If we’re going to be people who live boldly, who stand for something, who find meaning in faith and hope and love, then we can’t stay silent in the face of racial injustice. We can’t passively watch the trampling of human dignity.
But what can we actually do about racial oppression? How can we move from being an observer and bystander to being active in bringing about a more just society that respects human life in all its forms and conditions?
What we need is reform, which goes deeper than surface-level calls for peace or a restoration of order. It’s clear that the “order” some of us are used to isn’t working for everyone — it excludes people of color. If anyone needed more proof of that, the pandemic is hammering those inequalities home: You are more than twice as likely to die of COVID-19 if your skin is black.
That’s not a number driven by the virus. The virus doesn’t care what color your skin is. We do.
So we need to be willing to open up and explore a wound in order to truly heal — and that means stepping beyond what’s comfortable for us; it means going out of our way to find and listen to stories of people who have different experiences than us; it means leading with curiosity and generosity and goodwill rather than defensiveness and fear and cynicism.
The pandemic has revealed that we have it within us as a culture to step beyond our own self-interest to serve the common good. We know how to do that together now — that’s a skill that has cost us something dearly to acquire, but we’re learning it. Even while we’ve maintained our quarantine bubble with loved ones in our own inner circle, we’ve looked for ways to extend care to others, especially the vulnerable.
It’s time to put that skill to good use, to follow our concern and pain and confusion and to meet one another on the uncertain ground out there. We know that others are searching, too. We have to start.
This is not a time for apathy. Our generation knows that — the stakes are too high with the problems we face. We have to get in the game, especially if we’re feeling comfortable. If we see a video of a black man being killed by a white police officer, we can’t keep scrolling — we have to do something.
So, where to start? What can we do?
Here at Grotto, we’ve been telling stories about how to live with integrity and make a difference and seek healing for a long time. Here are some conclusions we’ve arrived at. This isn’t everything — there’s more that can be done — but it’s a start.
Be content to make a difference for just one person. In fact, person-to-person action is often the only thing that makes a difference. We’ve gotten good at proclaiming that we’re “in it together” but those words don’t mean much unless we do something to make a tangible difference in someone else’s life. We need to move from connection to solidarity, and that is built by showing up, over and over.
There are opportunities to make a difference where you live, right now. You don’t need a degree or certification or experience. As David Bailey said about starting a songwriting program to promote healing and justice in his neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia: “We have two choices: either we could be a part of the problem or we can be part of the solution… Help make tomorrow better by what we do today.”
Using your voice on social media is a good place to start changing what’s perceived as normative in your circle. Having the courage to start an in-person conversation with someone who holds different convictions can be life-changing, though. Don’t take people’s positions for granted or assume you know their motivations — be curious and respectful and start a dialogue. You can be a revolutionary in your own small circle.
Focus on the human person
There are so many corporate and political interests vying for your attention and loyalty that a disruptive event such as the killing of George Floyd or the drowning of a father and daughter in the Rio Grande gets boiled down to a charged issue with two distinct sides. To engage means to declare allegiance to one side that sees the world in the way you do, and by default to condemn the other. Being vocal can feel like you’re taking a stand and joining a movement and at the same time ostracizing others — it’s paralyzing.
But the world is too complex to be boiled down to two choices. The way through is to focus on the human person — we won’t go wrong if we begin with the dignity of the human person, if we listen and take in the suffering of others and respond to it. What gets us off track is when we let our principles get in the way of seeing the person in front of us.
By narrowing our field of vision to one person, we are freed to act for that one person, too.
Engage systems of power
Our society didn’t become unequal by accident. Cultural and social structures are human-made — we create those, we shape them. And there is an undeniable history of people in positions of privilege and power shaping the world to further their own advantage, which disadvantages others. In the American experience, white people have held that advantage over people of color — even if we personally don’t subscribe to those beliefs, all of our lives are shaped by those structures. Many of us benefit from them.
So we need to be willing to look at our lives with an objective lens. What privileges do we enjoy? Where might that reflection lead us? Certainly it points to political action — voting or writing our elected leaders. And it might mean wading into some difficult conversations. But, as we noted above, it might also point to smaller actions that touch others on a one-to-one basis.
We can’t love what we don’t know. We can’t defend something that is hidden from view. So we need to surface and tell and seek and listen to stories that are different from our own. Especially when specific events emerge that reveal these inequalities — like the killing of George Floyd — we need to find people in the communities who are affected and engage their responses. Those voices shouldn’t be dismissed, and if we don’t go looking for them, we won’t hear them.
Increasingly, our culture is becoming more visibly fragmented, and if we’re not careful, the algorithms, neighborhoods, schools, media, and friendships that shape our lives will only reinforce our worldview. It requires a willingness to swim upstream to cultivate diverse opinions and perspectives in your digital and in-person social networks. Those voices are inconvenient because they challenge our assumptions. But that’s exactly why we need them.
A good place to start is to look to people who have led the way. We’ve raised up the lives of two women in recent months who both gave everything they had to drive toward real change by building bridges with honesty, understanding, and reconciliation: Sister Thea Bowman and Amy Biehl. Another example is LA-based artist Miles Regis: he creates art for social justice and to bring about change. How does their example move us? What do their lives tell us about how to seek healing?
While every life is precious and should be cherished, not every life faces oppression. When it boils down to standing up against racism and making real changes, we have to be willing to acknowledge that while all human life is precious, the lives of people of color need special protection because they are threatened disproportionately.
As weird as it is to say, protecting the dignity of our brothers and sisters should never be in question. It’s so important to lift up voices and stories of people who are being overlooked and not heard. If we are, as we claim, one body and one family, we have to respond when we’re feeling powerless in the face of injustice.
We have to stand together in this effort — and as Americans, we all enjoy one of the greatest privileges in history: we have the power to actually make change, ourselves. Solidarity in action is more important right now than ever.