“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, 1963
Reconcile: to cause people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
A recent study from the Barna Group on Black Lives Matter and Racial Tension in America states that 94% of Evangelical Christians believe that the church has a big role to play in racial reconciliation. Yet Evangelicals are also “more than twice as likely as the general population to ‘strongly disagree’ that people of color are socially disadvantaged because of race.”
There’s a disconnect.
At the same time, it seems that many scholars, academics, writers, thinkers, pastors, and lay members have used the term “racial reconciliation” to organize thought and action against racialized oppression. I understand that the term is loosely affiliated to the text found in 2 Cor. 5:18-19. However, with the past few years bringing only more news of the terrorization of Black bodies, the term “racial reconciliation” has begun to stick in my ear like off-key singing—vigorous, loud, but flat.
I don’t mean to diminish the work. But there’s something about the term (and therefore, the praxis behind the term) that has been lacking. In order to “reconcile,” in the traditional sense of the word, there’s an assumption that there was a strong, cordial, friendly relationship at some earlier point in time. However, this has not been the historical reality. Lurking under the surface of our glossy conference packets, inter-cultural dialogues, and diversity programs lies decades of White supremacy, terrorization of persons of color, and systemic discrimination (in law, in healthcare, in education, in access to nutrition/enaction of food deserts, redlining in housing practices, police brutality, the list goes on).
There can be no reconciliation unless there is an acknowledgement that these things have happened, and are happening. There can be no reconciliation unless there is a comprehensive understanding of effecting sustainable change. There can be no reconciliation until we take the burden off of persons of color to continuously explain, teach, and unpack the ways in which our lives have been torn asunder by White supremacy . . . and to do it free-of-charge.
In order to “reconcile,” there must be an acknowledgement that this relationship started off with buying, selling, terminating, psychologically abusing, physically abusing, verbally abusing, financially constraining, geographically confining persons of color. In order to understand what to do with this and how to move forward, there has to be deep conversation, education, training, etc. within spaces that are set aside for White people to unpack racial privilege with other White people. As we say in certain subsets of the Black American community “gather/get your cousins.”
The “cousins” notion is not one that everyone understands, so let me offer some context. In many spaces of Black American community, the concept of kinship is held flexible. Cousins and kinfolk do not necessarily have to be related by blood. There are two understandings of what it means to be a “cousin” and its usage depends on context. Those near and dear to your heart, who are not related to you biologically, can be “cousins.” Those who share some type of sociocultural identity with you can be also be “cousins;” the term “get your cousins” acknowledges the notion that “cousins” can check “cousins.” Cousins can hold each other accountable, when and as needed. In conversations about racial justice, power, and privilege, “Get your cousins” is a way of saying: “Speak to those who hold the same sociocultural identity. Reason with them, if they can be reasoned with. If you want to reconcile, you’ve got to do the work, and it is not okay to rely solely on people of color to do all of this labor . . .”
I cannot overstate how much emotional labor goes into educating people about their privilege. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes communicates this so well in her “Bill for Racial Labor” piece, saying:
“Each time I engage in conversation with you on these topics, I do so fully knowing that you may dismiss my experience. You may employ your white privilege to tell me that my interpretation is invalid, that you know more about my experience than I do, that your limited time thinking about race trumps my four decades of living with it . . .”
It’s insufficient to continue to rely solely on persons of color (or any oppressed person) to explain, teach, coddle, and counsel everyone to “racial reconciliation.” Racism and other systems of oppression have deep roots in American soil, and those who are oppressed did not plant those seeds or build that system. So, this means that we need those who latch onto the term “ally” to find deep understanding and refrain from what Dr. King calls “lukewarm acceptance.”
We also need this deep understanding to be communicated “to your cousins:” those who may still be struggling to understand the ills of systemic oppression and what they can do about it. It is a hard work, but I believe, it is a holy work. And it is a work that I cannot do for you.
Image credit: Korney Violin
- On “Racial Reconciliation” and “Getting Your Cousins” - June 8, 2016
- No Neat Narrative: Finding Community Without Hiding - August 6, 2015