Slavery and legalized racial discrimination feel like such remote realities to us now, but there’s still something deeply unsettled between the white and black races that we can’t quite articulate. Ta-Nehisi Coates sheds some light on what that is:
“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
Don’t we see that debt in Baltimore?
So many of us are asking: How do we make sense of such conflicting humanity? How do we manage the tension of racial despair? Does affirming the struggle for equality mean condoning the ancillary violence? Does condemning the looting discredit the underlying pain?
Facing dense social complexity, our tendency is to oversimplify and diminish. If we can discredit “the other side,” our position is strengthened and exempted from reform. If we refuse to hold the tension, we can opt out of empathy, nuance, critical thinking and ownership.
What do I know of oppression? I am a white girl from Texas who has had every advantage skewed my way. But, black community, I stand in solidarity with you, not just as a mom to two black children, but as a human being. I hear you, and I believe you.
Like most southerners, I am conditioned to minimize struggle and avoid conflict. (Of course, this is selective, as I am quite dramatic about my own struggle when it suits me.) MLK famously dubbed this a “negative peace,” as it is no indicator of actual societal peace, only an absence of confrontation; everyone just settle down and don’t make us uncomfortable. We whitewash 400 years of systematic oppression and then scold the black community for bearing its scars.
The majority culture is so incredibly removed from this psychological, economical, and physical subjugation, an empathy gap is inevitable. This is clear from the polarized reactions to Baltimore. While no sane person endorses violent looting and destruction (neither inside or outside the community), my social media feed included dozens of responses like this:
There is always a march against something. Don’t these people work? I guess not.
I suppose this will be justified because, well…we owe them? After all, they shoot a white person and we don’t riot. And they call us racist??
The ones doing this mess are just looking for an excuse to cause problems. The gang bangers working together to take out police officers who are trying to protect property and people.
They aren’t protesting and they have no grief. These animals are rioting and looting for purely selfish reasons.
While these comments confirm the immense labor still ahead, perhaps transparent responses like this one offer guidance on next steps:
I think I struggle to understand the need to destroy. I guess I just usually don’t feel that way myself. I find it very hard to just step back and accept this as hurt. Or is this the residual affects of long time hurt that we are seeing now?
To make sense of disturbing, confusing rioting in one’s own backyard, whites must try to understand the very real generational trauma the black community has endured. Judy Wu Dominick describes the Korean word used to represent a visceral reaction to unbearable psychological pain: han.
“Han is the inexpressibly entangled experience of pain and bitterness imposed by the injustice of oppressors. When grief surpasses its sensibility line, it becomes a void. This void is not a mere hollowness, but an abyss filled with agony. When the oppressed undergo suffering over several generations without release, they develop collective unconscious han and transmit it to their posterity. In such an atmosphere, a single incident can trigger an explosive outburst of the multiple-generations-worth of pent-up thirst for revenge, a visceral release of collective agony in the form of rioting, looting, and aimless destruction.”
While the black community polices their own rioters alongside law enforcement, perhaps rather than more white scolding, we could acknowledge the depth of pain exploding within Baltimore, Ferguson and the collective cry rising all over the country. Do we have the courage to look beyond the symptoms to the devastating source? This will take monumental humility, acknowledgement and repentance from the white community, because we cannot pretend almost 400 years of terror and state-sanctioned disadvantages were erased and mended 50 years ago.
If we condemn the Baltimore mob, we must first condemn the lynching mob.
And as my friend Corregan Brown cautioned: “We have to be wary of false equivalence. Generations of systemic injustice is not equivalent to destruction of a city block. That doesn’t make the latter right, but holding the two truths in tension must never be mistaken for holding them in balance.”
I obviously cannot speak for the black community or even the collective white community (as we are sharply divided over this, too), but I can speak for myself. So here is my message to my black friends, neighbors, mentors, and colleagues:
I suspect you and I watched the riots, albeit a tiny percentage of Baltimore natives and a fraction of those peacefully assembled, and we both grieved. We know violence only begets violence, and destroying property and vandalizing a neighborhood is only going to set progress back.
We also know the cynical will throw a blanket statement over the entire city and discredit the fault lines of injustice that gave way that day. I bet we both wept as 8-year-old boys threw rocks at the police. Not another generation, God. How long?
But I hope you can hear me say this: I am not blind to the systems that delivered me to the doorstep of privilege while you were relegated to the back door. I will not sanitize the abuse and injustice that built our entire infrastructure on human misery. I won’t imagine the plight of the modern black community was born in a vacuum, as if centuries of physical, financial, occupational, and social harm bear no marks.
I simply want you to know that one white, upper middle class, suburban woman hears and believes you. I do not share your collective han, but I am grieved immeasurably by it, and I am committed to racial reconciliation and reparations in my lifetime.
There is so much work to do: relational healing, power upheaval, systemic reform from the top down and bottom up, the laborious process of education, the laborious process of intellectual honesty, the laborious process of peacemaking. But I hope we can face this work together, and on the days you are weary beyond words, remember that we exist – a whole alliance of white folks who have heard your stories and heeded your leadership, who’ve been inspired by your resilience and broken over your pain. We stand by you as co-laborers, neighbors, and mostly your friends. Together we can lessen the burden on our children’s generation until one day, through toil and courage and perseverance and unity, this good work is complete.
Jen Hatmaker is the author of several books, including the forthcoming “For The Love: Fighting For Grace in a World of Impossible Standards” and bestselling book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.” She is the star of HGTV’s “My Big Family Renovation.” She is a blogger, speaker, and pastor’s wife to husband, Brandon, and mom to five children. She lives in Austin.