I watched Bryan Stevenson’s 2012 TED Talk, We Need to Talk About an Injustice over the weekend. I consider myself to be a fairly aware white woman, but Stevenson pointed out a number of things about the experience of black people in this country that I simply have not fathomed.
For instance, Stevenson notes that terrorism did not come to this country with 9-11, [or even the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City]. It existed for years before slavery was abolished and for years after–when a black man could be lynched for simply failing to move off the sidewalk if a white man or woman was on it. I know that it was not safe for black people if white people took exception. I know that it still isn’t. Yet the disconnect between my thinking and my understanding is undeniable.
Stevenson gave voice to what I have not been able to articulate in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and countless other black men and boys. We have created a society of fear that justifies anything that happens to those we fear. White people for the most part don’t question it–if we are even aware enough of all of the atrocities perpetrated on people of color to question it.
In his talk, Stevenson said, “we have in this country this dynamic where we really don’t like to talk about our problems. We don’t like to talk about our history. And because of that, we really haven’t understood what it’s meant to do the things we’ve done historically. . . . We have a hard time talking about race, and I believe it’s because we are unwilling to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation. In South Africa, people understood that we couldn’t overcome apartheid without a commitment to truth and reconciliation. In Rwanda, even after the genocide, there was this commitment, but in this country we haven’t done that.”
When I have been deeply upset about some way I have been treated, there is one response that evaporates my anger or pain, my holding a person out as if they don’t matter to me. It’s not an apology, which so often come without any real meaning. Apologies are often offered as a way to get away from uncomfortable feelings and back to equilibrium in the relationship between two or more people. To be honest, I have often not even involved the other person in my truth and reconciliation process for fear that the bonds between us would not be strong enough to hold me in my hurt. In an attempt to preserve some degree of relationship, I have tried to do all the work myself–and in the end lost the friendship anyway because it could not hold up under the accumulated weight of my feelings.
However, when I have been met by a heart willing to feel the pain that has been touched in me, my feelings of pain and anger have evaporated. Not diminished slowly, evaporated. When I have been able to look a friend in the eye; when they have found the courage to tell me that this thing that I did confused or angered or hurt them; when I feel the pain that I have caused and own that I did not act with integrity or courage, I have felt the anger/distrust/pain evaporate and trust renew and deepen.
It takes courage to see ourselves capable of harming another. It takes courage to see how we have contributed indirectly to the harming of another through our ignorance, through our unacknowledged history, through the privilege we are afforded by an unjust society that values “us” over “them.” Stevenson states that we cannot be “fully human until we pay attention to suffering, to poverty, to exclusion, to unfairness, to injustice.” He is aware of the challenge in paying attention to these things. It will break our hearts to do it, but reconnecting our hearts to our minds will heal our world. It may be the only thing that can.