We’re talking about what? Race?! If you are a white person, perhaps the anxiety of talking about race begins with the first mention of the word race. If you’re a perfectionist, perhaps the anxiety comes from past experiences of not knowing the right answer, or of trying to do something good, only to have someone else misinterpret your actions. If the subject makes you defensive, perhaps it comes out of an anxiety that you will be wrongfully accused of being racist. If you generally think of yourself as a good person, perhaps this subject creates anxiety that you will never be able to be “good enough” when it comes to race…because you are a white person.
I write and teach about racism out of my own anxiety as a white person, and out of my own experiences of learning about racism and trying to find a way to join a larger movement of people working for racial justice. I’m also a Christian writer, and my faith is one of the reasons I feel compelled to write about race. When Jesus Christ came and lived among humanity, he was said to have “broken down the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14). Two thousand years later, we are still trying to live into that world of greater unity. I believe God is working in the midst of these challenging conversations, and it is a gift in which we have been invited to participate. Not everyone can work full-time doing anti-racism work. However, everyone can learn how to talk about race and stay in the conversation long enough so that when the opportunity for you to act comes, you will know what to do.
In this chapter, I present several spiritual practices for engaging in difficult conversations about race. As a Christian, I grew up learning about traditional forms of spiritual practices, such as prayer and fasting. Some of the practices I discuss below may not sound as familiar to you from Christian history, but they can be found within the Christian tradition.
Self-compassion focuses on the second half of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, insisting that we cannot love our neighbor if we do not love ourselves.
The first aspect of self-compassion, mindfulness of one’s suffering, is simply a way of talking about how we need to acknowledge our difficult feelings. From having led many groups talking about race and racism, I can tell you a lot of feelings come up for me, and it is important to take a minute and tell myself: “I see you. I see what you’re going through.”
The second element of self-compassion is a sense of shared humanity, which means you allow yourself to acknowledge you are not the only one going through this experience in this moment. Suffering can leave us feeling very isolated. Believing we are the only ones going through a situation can prevent us from accepting our experience and building relationships with others. After participating in diversity workshops, I notice my tendency to want to be alone, to avoid being around other people. Not realizing the suffering we experience together in our shared humanity can prevent us from building connections with those around us.
The third part of self-compassion is loving kindness, the ability to offer yourself understanding and a nonjudgmental attitude. For many white people talking about racism, it is hard to avoid judging ourselves when we recognize racist thoughts or beliefs. We can judge ourselves and try to shut down our awareness of what is going on inside us. Acknowledging that others are also going through this assures us we are on a journey others are traveling also. That our complicity in racism gives us pain is a sign that our suffering is part of the process of growth. Knowing we have not “arrived” can allow us to be patient with ourselves, to encourage ourselves along this long journey. We can accept our feelings and failings and remind ourselves that God still loves us.
One of the other spiritual practices important for continuing the work of disarming racism is the practice of bearing witness. As with caring for the self, bearing witness also comes from the New Testament, specifically when Jesus instructs his disciples to go and be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Self-compassion and bearing witness are as old as the commandments of Jesus.
To bear witness means several things. First, it means you are aware of the experiences of others, and you have close enough relationships to witness the things persons of color experience that whites do not. To witness something, you have to actually be there. And to be there, you have to be around people experiencing it. This means you need to consciously cultivate relationships with people different from yourself. If you live in a predominantly white neighborhood, it means intentionally making friends with the people on your block who do not look like everyone else. Get to know someone from a different country or background. Spend time with the families who have biracial children or transracial adoptees. Listen and learn from their experiences.
The second thing bearing witness means is you are bearing something. To learn about people’s experiences involving racism or xenophobia, you are actually bearing their experiences with them. This doesn’t mean you know exactly what they felt like when things happened, but it means in that moment you are recognizing the pain these experiences caused them, and you are not dismissing their experiences. To bear witness means to sincerely bear what they are telling you, not to suggest how their experiences could be reinterpreted. You are receiving them as they are told. You are honoring their sharing of these experiences with you.
And bearing also means you are feeling the impact on you. Pay attention to what feelings are being brought up in you. Intentionally bearing something means that we will feel its weight, and that can make us feel difficult feelings of our own. But to bear what has been shared, without becoming defensive or taking it personally, is to honor a moment of vulnerability and sharing.
Third, bearing witness means that you do not keep these incidents to yourself. When you see a black friend being pulled over by the police for no apparent reason, you serve as a real witness to this event, and you protest the action you see as unjust. You witness by telling others that racism is still a problem we need to be addressing across our society. You witness by trying to make a difference in your sphere of influence. Witness to the experiences of others, and share what you have witnessed with other groups of white people to say that racism is real, and by ignoring it we contribute to it.
What exactly are we witnessing to, besides painful experiences of discrimination against persons of color? There are other things we witness: we witness that society has changed, and yet still needs to transform. We witness the grace and power of God moving through groups of people who have been oppressed for generations. We witness the movement of God’s Spirit calling on new leaders and generations of persons to take a stand on behalf of the most vulnerable. We witness the stirring of Christ’s passion within us, calling us to become involved in some way. To all of these things, we are witnesses. To bear witness as a spiritual practice means to keep in mind these things while pursuing a life of justice. Taking time to give thanks to God for the many ways we can bear witness even now encourages us as we continue in our work.
Another spiritual practice we can engage in is hospitality. Hospitality can refer to a number of different actions—from the more concrete act of hosting someone in your home for a meal, to the more abstract act of welcoming another person into your heart. I think there is a rich spectrum of ways we can be hospitable toward one another.
Churches have known for a long time that eating together is a powerful thing. The Lord’s Supper, the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, we commemorate in worship every time we share the Eucharist. Church potlucks may be as old as the first-century Christian communities. Sharing a meal is not something new to Christians, but making an intentional effort to share a meal with persons from a different community or perspective may be something out of the ordinary. Christians need to be able to build upon this familiar tradition of meal-sharing hospitality to build relationships with people who may be unfamiliar to them. Your church may already do something like this. Look into ways your church may already be hosting gatherings of people from diverse backgrounds under its roof or sponsoring such gatherings in other parts of your city or area.
Editor’s note: This piece has been excerpted and adapted from Carolyn Heslel’s book, Anxious to Talk About It:Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism. Used with permission.
Carolyn B. Helsel holds a PhD from Emory University and MDiv and ThM degrees from Princeton Seminary. In addition to teaching preaching at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, she leades congregations and organizations through the process of engaging their feelings about racism.