When we were kids, my big sister and I didn’t always listen to our parents. Whether it was the dangers of fire or the value of a dollar, sometimes the best teacher was a burnt digit or sitting at home with no BB gun and an empty piggy bank. When I was about four years old – which would have made Brieta seven or eight – we were the caped crusaders with bath towels tucked under our collars. We sang the theme song (DA-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-DA-da-da-da-da-da-da-da—BATMAN!) and ran through the house, against the stern advice of our mother. We flew down the basement stairs with Brieta in the lead (I was Robin), ready to bust through the storm door and into the backyard for some serious crime fighting. The door didn’t open, but nothing could stop Batman. Straight through the plate glass window. She still has the scars. I’m sure we needed many more reminders, but that was a pretty solid learning outcome for the “someone’s gonna get hurt” lesson.
Consequences preach a sermon words cannot divine. And trauma can leave a deep impression on our souls.
As Betsy and I were finishing our first tour of the country, in late 2017, I reached out to my old high school friend, Angela “Doc” Courage, in Northwest Arkansas. Angela teaches and consults on issues of race and communication, and I asked if she could put us together with a diverse group of people for a conversation. A few days later we met her and a half dozen of her friends for coffee in Fayetteville. It was a fabulous experience. Ray told us about life as an immigrant in Arkansas. Tony and LaTonya shared multiple instances of driving and shopping while black, and the many times they had been profiled and mistreated. One of the most compelling stories was from a middle-aged, white, well put-together woman named Cozy.
Cozy is the wife of a pastor of a large evangelical church. The congregation used to be mostly white and Republican. Things changed, driven in part by Cozy’s trauma. She had always had a deep empathy for people of color and the struggles associated with discrimination, but she had never completely understood the aggressive anger associated with Black Lives Matter.
A few years ago, she was struck with some sort of serious illness and went into a coma. She was hospitalized for three months. She could occasionally hear what was going on around her, but she couldn’t move or speak. Medical workers and family members would talk to each other, saying things about her and speaking for her, but they didn’t understand her perspective and they were misrepresenting how she really felt. A rage formed. When she finally was able to move a little, but still unable to speak, she started lashing out, violently knocking things off her tray. She wanted to curse. “Everyone was talking ABOUT me, and FOR me, but no one was talking TO me,” she recalls. She fell into a despair. “Someone HEAR me!” she thought. In the midst of her prison she faced a hard truth: When people are not heard, when we don’t listen to them, they will take whatever action they can to disturb the peace and get our attention. She started to understand the desperation in black voices. There was a reason for the anger. “Everybody is talking about them, and for them, but no one is talking to them.”
Now Cozy is woke (maybe the only person who genuinely deserves that adjective)!
She took her experience back to her faith community, and now her church is much more multicultural and politically diverse.
I’ve been thinking about Cozy lately. These last few days many people have voiced tepid support for protests, but zero patience for violence, sharing the ethos of our president: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” These are almost always white voices, voices that have never gone unheard because of their race. It’s not likely they will ever try to understand what it means to be a person of color in America. Why do I sound so pessimistic? Because I keep discovering that even liberal white voices can be full of fragility – people who embrace the “woke” agenda, but are not awake; using all the right hashtags and wearing all the right t-shirts, but making sure to declare arrogantly and defensively, “I’m not racist,” or, “I don’t see color.” I call bullshit. We are all part of cultures shaped by race. When we are part of the dominant group (racially, sexually, economically, religiously, etc.), we see our culture as “normal,” rendering it invisible to us. It’s like asking the fish about the water, and it replies, “What the hell is water?” I hope it does not take a national trauma for us to wake up. But, consequences are often the best teachers.
The more white we are, the more work we need to do. If you are white and your first move is to defend yourself on the topic of race, you’re not helping. If we aren’t honest and come to terms with that, more things are going to get broken.
This poem has been widely shared on social media, but it deserves to be replayed here:
I WOULD SWING
by Kelly Corrigan
If you took my husband away from me
Just because, say, he had blue eyes
Or a hairline you found objectionable
Or maybe because you didn’t like the cyst
that waxes and wanes
On his back
I would not make a poster
Or write an op ed
I would buy a sledge hammer
I would swing it into plate glass
Until I could make you feel
As endangered and disposable
As I felt.
I would need you,
As all people do,
To feel how I felt.
I would need to see you sit up,
Pull yourself out of a dream
Into a worse reality,
Will my neck be broken next?
Will my true love be made still
Under the knee
Of a righteous man
Who has all the rights I don’t
And knows it?
If you screamed into your iPhone
That my husband and his heritage
As a European-American
was assaulting you
By suggesting your dog
Needed a leash in the park
That was all of ours
I would not be polite in my response
I would not find a lawyer
And wait patiently for an “authority”
To maybe side with me.
Physical madness, if you ask me,
Is the most natural and understandable reaction.
Counter productive, yes of course,
But natural and understandable.
I know this in my body and your body knows it too.
Put your blue eyed husband
Under the knee of a public “servant”
for nine minutes
and when his heart stops forever
you tell me if you reach for a magic marker,
or a sledge hammer.