We Who Believe In Freedom Cannot Rest


I am still reeling from the violence and tragedy of last week and I expect you are as well. From Orlando to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, to Dallas, Turkey and now Nice, violence seems to be everywhere and the constant stream seems almost built to keep us from having long-overdue and needed conversations about how best to identify solutions, move forward and stop the killings from continuing. For the United States, the unfortunate reality remains that police-involved deaths of black citizens are a crisis for our communities.

I have been pushing myself to figure out what to do. I haven't landed on the full answer yet, but I am certain that all of us must take consequential actions that speak to the seriousness of our current crisis. We cannot allow the burden of explaining, protesting and mourning to rest only on the shoulders of African-Americans and other people of color.

I expect a lot of white people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. I have often said the wrong thing and it is embarrassing and awkward to make a mistake that offends a co-worker or friend. But we need to compare the fear of making a mistake to the fear of your son being violently taken from you in a second because he was a black kid in the "wrong" place at the "wrong" time. Or, the fear that the deafening silence of white people means that we do not care, that we do not understand this as a crisis for all of us to address.

A good place for us to start is by building empathy. Imagine your own son being pulled over for a traffic violation and getting shot, bleeding to death in his car. Or, envision your own teenager hunted down for walking the street while wearing a hoodie. Imagine your grief and outrage as the authorities call you. Really try it -- I am not being rhetorical.

Empathy requires stretching outside of our own personal experience. I grew up like many white people do in majority white schools, neighborhoods -- I am so familiar with how separate we can be from the reality of others. And yet, I live now in this world as the mother of an African-American son, which makes these countless murders of young black men all too real. I shudder as I see the news and imagine him being next. This is one reason I join in saying "black lives matter" -- because our sons and brothers and friends are truly precious to us, but their lives are simply not valued enough by some fellow human beings who fail to see this as a crisis: to admit they live in real danger. I want my beautiful son to grow up safe and be able to be his own full self. My son cannot risk doing some of the foolish things I did when I was fifteen; the world is seriously, genuinely different for him because he is black.

At the same time, I also wept for the Dallas police and their families, even though I don't have any police officers in my family. I ache for their co-workers who are mourning them while also going back to work a dangerous job knowing what a messed up system we have. I have no personal experience of their lives but I certainly can empathize.

Many faith and social justice traditions provide powerful tools for utilizing empathy. In the labor movement it's called solidarity: "an injury to one is an injury to all." My mom -- a Catholic school teacher -- reminded me of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which also calls us to reach across difference to affirm our common humanity.

We saw empathy in action just a month ago in Orlando. It made such a difference to me and other LGBTQ people that straight and cis allies showed up and bore witness to the homophobia and racism that led to Orlando. That law enforcement rushed in under fire to rescue these LGBTQ lives. And, that when some politicians tried to erase the fact that this targeted LGBTQ and Latinx people, we refused to be invisible and set the record, well, straight so to speak.

So, if you have not checked in on your co-workers, fellow congregants, neighbors and friends who are people of color, don't be immobilized by guilt or fear, do it now. And, if you don't have co-workers, congregants and friends who are people of color, now's the time to notice that and to do something. Our shared loss creates new avenues and opportunities for empathy, solidarity and action.

As a nation, we have failed to confront systemic racism. This won't change without white people really engaging. Developing this ability requires regular workouts as well as a heavy dose of humility. All of us, including those of us who identify as activists and allies have to self-reflect on how much more we need to do. This is not about lecturing the "other" white people on what "they" should do. This is about embracing our own responsibility and inviting others to do the same. Each of us has an obligation to take concerted action right now. It may mean action in the streets or it could mean action with our interpersonal and professional relationships. It should also mean voting and much more. It may mean making a financial contribution this week to an organization led by people of color. Another simple action would be reading and learning. Ta-Nehisi Coates or Bryan Stevenson have written powerful books that can aid in broadening our understanding and dismantling our cloaks of silence, ignorance and inaction. I also urge us to watch one of the many awful videos of murders by the police in order to confront the reality that African Americans know keenly -- the disturbing violence from which white people are shielded. We must confront this reality.

Let's be part of the solution -- we don't have to have all the answers to get off the sidelines and begin.

We must act with the urgency this crisis requires. As the legendary civil rights organizer Ella Baker said, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest."