Wow, it’s been a few years. More than that, actually—time flies, right? We don’t keep in touch, and even though we lived and worked less than 30 miles from each other for the last six years, I haven’t seen you. We don’t send birthday greetings. I don’t know that I even understood you to be part of my village.
Until now. By which I mean last week, when you sent me that message, and invoked the “friend” card.
Don’t worry; you’re not alone. I know this story. It happens every now and again.
While we lack anything that might be taken for a relationship, we have a friendship, and you’re invoking it now to let me know I have put it on the line.
For being out of touch?
For not knowing your kids’ names?
For forgetting your birthday?
For talking about racism.
See, we can go a long time without talking, but there are some things friends just don’t do. And I need to know that. So you’re telling me.
Here’s the post that crossed that friend line:
“If you voted for Trump, and are also “not a racist,” this might be an important thing for you to read. And reflect on. And speak out about.
If this sort of thing is ok with you, well, you’re entitled to your prejudices. And also: we have a word for them.
And here’s part of your response:
“I know I am a sensitive person, but when I see that in the title of your post you mention things like “not a racist”, I really feel bothered. Things aren’t always so black and white. I do think it’s possible to identify more with one party- even while not completely loving your candidate- and not be generalized as a racist. I did read [the article about Sessions] and am intrigued by the choice.
I am worried about President Elect Trump and his choices, however I am hoping and praying too and giving him my hope and optimism. I really am trying to be inclusive and forgiving and allowing people a chance, even if they’ve said and done things that they shouldn’t have. . . . “
You go on to remind me to be tolerant, and, above all, that you are not a racist.
Dear Facebook friend.
Here are some things I value:
Dialogue, and the magic I have sometimes found in the midst of it
But we are not having a leveled conversation here.
And aside from the things listed above—things that I actually do value—you’re making a strong implicit ask for me to prioritize a couple of things that I do not, in fact, value:
“Friendships” with people I’m not really friends with.
Dialogue about two things (potential of hurt feelings; potential of persecution, harassment, and unequal treatment based on skin color) that are categorically, exponentially different, carried on with “pretend like all concerns are equal” as a ground rule.
“Be nice*” as the fundamental edict of white womanhood.
And friend, there’s also something here about honor. About respectability as a white woman. About what we believe, but mostly do not say, about “decency” and “playing by The Rules.”
It’s been impossible not to notice—in fact, I think this is one of the great and unwelcome shocks to upper middle class white America during these last few years—that “don’t be racist” is no longer a rule. It is my experience that it was a rule, at least out loud, for more than a generation and a half. But it’s clearly not a rule now.
And yet, don’t be mean to other white women is TOTALLY a rule. Also: don’t talk about hard stuff. Don’t say what you’re thinking or wondering or worrying about, unless it happens to be birthday party décor. Don’t you dare—ever— say something that might indirectly call anyone to account.
Sister, you’re intrigued?
And you’re asking me to be silent in the face of that?
I am not going to play nice with your casual racism, just because the world we have inherited says that “play nice” is in the honor code, and “check your freaking white privilege” is not.
My reality as a minister in a progressive, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and multiculturalist faith tradition is that I’m standing atop a widening chasm in maintaining my various relationships. And I’m not sure how much longer I can do it.
I am no longer sure how to occupy space where I give the same amount of energy—more energy, honestly—to dialoguing about your “a little hurt” feelings than to being physically present with those who are afraid for their marriage rights, for their trans child’s ability to use the bathroom without being beaten or intimidated or psychologically and physically brutalized, for their humanity, for their lives.
I can’t play by white girl rules anymore. They make real conversation, and underneath that, real movement, impossible.
And I don’t think that’s an accident. I don’t think my complicity with your comfort is value-neutral.
Thus, as to your implicit threats and explicit invitations: I’m trying to imagine the person you think I might be, the one you’re trying to pull me toward becoming.
I don’t think she’s someone I could live with.
And so, when it turns out I can’t bridge the gap anymore, I will have to make a move. And the truth is, my choice is already made.
If being in relationship with you means preserving your comfort, keeping your thoughts pure and your cheeks tear-stain free … if to be “friends,” I must choose silence, over and against solidarity with people whose concerns have never been about comfort—who are acting in a hierarchy of needs that doesn’t get past the physical and psychological safety pieces–
Friend, I choose them.
I choose my humanity.
I choose my soul.
Sound stark? Feel problematic for your sense of hope, or your understanding of, yes, the magic power of dialogue?
It is. That’s why it’s taken me this long to say this thing, even to myself. It violates every “nice girl” norm I know.
But there is indeed an alternative. And it looks like you doing some work—to get courageous rather than comfortable. It looks like you living in flexible, contested space for awhile.
Truly, you want to stay in relationship? Or establish something deeper? Or simply read my FB public ministry and not feel personally affronted in considering my words to the world?
That would look like you not expecting me to choose silence as a package deal with “friendship.”
Can you do that? Are you inclined to?
I don’t know.
What I’m sure of: no one will make you.
And that, friend, is what we call privilege.
*to those who have social value. Obvs.
**I’m going, now, to humanize this person. I’m doing it because humanity and complexity are the deepest call of my faith, and I truly believe that we gain nothing—in any conception of “We” worth having—without that generous willingness. But before I do that, I want to ask you for a favor. All of you. Every single person reading this.
Take a moment, and consider who we are not willing to humanize in our narratives. To whom do we not offer this gift—this sacred responsibility belonging not to the people we choose to talk about, but to ourselves, as story-tellers? Who are “thugs” in our narratives, rather than sons, scholars, dads, grads, promise, potential, our future? Who are “illegal,” in your story, instead of brilliant daughters, future doctors, terrorized toddlers, and the many-centuried hope not just of American shores, but the hope of our nation itself?
I will show you the fuller humanity of this white woman, because we all deserve it. But remember this: we all deserve it. And the next time you want someone to look upon you positively in your own story, I invite you to work twice as hard to reframe your internal narrative about someone else. Especially when it’s challenging. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you surprise yourself.
So: this open letter is part of a real exchange, with a real person. I don’t know if we’re friends now, or if we will be in the future. I do know that she’s stayed in dialogue as our conversation has continued beyond this point. I know that she’s been courageous and willing to listen. I know that she’s working hard to open her heart and hear other, larger stories—and that we can receive that as a gift, because although it is a bullshit way to allocate resources, privilege is real, and it makes willingness optional. Call-in helps. So does a willingness to answer when called.
In short, “White girl from Kansas” just might be more impressive than you give her credit for. May that possibility mean something when it matters.