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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Struggling to Respond to Racial Violence


My Twitter feed this morning was filled with tweets about two events: the release of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment and the racially-motivated shooting of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina. I tweeted and retweeted about the former. I didn't tweet anything about the latter.

This is not because I have nothing to say about the racial violence plaguing this country, violence that, far from abating, seems to be ramping up. This is not because I feel like racial violence has nothing to do with me. Although I'm a Canadian living in the United States, I'm fully aware of my complicity as a white person in an economic and social system that continues to disadvantage ethnic minorities. This is not because I'm unaffected by racial violence emotionally and intellectually.

Rather, my reluctance to contribute to the conversations about race on social media has to do with two factors: 1) My own smallness in the face of the immense problem of racism and 2) My fear that I'll simply be assuaging my conscience by making a few comments on social media without doing anything more substantial.

In a class I taught this past semester, we read Thomas Merton's "Letters to a White Liberal," a trenchant essay that criticized whites for thinking and saying the right things (and even promoting the right legislation) while at the same time being completely unwilling concretely to change their ways of living in order to work for and attain racial equality. Merton wrote that whites are willing to go only so far for racial equality. They'll join the rallies, they'll push for equal rights legislation, they'll say all the right things. But when they realize, as they must, that racial equality will mean actual equality, when they discover that racial equality means that whites are actually going to have to make real economic and social sacrifices to attain real structural equality, whites pull up on the reins.

Many people in my Twitter feed who are commenting on the Charleston shooting aren't doing so just to assuage their consciences. Many are actively working for racial justice.

However, if I'm being totally honest with myself and with you, I'm not actively working for racial justice and equality. I remember how shocked Kim and I were to discover the pervasive racism and segregation that is still so much a part of this city and country when we moved to Louisville from Ontario in 2008. And yet, without us trying or meaning to do so, we became part of the structure. Our neighbourhood is predominantly white. Our churches (I'm Catholic and Kim is Episcopalian) are overwhelmingly white.

Sure, I attend lectures and read books on the problem of racism and we read important texts in my classes on racism and racial conflict. But I know - I know - that none of this is good enough. I know - I know - that to be serious about racial justice requires real changes in how we live our lives.

So I worry that, were I to comment on social media and elsewhere about my grief and anger about the Charleston shooting, I'd simply be assuaging my conscience. That I'd - even subconsciously - think that I've 'done my part' when in reality I've done nothing.

I'm not excusing myself here. I'm repenting.

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