Racism and Radical Compassion

How’s everyone doing?

It’s been a rough few weeks. It’s been a rough few months. Aw, seriously, let’s just call it – what the heck with 2020? For all the jokes about this being a year of clear vision, we’ve never more clearly seen the mess we’re in.

I suspect that the pandemic oddly prepared us to be able to rightly see the wrongness of racism, individually and systemically. I’m not sure how or why, but it seems like in this already strange time our country has responded with renewed vigor to something that has been happening in our midst forever.

Personally, I’ve been feeling sad and overwhelmed. I’m listening, through social media and interviews and reading, to the stories of BIPOC. And it’s hard not just because the stories range from ridiculous to outrageous but also because – and this feels incredibly selfish and vulnerable to admit – it’s not about me. I feel like I don’t have a right to feel all the feelings. I’m late to the show and I want to cry but that centers me and my job in this is to center others.

It’s a lot.

Just over a week ago our small NorCal town held a peaceful gathering mostly led by high school students. I didn’t go (pandemic) but I talked to a friend who went. She said it gave her hope that real change is in the pipeline, new diversity committees for teens and adults and new curriculum offerings in the schools. And the teenagers who are willing to speak about the way they’ve been treated and all those willing to listen to their stories.

Hope. Yes. Amen!

Less than 24 hours later, a video surfaced of three high school students spewing racist garbage. Obviously drunk, in a car with a dad who responds with next to nothing, the girls laugh as they say the most egregious things as if it’s one giant joke.

My stomach flipped. How dare they? And what about that dad – why didn’t he pull over the car and set them straight? At least take the phone and delete the video?

From The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, this was May 1974:

Now, a senior in high school, not a day went by that I didn’t hear someone yelling “N*!” [abbreviated because it’s not my word to share] in my direction. It didn’t matter if I was just walking down the road or standing at my locker or even if I was playing baseball and helping the team win. I was about to graduate, and what I’d learned most in four years besides biology and arithmetic was just how much people can hate you because of the color of your skin. People can want to hurt you for no good reason other than you look different or talk different or live different. Oh, I got an education by going to the white school, just not the kind of education the politicians and lawmakers had planned on. (19)

Not enough has changed. Has anything changed?

Cue all the online chatter in every local forum, ranging from wanting to lynch the girls (deliberate reference) to excusing them with a “kids will be kids”… Cue the conversations with my own kids, who know or know of these girls, who tell me their own stories as young white men growing up in a predominantly white entitled community and, as adolescents, need to argue with Mom because it’s kind of their job to argue all sides of everything.

I hate that hate seems so normal to their experience, that they hear racial slurs and don’t actually hear them. It’s startling to see white male privilege so clearly in my own sons. I know I’ve taught them better, and yet they also breathe toxic air. I can’t rid society of all its pollution, but I can do my best to purify the air in my own home. In my own heart.

A few days later, we went for a long hike and along the way crossed paths with neighbors, one in tears being consoled by others. Her daughter was in the video. She cried like someone had died, grieving for her daughter.

The video was taken years ago. An anonymous someone shared it to publicly shame girls who have literally shed every skin cell since that night. That doesn’t at all excuse what they said, and it’s a super scary lesson in the permanence of anything posted online, and consequences will make a heavy load. And a mama’s tears revealed more of the story.

Oh, I get the anger toward these girls, the disgust at what they said. I suspect there’s also fear around the edges, and guilt because these girls are our girls, growing up in our community, and they surely must have known better and still did wrong.

Sadness weighs heavy on our town like the coastal fog that seeps over our hills and settles in our valley. Sadness for the victims and the perpetrators of racism. We all need to know and do better.

A few weeks ago I posted about guilt versus shame. Guilt: I did bad. Shame: I am bad. Related, but different. Guilt can be confessed, but shame hides in the dark. Compassion is necessary to shine light and love and make change.

I was struck by this quote from Alice Walker included in Radical Compassion by Tara Brach:

In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered.
All work ceases, and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, all the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length.
The tribal ceremony often lasts several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.

Obviously this would be easier done in a tribal culture with set rituals than in a small, individually-minded town. Not that it would be easy; likely it’s never easy; forgiveness is usually effort-full.

Obviously, we’re not ready for anything like this. And yes, my fingers shake as I recognize that I am a white woman suggesting radical compassion for white girls and maybe that’s out of line. Can compassion ever be out of line, though? If grace had to be earned, even the best among us would be doomed.

It seems to me that change will best happen in compassionate dialogue. When we look one another in the eyes and listen well. When we take shame out of the equation and spread compassion.

At least, I hope change will happen through compassionate dialogue. I imagine these girls set in a circle of community, loved ones and acquaintances, all willing to speak compassion their way. Not because they deserve it but in truth because they blew it big time and still they are human beings, living and hopefully learning and in need of love. How far would that go to redeem their guilt and alleviate their shame? How would they then, having received compassion, be better able to extend compassion?

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