Then the guilt creeps in. There are others marching, calling government offices, writing, speaking, weeping. This knowledge clings to the edges of my consciousness, much as I resist it at work, at home. The questions persist: Is my silence just another tether for injustice to continue, unchallenged? Should I be doing something? What does it mean that my eyes are dry? 

You’d think that as a social worker, I would understand how trauma works. You’d think I’d be able to point out the symptoms of heartache, the comfort found in desensitizing yourself to it, the body’s reflexes in warding off pain once it threatens to engulf you. Yet it wasn’t until last night when I read the story of Jayson Negron, a 15-year-old boy recently shot and killed by a police officer in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that I realized just how much the constant exposure to racial violence shapes my daily walk in the world.

Under the label of racial violence, I file the black and Latinx persons wrongfully incarcerated, the black sisters and brothers murdered because their bodies are threatening. I catalogue the black kids sent home for having wild hair and tackled for acting out and “being bad.” I index the times a black woman has been exoticized and silenced and dismissed for being too angry. I codify the times a black man has softened the serrations of his anger to navigate the workplace and move up and out. I trace the long line of comments on social media that blame people of color for causing more division and being racist against white people. I find the gaps between files where we are missing; we are too few in the police force, the Senate seats, the boss chairs.

I archive slavery and Jim Crow and urban poverty as well as imperialism and Operation Wetback and xenophobic-ridden ICE raids. Being multi-ethnic means you face oppression on multiple sides.

The sheer amount of data pointing to the existence of racism in my country filters through every outlet connected to my day-to-day life. Maybe once I would have missed it, but now that I am waking to it, I see the shades of it everywhere. It’s a second loss of innocence that many people of color experience at a much earlier age, this realization that the society you were born into was not structured for your flourishing. Hard work and individual effort aside, a black person can do all the “right” things and still end up dead on the street for simply being black. That is the privilege we lack.

I don’t even sense my mind hammering in walls for itself when I’m bombarded by the evidence of this marginalization. I waver between feeling too much and feeling nothing, yet I still blame myself for not fighting back enough. I resist calling myself a victim because I feel like I haven’t lost much–I’m a lighter-skinned, educated woman from an upper-middle class background. Then another police killing happens, and I’m back to figuring out why my gut is twisting inside me.

There is a psychological and spiritual cost in being exposed to examples of racism around you. I use the passive verb “being” intentionally because I do not always choose to hear about these stories–they are often thrown at me and then I have to fly or fight. Even if I don’t experience the situations personally, the racial subtext reinforces the danger, the vulnerability my blackness carries. And because the roots of this positionality are entrenched in histories white people can choose to gloss over or dilute, there is the very great possibility that if I voice my frustration and grief, I will encounter silence rather than open arms.

The Church does not speak to this type of collective trauma enough, and that neglect produces spiritual communities unequipped to comfort and ally with Christians of color as they wrestle with racial suffering. It’s telling that I’m conditioned to react in at least one of three ways when dealing with my own pain in the area of race:

  • Ignore it until it explodes.
  • Talk to other black people. Rant/cry with them.
  • Cry alone and pray.

The last two responses are not bad–in fact, sometimes I just need to commune in a space with other black people and let myself unravel. I also need the spaces where it’s just me and God wrestling through the unexplainables. I have found so much peace in dropping my guard and releasing my pain to Christ because I know He can handle my rage and my questions.

Yet my wounds still ache anew when I see responses from white churches in America and they are cold–or worse, a kindly sort of acquiescence. The temptation to contain my grief, wall it away, sharpens. If racism engineers such tepid responses, how can the institutions that perpetuate it ever crumble when the people whose ancestors built them don’t know or don’t care?

I could also try not to care–I might even find happiness through it. Why exert so much effort to build bridges when it feels like they’re going nowhere? Every life lost feels like censure.

This is where the Gospel flares into life: in the frail smallness of my life against the vast backdrop of racial pain, Jesus is indomitable. Through Him, I have inherited the spirit of a conqueror rather than a slave to history. And He is redeeming all things and wants me to participate in his work. Scripture reminds me that it is injustice, racism that faces a Long Defeat–not me.

I have nothing to prove, no one to please but Him. He frees me from the self-consciousness that shames my tears, and He meets me in midst of racial trauma. My heart learns to be pliant rather than hard, and leaning on Him, crumpling there in His arms with more questions than answers, I re-learn to feel.

So I curled into my pillow last night, and I wept. I cried for Jayson–and for the other black boys and girls lost this year. I thought of my brother, a black boy who just entered college, and I allowed my fear for him to spill out, pooling into the thick summer night. He’s in danger God. Protect him. Please protect him, I pleaded. I don’t want anything to happen to him. I ranted to God about how helpless I feel sometimes, how much I wish all white people could just understand, how guilty I feel inside the walls of academia when there is so much suffering outside them.

I stopped censoring myself in that moment, stopped pretending the pain wasn’t there, and my guards dropped away, leaving me more vulnerable but also more human than I had allowed myself to be. My defense mechanisms may help me keep it together, but they also resign me to a life dependent on my own capacity to process pain. I am called instead to submit all I am to God, whose capacity is limitless.

In the everyday, it means I am in constant contact with Him through prayer, through silence. It means I am wrestling with the pain and letting that process inform how I engage with people. Sometimes it’s too raw and I need to retreat, but I will not build more walls to defend myself. Trusting God to be my shield is uncomfortably counter-intuitive but also desperately needed. There is a way of being that exists apart from the roles of silent sufferer and hyper-vigilant martyr that black people are pressured to play.

I am sick of being strong. Black women are encouraged, praised to be strong. I seek instead the kind of equity that gives me access to vulnerability so I become more human, less of an object conditioned to resist battering. I want to taste more of the freedom rooted in God’s incredible love for me and inhabit that space where I am no longer resisting injustice alone–and I am not alone.

This is my daily rebellious exercise: When I feel the weight of my world like a rock, I pray its movement forward, inch by inch. My fingers may ache, my back grow sore, but I know this weight will not crush me. This is no futile strain. There are hands far stronger keeping me in place as I look past the rock to where the mountain peak waits.

This is endurance–not that I am strong, but rather that I am allowed weakness.

 

*Learn about Sisyphus here

 

 

to write and riot: one year later

Jordan Edwards is dead.

When I lift my fingers to type, they drum down on the keys with the weight of this–the names of the people Racism has stolen from my communities. They are not just headlines that will pass away; they are not just bodies behind bars. Yet I live in a country where non-White features designate people as Other and thus less valued–no matter how many exceptional people of color “make it out.” There is no “out.” We are all inextricably, unavoidably, in this, and the ripples of one boy’s death collide with each of our realities–even those too numbed to notice.

This is for those who hear me and stay.

I was recently startled into the realization that this blog is one-year old. God charged me during the Urbana ’16 conference to channel all the thoughts I wrestle with into something that could not only stretch my growth, but also potentially challenge and lift up others. This blog was born. I didn’t so much leap with faith as really tip over into a new realm where suddenly my words were pulled out of my head and heart and positioned on display for the world to see (whatever sliver of the world manages to find this blog).

Starting this blog was an exercise in anxiety. I’ve always shied away from public writing, even as I envied others who seem to share with such ease. I also didn’t believe I had anything groundbreaking to offer–not anything other social justice-oriented individuals had already shared (and far more eloquently). Yet God tugged at my feet, so I took a step forward into the unknown.

Rusty from a few years of wildly inconsistent writing habits that would provoke slow, somber head shakes from my former professors, I quarreled with a blank screen and an overload of ambition. I blundered (and still stumble) over the basic stepping stones: to whom to write (audience), what to write about (topic), and how to write about it (tone). Cognizant that I was writing about issues framed as controversial (cite: avoidable) in the Church, each typed word became fraught with tension.

The reality that I am a woman of color in her early 20s loomed over my fingers as they flexed, preparing for the Great White Portal to racial discourse. I sat before my computer (feeling) unequipped, inexperienced, and lonely in my racking desire to confront the racial pain burdening my heart and to help my communities somehow. Then the questions stampeded in, no pause to exhale:

What if I’m too angry?

What if I burn bridges?

What if I have nothing to say? 

What if everyone hates me?

What if I’m wrong? 

Dread wrapped in a tight, thick knot in my throat, I begged God to give me an out. Clearly I wasn’t shaped for this type of work.

A little over a year later, this blog remains (obviously). So what happened? A few realizations unfolded over time:

  • I don’t have to fix racism. It’s not on me to do this–I’m no Savior. I can speak to what I observe, what burdens me, what others have taught me, but I’m never engaging in this work of repentance and reconciliation alone, leading to…
  • I’m joining a conversation. I am one voice, carrying my stories and thoughts and struggles, and my voice matters, but I must recognize that I am entering into a space where I am engaging with past, present, and future threads. There are others I must listen to and learn from, other voices to reflect upon and voices to interact with as we untwist the problems of race and identity and community.
  • I’m human–own it. I am not perfect. Neither am I the ultimate authority on all things related to racial discourse. I can honestly admit that I’m stubborn and struggle with acknowledging my mistakes–I prefer to rationalize them as logical or excusable. I also have a ridiculous capacity for being judgmental, and that creates blinders that prevent me from seeing all sides and angles. I’ve been learning through this writing process how to take responsibility for my sin areas and make space for God to teach me differently. My writing will always reflect my imperfection and gaps in knowledge, but I am committed to deepening my comprehension, adjusting my vision, and growing outwards.
  • The pain is worth it. I’ve cried during and after writing a blog post. Some of them have excavated deep wounds I didn’t realize I still have; some shoved suffering into my face, leaving me adrift and unable to process it all. Some made me feel every single gram of my inadequacy, and I wanted to give up. But then I would get a message from someone who read a post, that it helped them in some way, and it was like God’s prodding to keep going. Words arose, quiet, steady: Keep going daughter. Face the storm. I am with you. So I went on.

I labor over this work–and it’s hard. I am constantly amazed by those of you who have been invested in this labor for years. I agonize over words, pray over them, gnaw my lip and wonder if I should soften the language or shift topics. God rarely responds yes. And even then, I don’t always obey, bending instead to the pressure to be polite rather than truthful.

I don’t (as of now) face incarceration or mortal danger for typed letters, but as the PEN World Voices Festival warned me yesterday, not everyone has that luxury. So I treasure the freedom that allows words of challenge to unfurl out of my being and press against the world in some needed way. I don’t feign the posture of a great Liberator or Artist as I write, but because there is an unfathomable well of pain to speak to, I have a purpose in trying.

Writing, talking about racism is a tangle of pain and hope. The pain rises and throbs as you point to the realities of discrimination, unjust economic systems, and the hidden heart issues that bleed out into our actions. I move through a labyrinth of thought and feeling, a pack of understandings sloped on my back because I realize that confronting racism involves the indictment of that which has been hidden away, held taut beneath the surface and ready to snap. It requires examining what it means to be White and where White comes from. It mandates wrestling what it means to be Black and diasporic. It provokes the questioning of how to locate yourself within a color binary never designed for you if you are Asian, Arab, Indigenous.

This is tense, uncompromising work. It will not make you feel good–in fact, it will disturb and offend you. Confronting ugliness repulses us–and it should. I do not ask God to remove this tension from my gut; it unsettles me into a state of action so I will not be complacent when the needs are so great. They are great, and they are relentless.

With the presence of so much unfettered ignorance and a vacuum of empathy, how can I possibly soothe the heartbreak that racism causes in my country? I can’t. Sometimes all I can do is loosen my tears and not forget the ones abused by it. And I do this: I write. I lift my small torch to shed light on the margins so those willing to draw near them can mourn with me and step through the night into what could await us beyond it. This is a shade of riot, that we repel the forces that would keep us static and demand the ushering of Heaven to Earth, opening our hands to receive it and hold on tight.

Our hearts hurt because we sense that racial division and injustice is not God’s intention for us. His movement, always and forever, is to bind us together with words, with the Word, into one family with no dividing wall.

Words matter, and they have power. Writing can be an act of activism, rebellion even, against that which mars human dignity and distorts the beauty of our relationships with one another. Words have founded revolutions, fractured families and repaired them, and so I handle them with care and submit them to God. I look for the ways in which He is using them already to weave our disparate stories together, and I ask to join Him in that industry.

Yet there can be little communion when one member’s hands are burned, nerves exhausted. To resurrect our fellowship with one another, we must look frankly upon the wrongs done to our peoples and examine them, repent of them. Lament brings us through this cycle of sorrow, weighing the gravity of the past and present and leading us to the One who reconciles all. We end in a small echo of the final paradise: in praise, in community.

So I end this with where I started: a declaration of riot. I feel feeble sometimes, too passive and hesitant to shake walls and topple towers. I walk into rooms with an apology on my tongue rather than a confrontation. But you, my readers, my friends, and my God, you have dared me to surrender fear and point to the world I yearn for and the change I am now willing to labor towards. So I leave you with this and hope to encourage you as you take hold of the calling God has given you and till the soil for a world better than what you were born into:

The Cross of Christ is the ultimate symbol of riot. Jesus’ sacrificial death momentarily shoved the world into a state of chaos as the sacred temple Veil was ripped, the ground itself rocked with tremors, and blood streamed from a beaten body and pooled at the feet of the terrified ones watching. All the cries of the abused, the violated, the oppressed, the lost, the unheard thundered above his bowed head. The darkness of a people estranged from God and enslaved to sin was broken by slashes of lightning that mimicked the aching stretch of his arms upon the wooden beam.

Hell emptied itself and Heaven touched Earth for the first time in centuries as the way to God’s throne was cleared at last, mediated by a soon resurrected Christ. He had thrown everything into violent, visceral upheaval, and we are still experiencing the vibrations.

The riot of the Cross challenges all that is disordered in our society and invites our participation in a holy commotion that will write a new draft above our stained histories. This draft is the Kingdom of Christ being ushered in now, though not yet in its final published form. In this draft, we are charged to disturb the status quo, remake the hierarchies of power,  demand justice for the marginalized, innovate new words to love and live with each other.

God writes the new draft of a Kingdom manifesto on a scroll of grace, unfurling to coil around each person with a binding embrace. This grace acknowledges our grievous wrongs and our depraved brokenness, both individual and systemic, but rather than charting an arc towards death, it writes us into new roles: redeemed rioters on Gospel terms. With renewed minds, we grow into our roles, stumble, and keep marching so that someday we will see the fullness of a radically altered world.

graceriot 2016

Riot on.

getting out: part II 

Would a white doctor be dragged through the aisle of an airplane for not leaving his seat?

I ask this question not only because it’s timely, but because I’ve asked this question for a hundred different scenarios:

Would a white woman be scolded in this situation, her feelings called paranoid?

Would a white man’s motives have been scrutinized here, his criminal record redlined?

Would a white woman have been protected in this situation?

Would a white man have been given the benefit of the doubt rather than shot?

I am used to seeing black men framed as hulking figures to be feared, the ones you can justify shooting out of fear. I am used to seeing Latinx persons depicted as threats, aliens you can rationalize criminalizing. I am used to seeing mugshots and unflattering photos of Asian, Arab, and indigenous peoples on the news more often than pictures of them smiling or holding their children.

These patterns of representation cannot be attributed solely to individual bias or even prejudiced media outlets. They point to an insidious reality that pervades both our individual and collective experiences: racism as sin. In my previous post, I shared how the personal and institutional dimensions of racism shape the anxieties of many people of color–and the responses of our white brothers and sisters. Racism estranges us from each other because its intent is to sow dissension, distrust, and displacement. It is a very real spiritual force that establishes strongholds around communities, nations so we no longer act as blood-tied brothers and sisters, but as distant relations merely inhabiting church sanctuaries and neighborhood blocks together.

I think of the implications of Easter and feel sadness. The Cross stands in opposition to anything that distances us from the Revelations mural of multi-ethnic, multinational, multilingual, multiracial family worshiping together and celebrating both what distinguishes us and what makes us belong to one another: Jesus’ death for our sins and his defeat of that very same Death. But not only physical death–no, Jesus put to death all things that bar us from the abundant life God designed us for. Racism spits on that vision of freedom and so it must die, and we must die to it.

Some argue that the Christian life should prioritize only personal salvation and avoid distractions like social justice issues that just cause more division and are only “of this world.” We can feed the poor, house the homeless like we ought to, but giving so much attention to “political” issues like race isn’t really as important or necessary on a large scale. Those called into racial reconciliation ministry can do that work, but the rest of us should focus on the spiritual essentials.

A pastor I heard recently responded to this strain of thought by stating: “We talk a lot about what salvation saves us from, but not enough what it saves us for.” He pointed out that while our choice to surrender to Jesus as our Savior saves us from eternal separation from God, it also ushers us into a new reality, a new way of living where we join Him in the restoration of all things. We are in the In-Between, the Here-and-Now, equipped to engage whatever infringes upon God’s coming Kingdom and cultivate cultures, institutions, relationships, and personal practices that reflect His shalom, His harmonious intention for our world.

Scripture draws us to that vision where we are positioned as ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21), people of renewed minds (Romans 12:2), and a community defined by love and sacrifice on behalf of others (Romans 12:9-15). Our salvation and the life that emerges after that choice should bear this kind of fruit if we are aligning with God’s work both within us and around us. This signifies that I have been saved for the kind of work that will contribute to reconciliation between estranged peoples, whether that be on the racial, economic, gender, national, or embodied axes.

So when I notice a consistent difference between how people of color and white people are treated in my country and the opportunities made available to them, I have been saved for confronting it. This doesn’t mean that each of us has to become Social Justice Warriors Inc. and devote ourselves to writing books and lectures on racial reconciliation; however, it does require us to expand our understanding of salvation to include the redemption of our communities and institutions.

We each have a unique combination of experiences, gifts, and relationships that God can use to contest areas of racial brokenness on these levels so we can become known as those people leading the charge in our promotion of just and loving ways of relating to each other rather than “those Christians” who lag behind secular activists already on the front lines. There are opportunities for fruitful partnership with those who also value the equal and dignified treatment of all people, and there are opportunities to represent the God who instructs us to care for the oppressed among us (Isaiah 1:16-17).

Movies like Get Out expose us to the racial brokenness that touches each of our lives–whether we acknowledge it or not. It’s not a black people issue for black people to deal with–it’s a sin issue we must bring before God, repent of, and seek ways of supporting those wounded from it. Relegating it to a controversial topic black people should work out is neither loving nor helpful in building the kind of unity I think we all want to see but rarely exert the sacrificial effort to make possible.

I’ve written many times about the exhaustion that creeps in when you feel like you have to market yourself as safe and consumable for white people who tiptoe around race because there’s a cost to wrestling with racial tensions and insecurities. There’s a cost to entering into the mess of it without the clinical distance sustained by TV screens and blog articles (yes, even this one). It’s a cost many people of color pay each day because we can’t necessarily afford to be detached. You can try to diminish how often you think about racism, try to rationalize it as not a big deal or not affecting you as badly as other people, but your body is always with you. You bring the race card into each space you’re in, not because you want to play the game, but because the world outlined the rules of it without your consent.

This anxiety and hyper-self-consciousness is not of God. They are symptomatic of a sinful world which capitalizes on the differences that, rather than celebrated, are cataloged and used to justify why one group of people should be feared, fenced out, or assimilated and another group should be normalized, standardized, and made neutral. If diversity is a reflection of God’s creative imperative and the fullness of the eternal kingdom to come, the discomfort I sometimes feel within my skin must grieve God.

Maybe you’re a person of color who has never felt this way–and if so, I’m glad for it. I’m glad that you have been welcomed, affirmed, and included in the spaces you have entered. But please don’t take that safety as the rule; it is unfortunately the exception. Don’t let your sense of comfort negate the racial pain other people of color have experienced–listen instead. I can only speak out of my own experience and others’ stories I have had the privilege to share, but the experience of being Othered is a common thread. I write about it in the hopes of resisting my impulse to pretend I’m fine when what I feel is a whole influx of complicated things simultaneously. I can be the Georgina of Get Out, calm and complacent even as tears fight to the surface, and I could be the Chris of the final movie arc-furious, desperate-all at once.

Get Out is a cautionary tale, a reminder that white spaces, whiteness exists and should be examined. But beyond that, it demands us to confront our racial wounds and acknowledge that those wounds are psychological, spiritual, and visceral in nature.

How do we get out this mess? And as the alternative…what are we supposed to be getting into?

So I help out with the kids ministry at my local church, and this Sunday the kids will be learning about how Jesus is our “bridge to God.” Many of us have seen the image of the cross laid horizontal, closing the breach between us and our Heavenly Father.

Image result for the cross as the bridge

Why am I bringing this up? I want us to think about bridges and their purpose. In simple terms, bridges allow what was once distant and separate to draw close. What was once separated doesn’t have to cross-they don’t even have to come that close-but the opportunity is ready and waiting.

The Cross Jesus died upon invites us to draw close to God, but unlike our tendency to hesitate, He doesn’t settle for a tiptoe. He wants to be intrinsic to our lives, part of everything we are and everything we do. He wants the kind of closeness where He can be present in and work through every painful and raw and riddled part of our daily experience as well as our past.

Intimacy is the antidote to distrust, to fear, because intimacy is the fruit of love, and there is no fear in love, not when God is at the foundation.  When you take the time to know me, when I allow myself to be known and have the courage to step closer to you, that fear dissipates. When we mutually surrender our interactions to Jesus, we are equipped to wrestle with strongholds that would otherwise threaten to distance us or incite doubt and resentment. Our communion will not resolve all racism or fix the bone-deep systemic issues, but us struggling together, crying together, learning together builds a resistance that can endure and erode those historic fortresses until they crumble.

If you’re aiming for the “feel-good,” flowery kind of intimacy, this isn’t it. This is the intimacy of the Cross: Blood. Grief. Confusion. Pain. Death. Love. We must get close:

Personally: We must take the time to listen to each other’s experiences without the defensiveness or fear that often freezes conversations about race before they have a change to delve deep. Instead, we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit so we can repent of the ways in which we have hurt each other (and may continue to hurt each other–we aren’t perfect!) and forgive what has been done against us. We have to be honest with our friends and neighbors as we build relationships with them, understanding as well that trust is bolstered over time and backed up by consistent actions of love and vulnerability. We each have baggage and scars in this area, and we approach each other with patience that can only be enabled by the One who redeems all things.

Communally: We must take responsibility for the racial sin marring our history as a Church and the sin rooted beneath our neighborhoods. We mourn this history and lay it before God, and we commit ourselves as a community to actively open up spaces for marginalized peoples to speak to us and lead us in efforts towards reconciliation and justice. We commit to engaging the racial tensions within our neighborhoods. We promote the ministries, services, and organizations building bridges through these tensions and we ask God for guidance in what our participation should look like as our love for the people in our proximity grows.

Institutionally: We must take ownership of the power we have been granted, whether that be through privilege of our skin color, our socioeconomic status, our gender, our able-bodiedness, our social connections, our citizenship. These privileges are ours to steward in a way that benefits those whom the laws and institutions of our land disenfranchise. We must demonstrate the willingness to consider what people value outside of our partisan camp and how that may either reflect the heart of Christ or contradict it. We should speak to those things in love, using our voice, our vote, our civic action to challenge injustice when it is exposed and call our leaders and representatives to be accountable to those whom they serve–especially the ones most vulnerable to neglect and oppression.

There are more ways we could draw close to the problem of racial sin, but I want to emphasize that engaging with it on one level isn’t enough because our faith is not restricted to one dimension. Our salvation didn’t just cover the personal–it had ramifications for ALL of these areas–it’s holistic. When Jesus conquered Death, he established a new path for humanity that culminates in the harmonious diversity depicted in Revelations. If that is what our salvation points to, our daily lives must point to that eternal reality as well. So we get out of the mindset that dealing with race is a side-project and we get into the toil of generating a culture here and now that reflects God’s ultimate design for us as a community.

There will be those who will not enter into this process, those who will scorn the grace extended and reject the efforts of those who seek understanding and reconciliation. They may halt conversations out of anxiety, anger, and defensiveness. They may continue to gravely hurt their sisters and brothers of color-as well as their allies-with their actions. I pray for them–the ones I can’t reach. I pray that God will soften their hearts and filter through any distortions in their vision so, someday, they can join me on this journey. Some may never take that step, but the Cross dares me to hope.

As a woman of color, I surrender my anxieties to God and ask that He enables me with the grace and courage to step across color lines and trust white people with my vulnerability and pain. It doesn’t mean I throw pearls before swine or pretend they have no power to hurt me,  but I am open to welcoming them into my struggles and my celebrations. I see the bridge and ask for the courage to cross.

For my white sisters and brothers, I challenge you to meet us (people of color) beyond the halfway point since we are usually the ones expected to stretch far to accommodate you. I invite you to suffer with us as much as you enjoy our cultures and our company. I am not just black, I am not just Latina, and I am not an object upon which to cast your pity or look to for absolution for any guilt or discomfort. Yet God decided to form me this way, knowing the labels that would be fixed to my body, and there is intention in that design. I ask you to take the whole of that rather than the parts you are comfortable with if we are to learn to step forward together into this redemptive work.

What do we do on a larger scale? Imagine if more white people talked about racism with their neighbors, whether that be in the Midwest, the South, or New York City. What if they introduced black voices to them so they wouldn’t seem so threatening? So they could listen? What if we led our nation in repentance for our racial sin and reclaimed our interconnectedness so all could flourish, and not one at the expense of another? What if more people of color were empowered by their church communities, supported by their family to process their wounds and equipped to transform nations in profound ways? What if all Christians were labeled “Social Justice Warriors,” and it was a compliment of the highest regard?

Intimacy is one step, not a whole solution. But it’s a pursuit, and it makes us more than strangers–it makes us family.

I am reminded of this every time I have a conversation with one of my friends who are white. They are never just White Friends. They are my sisters. They’ve seen me at my worst and loved me. We’ve argued and stumbled as we’ve unloaded our struggles with race and have been made better for it.

No friendship is ever without difficulty, and when you add race into the equation, it means a lot of arguments and apologies and explanations and renewed commitments to understand. But I love my friends and their willingness to take this road with me. It’s hard on them too, and they want to listen and help, and my heart cracks open to receive them.

A day after the presidential election, I dragged myself to the highest floor of the student center near me, fighting tears the entire time. Desperate to hear another human voice, I called my friend, a white woman from the Midwest. Phone creased into my ear, fingers trembling, I didn’t even know where to begin, but I started talking. Then I started crying. And it was like she was sitting there beside me on that lonely stairwell as I cried myself out. My heart was heavy from seeing the rise in hate crimes, sensing the division in my country, feeling like my peoples weren’t being listened to–and I felt alone in it. 

She cried with me. And as her voice shook, she told me: “I feel like they’re attacking you, and that hurts me. They’re attacking me too.” Her words are steel in my step. I have people in my life who not only see my pain, but also huddle with me because they recognize it as their pain too. They don’t know the loss I have-and neither have I walked in their shoes-but they tether themselves to the stakes I face personally because God has made it matter to them

And they don’t stop there–I have seen them defend me, advocate for me, and pray for me. They carry my stories and share them. They assess their own hearts and seek God in unlearning bias and expanding their vision. This has been a source of healing for me because my heart has been slammed too many times by the silences of my white brothers and sisters when it comes to addressing racism in my country. People are dying, people are crying out for acknowledgement, and when those cries litter the wind, unheard, it hurts. Yet in the silent stairwell, my friend on the other line, I saw another way.

Movies can show us the either/or side of racial conflict: evil white racists or victimized black people. They don’t always tell the stories of me and my white sisters on another scale entirely, three-layers deep and finding freedom together on the other side of the Cross. We need more of those stories. We need more of that God-enabled intimacy at work among us, healing our land and ourselves. 

 My sisters, white by nature of a society who scripted us in stark colors, stand with me. This is where I see salvation at work: We get in together, and we go deep.