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

 

 

intersections

In relation to yesterday’s post, here and here are the other posts I’ve written about race-related stress and racial trauma. As an added caveat, I think it’s important to remember that the presence of trauma of any kind does not reduce a person’s situation to the oppressor/victim dichotomy our polarized society is so fond of. As I wrote yesterday, there are areas in which I maintain privilege (able-bodiedness, American citizenship, and college-educated status to name a few) that simultaneously interact with the social identities that may undermine my opportunities (i.e. being a woman of color). This intersectionality present in our stories reminds us that each of us has responsibilities to lift up those outside of the communities we either identify with or have been ascribed to.

My nation contains institutions and modes of interaction that do oppress me (examine definitions of “oppression” here), but I don’t view myself solely through the lens of victimhood. Those experiencing suffering directly related to any axis of identity have always had agency–they have never been voiceless. They are limited, yes, by political and social systems that position them with lesser power, but they are the experts of their struggles and the ones with the greatest capacity to guide others in demolishing that which weighs upon them. When you stand at the intersections, model the willingness to submit to the authority of those voices that speak to experiences you have never known. The call to action begins with the invitation to listen.

trauma-informed care

What should I expect from my white friends when I’m broken up about racism?

I mulled over this with a white woman from my church as we sat on a bus stop bench in Washington Heights, smells of the Cubano sandwich clasped in my hands curling into the cold air around us. Shock greeted me when I found myself opening up to her about topics I hadn’t even brought up with my close friends, and it revealed to me just how much I need to talk about this: race and my white friends.  For a few days, I had kept these questions to myself and saturated in articles and ranting, grieving Facebook posts. I found myself messaging and calling my black and Latino friends at every threshold point when I felt overwhelmed; desperate for affirmation that the well of pain I was sinking into was real, I needed the presence of people who just got it. If the well breached open in my heart was pouring out, I simply didn’t have enough buckets in hand to share out so white people could see and understand.

In many ways, I still don’t. People outside of the groups targeted by Trump’s campaign underestimate the breadth of hurt that those vulnerable communities are experiencing, and that the hurt issues from sources far deeper than this recent election. The tears, the protests–even the tongue-in-cheek black memes are symptoms rather than the crux of the matter. The election results tapped into a submerged current of grief and fear that has had little room to surface throughout our history as a nation.

It’s the current of 1492 and Standing Rock. It’s the current of slavery and sharecropping and sundown towns and mass incarceration. It’s the current of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps. It’s the current of the Mexican-American Wars and Operation Wetback. There have always been walls built to contain and maintain this legacy of suffering. The visible walls planned only mirror those closeted out of convenience.

Grief is not convenient. It doesn’t wait for you to catch up, nor does it fall into any timetable of denial, anger, and acceptance. I realize this as I sit in my office, that same tension churning in my gut, refusing to leave. I’m not the embodiment of the tragedy mask from Greek plays–it’s not like I’m tearing my shirt and weeping every few minutes (bring out the ashes!). I’m not a walking waterfall. But while I laugh, crack jokes, and work like any other day, the emotions and thoughts related to race spring forth in the most unexpected moments, often without any specific trigger. How do I articulate the kind of sorrow that isn’t tied to just one thing but ALL of it, all the horrors and unnameables like cuts bleeding together?

The hurt becomes personal and national when I acknowledge that I am not used to being prioritized. My pain has not been catalogued or considered in policies proposed, nor has my peoples’ suffering garnered consistent actions of solidarity that translate into more than sympathetic reblogged articles and safety pins. There are, of course, people pursuing other avenues of standing with their marginalized neighbors, and I am grateful for those allies; I remain mindful, though, of the lingering hesitation on the part of white allies to step closer to the messiness that is racial pain.

I don’t necessarily blame them. (I don’t really want to deal with it either). I think of the guilt that comes with the realization that your skin buys you safety. I think of the confusion and anxiety hinging conversations with friends of color, the fear of screwing up and being seen as racist. I think of the awkward silences where the “right” words won’t come when the world unravels again after another police shooting. The gap between white and black realities looms large, and if white people haven’t learned how to bridge it, stagnation results, despite the best intentions.

Frustration sets in as I navigate through my expectations of my white friends and whether those expectations are fair or not. When another race-related event turns up, I find myself waiting for them to reach out to me. I don’t need a full conversation or a therapy session with them–just a text asking if I’m okay. I find myself yearning for their acknowledgement that the racism underlying both the daily realities and big, mainstream-worthy headlines affects me in a different way. Then I have to inevitably sort through those thoughts and question if I’m really asking for their recognition of my hurt or for their permission to express it.

What I didn’t realize when I was younger is that interracial friendships require this kind of thinking process. There’s an additional layer of effort needed to foster mutual understanding and empathy. As much as I wish they could be, interracial friendships are not organic or easy because subtle power dynamics and unspoken assumptions weave into those interpersonal interactions. We still have to deal with white privilege in our friend-space. As a person of color, I wonder if I am conditioned to shield my white friends from the visceral way I experience race and reinforce their comfort level instead. Is it a matter of relegating my need for support in this area to secondary status or merely saving it for conversations with friends of color–people I don’t have to explain myself to? It might be both.

Talking about race with white people is draining. Real talk here, and I know my brothers and sisters of color may feel this. Pulling back my smile and explaining how this election is making me re-live the discomfort of being called “exotic” as a kid AND the self-consciousness of being one of 1-2 brown people in a classroom AND the rage at how many black people have been shot by police officers this year AND the anxiety I feel when white colleagues and friends rant about Trump when I’m sitting there on the verge of tears and not knowing how to respond…it’s hard to parse it out. There’s no one-conversation-wonder that can fix this, and I don’t expect my white friends to have all the answers.

I wonder sometimes about that anxiety I’ve heard some of them express about this–whether they fear that one more race crisis will tip me and I’ll finally be just done indulging the white stumbling into racial awareness. However, the problem often is that I love them so much that their absence in times of crisis, their unknowing silences sting. I can’t make considering friends of color during times of racial stress a reflex. I can’t connect the synapses in their brains so they realize: Oh, this horrible racially-charged thing happened. Maybe my black friend needs me. I could reach out and tell them what I need. I usually do. But sometimes I’m all stubborn, wounded will, and I don’t want to. I want to see them make the first move towards me. I’m wretched over wrongs they don’t have to consider daily by virtue of their skin color, and I don’t know how to open their eyes to see me. There are people I call home, but when I am too tired to knock, will they still welcome me in?

As an American community, as the Church, we need to take the trauma of race-related stress more seriously when people of color are hurting around us. It’s not enough to survey the body we are mourning and tell us to pray. It’s not enough to see us protesting and tell us to calm down and move forward. Each person experiences racial stress differently, and our reactions and needs vary. We challenge our white friends and allies to take the time to walk alongside us through the debris so your actions reflect your intentions to love us well.

So if my white friends want to shoulder this race pain with me, what next…?

This week, I attended a training centered on supporting people with disabilities, and it convicted me to educate myself about the privilege I hold as an able-bodied person. I don’t have to think about issues of dependency or transportation or the stigma of mental illness, but I need to exert effort beyond obligation to care for those who do. It’s more than”feeling bad” about other people’s oppression–it’s taking ownership of that oppression for yourself and acknowledging that being part of the pain also involves being part of the struggle to reconcile the brokenness with the vision of shalom, of a restored global community that Jesus offers us.

Pursuing the biblical discipline of caring for our neighbors, in this case, neighbors experiencing racial stress involves daily practice. A million articles exist on how to go about this, but here’s what I can share with my white friends:

  • Check-in with your friends of color and ask them what they need from you. Sometimes…it’s nothing in that moment, but ask anyway.
  • Make space. Sharing your friend’s pain doesn’t equate to you dominating conversations about it. Affirm my struggle without needing to rationalize it.
  • Stop trying to prove yourself. I don’t need to know how “not racist” you are. I love you. You can take responsibility for your thoughts and actions when I tell you they are hurtful without fretting that I’ll stop pursuing our friendship. We are not each other’s race-projects.
  • Educate yourself about my pain. You can’t rely only on my personal anecdotes to examine the systemic racism that compromises the welfare of my communities. Listen to others’ stories, read books, watch documentaries, think to podcasts from preachers with a different skin color than yours.
  • Explore the concept that expressions of racial pain are not a personal attack. There are times when I am angry and frustrated at white people because my communities of color are hurting as a consequence of their collective inaction or ignorance. You don’t need to distance yourself from “being white,” but instead I encourage you to explore the tensions you’re feeling when I say “white people” and why you’re feeling them.
  • Own Whiteness. It’s not about getting paralyzed by guilt over it, but rather understanding how the construct of it shapes our society and causes dissonance between our experiences. Continually re-evaluate your biases, your assumptions, your perceptions of people of color and their experiences, and update your knowledge base so you are equipped to engage with racial injustice and its impact on your loved ones.
  • Get messy. Racism is screwed up, and dismantling the institutions founded on it requires your participation. Go to a Black Lives Matter event. Protest with me. Call local representatives to challenge unjust policies. Defend me and people like me with your white friends and neighbors. Complicate their narrative and how they view my skin.

I can only speak from my experience, but I own my trauma and label it as such. I own that the racial brokenness in my country twists up my emotions, shades my daily life, and that the signs of this reality prod at that open wound. Sometimes it enrages me; sometimes I sprint into activism. Sometimes all I can do to cope with the hurt is laugh at Thanksgiving viral videos and toss banter at my little sister to normalize the ups and downs of it all (us Dominicans are good at that). Each day being black, being Latina will be different, and it’s a comfort to know I have a community around me that strives to affirm that.

I’ve been re-watching classic Star Trek episodes lately, and there is a phrase in the Vulcan language that resonates with me: Tushah nash-veh k’du. I grieve with thee. I feel the solemn weight of those words because they convey a sense of shared loss, a dwelling space centered on the pain and all the redemptive hope and exhausted heart wrapped up in it. In the moments when my emotional capacity to reach out to my white friends dwindles, I desire that space to unload my weariness without feeling pressured to BS it or rush to reassure them. I don’t need their attention to feel whole or even to cement my worth-God reminds me of that-but I want them, I want you (if you’re reading this) in this with me because it’s an inescapable part of my reality.

We want our white friends and allies to inform themselves on our racial trauma and seek resources beyond personal stories so they can also share what they learn to those white people we don’t reach. We still live in a world where their voices hold more credibility than ours in those spaces–and believe me, we will change that. But right now, I need my white friends to acknowledge what I’m experiencing as trauma, something complex and deeply-rooted and manifested in ways even I don’t fully understand. Social worker that I am, I call it trauma-informed care, and I believe God calls us as a Church to model that with brothers and sisters of color and other marginalized communities. 

I won’t always be in a headspace to reach out, but the invitation remains: Sit with me as Job’s friends once did, but not to fix me or say God must have a reason, but sit with me and mourn the rubble and the dead. We will continue to rebuild together when morning comes.