In his Ware lecture, Bryan Stevenson warned us that we could not have the impact on the world that we aspire to unless we were willing to be uncomfortable. We must get close to the people who are suffering, we must change how we think and talk about the circumstances and conditions that create injustice, we must remain hopeful, and we must be ready and willing to face our discomfort while we do all of that.
Folks, I am about to make myself and many of you uncomfortable, but we must change the narrative, and I do have hope, faith even, in the Beloved Community.
I am a racist. My brain is programmed with learned prejudices and assumptions based on race and skin tone, and I have not been able to fully excise them from my thinking. It is possible that I never will, and that I will always have to consciously and conscientiously moderate my behavior to account for those biases. I am not ashamed, because I have no misconception of my imperfections and humanity; I doubt I will ever be able to be my best self all day, every day. or course I am not proud of my prejudice, either, but it is only by my awareness that I can address it. It will not heal naturally. Ignoring the problem or pretending that it isn’t a big deal helps nothing except my ego. There is no amount of injustice that I can willingly perpetrate. My comfort isn’t more important than anyone’s humanity.
And my friends, there is a 99% chance that you, too, are a racist to some degree.
That’s not the worst of it.
Worse, though, than personal prejudice is that we live in a society where Blackness is shunned and a the darker your skin, the more kinky your hair, the less you conform to Whiteness, the more you are pushed to the margins. Even Black people growing up in our culture absorb those prejudices. It is a system that privileges White people and makes the natural hair of Black folks “unprofessional”. It is a system that rewards conformity to White norms and punishes names rooted in African languages as “Ghetto”. We live in a culture that emphasizes the importance of “proper English” and “etiquette”, (even when classism also affects white people) because it disproportionately effects Black people. The name for that system is White Supremacy, and it creates a standard that many Americans cannot meet.
Don’t confuse the systematic with the personal, here; you do not have to be a White Supremacist because you live in the midst of White Supremacy. You do not have to be a misogynist to benefit from male privilege, or even male to be more accepted than someone who is transgender or gender queer. Privilege is a spectrum where you can have privilege without being “well off”; you can face hardship in spite of some outward signs of success. You do not have to be a White Supremacist to be part of the White Supremacy. In fact, all it takes is silence. Like ignoring a weed will not improve your garden, ignoring injustice allows it to flourish.
So, we need to be ready to be uncomfortable.
We cannot ignore these problems into submission. As people of principle, we cannot stand by while bigots recruit and rally. We must denounce hate and be intolerant of intolerance. You must tell your friends when their “joke” is racist. We must not be silent when sexist language is used. Injustice must be called out to be rooted out. It’s proponents must be either won over or stifled, their ideas starved of energy. We must make it embarrassing to be a racist and encourage everyone in changing their habits and patterns of thought.
It is uncomfortable to admit my shortcomings. It is painful to say that there are people who do not live up to their own inherent worth and dignity, choosing to attempt to dehumanize others for inherent traits. I am willing to sit with that discomfort because it pales in comparison to the pain and stress that some of you live with; discomfort inflicted on you because of the body you were born into. I will fight to have your full humanity recognized.
It is a problem that will not go away without attention and intention. We must work at it, and that is going to be uncomfortable.