Racial response ability

Recently I attended a preaching workshop led by Carolyn Helsel called “Anxious to Preach about Racism: Guidance for White Pastors.” Among her many helpful comments, she said that her goal as a white preacher was to increase her racial response ability. This is different than taking responsibility for racism writ large. Instead, it is about becoming more attune to the ways she has been racially shaped as a white person, and how she in turn, racially shapes the world around her.

Following this workshop, I have felt renewed in this work of responding to and identifying how my own whiteness informs so much of what I do and say.  The work is ongoing and much needed. And it’s work we will embark on together as a church this coming September as we prepare for ongoing church-wide conversations on how we might grow our ability to consider, confront and change the white supremacy of our everyday lives. Click here to learn more and register for this symposium September 28-30: http://rainbowmennonite.org/symposium/

Please also consider reading this reflection below by Joshua Chittum.

The nature of our national conversation on race, assuming we can call it a true conversation, often reaches a layer of angst well before we are deep enough to uncover any truths, partial or whole. The pulsating truism of what has occurred throughout our nation’s history and what we now witness, a teaspoon of racial progress, followed by a cupful of fear driven, White backlash, remains a source of anxiety, resistant to enlightened analysis.

Some of that anxiety is rooted in the natural human uneasiness to change and uncertainty, not unique to a particular race. But this alone is not sufficient to explain it all. The peculiarity of anxiety is that while it is designed to keep us alive, it can also distort reality. There are instances when it actually makes the world look far more dangerous than it is. And when thought leaders and elected politicians manipulate this distortion with skill, responses from the dominant masses grow less and less removed from the full potential of our sacred humanity.

It is then that complexities are ignored. Determination to confront our hardest challenges grows weak. Blaming and fearing the other, the outsider, and the least among us seals the cognitive loop that must remain open if we are to explore deeper. But, with regret, deeper truths are not a universal motivator. Simplistic truths allow for sleep to come sooner.

Thus, we have White brothers and sisters delusionally equating legal, cultural, and political progress for those historically denied access to power with denial of access for Whites. Thus, we have large numbers of White people seeing themselves as among the most discriminated groups in America. And we have torches lifted beneath the stars in the sky with declarations that “we” will not be replaced.

Lest we throw our stones of judgment at those rightly deemed as lost, foolish, and dangerous, those of us who consider ourselves racially progressive, and more specifically White and progressive, have our own struggle with distorted worries as well.

There are concerns regarding how to discuss the issue or if we even should. There are concerns that redressing the harms of yesterday and today will impact our hearts and minds in ways too painful for us to cope. There are suspicions that discussion of race is designed only to make us, as White people, feel beat up and guilty. There is disbelief or even defensiveness at the notion that racism is not only something that happens to others via the hands of others, but that all White people, no matter ideology, are central actors in the story. And, while this is far from an exhaustive list, there is the ubiquitous panic and helplessness in determining what, if anything, can be done to make it all better.

If we want to create a tomorrow that is more human than today, it is not enough to finger point and shout at the backward and so-called redneck. We must also heed the challenge that is growing in mind and spirit ourselves. This requires an ongoing process of discovering who we have been, who we are, and who will become as individuals, as a community, and as a nation.

It is a process convoluted, electric and raw.  But without intentional disruption, our worries are likely to grow larger. Our avoidance of tough truths stronger. The broader hurt of yesterday and today all the less likely to heal.


I am not able to provide words that fully dissolve or resolve the range of emotional responses to the topic of White supremacy and its related concepts. But I do feel compelled to offer a response to the concerns of our moment. A moment, once again, directly tied to the centuries long conditions and structures of a race conscious society, first built on the legal idea and then perpetuated by the stubbornness of the human heart, that some of us are more human than others.

I offer a hand not as a sage, but as a fellow explorer. As one with a unique combination of experiences and perspectives that include a decades long diagnosis of chronic anxiety and more than a decade of formally and informally studying the wounds caused by me and my people.

Per the former, I not only know what it feels like to be afraid, I know what it feels like to think fear will never end. For the latter, yes, there have been moments of discomfort in the midst of discovery. But I learned early in the process that I have never been and never will be in any true danger. White Supremacy is a topic I am able to walk away from and never think about again if I so choose. But when I do engage, I receive with consistency more grace and guidance from friends as well as strangers.

Just as I practice with my own personal anxieties, when we have a more realistic view of the task before us, rather than seeing shadows as monsters, we can begin accepting reality. That acceptance leads to assuming responsibility. In the context of White Supremacy, this means setting aside our ego, guilt, and worry when confronting the truth of our Nation’s Original Sin and its lingering hurt.

My hope is that the strategies I have used and continue using in order to maneuver through my own anxious mind can be utilized in this process. And that those who want to engage, but are held back by concern and doubt, have a few extra tools in their pocket to accompany them in the journey. Tools that are simple to hold, but difficult to use.

The first of these is the tool of radical love.

Now, discussing love for White selves is controversial among some. I am conflicted about it myself. Because one truth is that love for Whiteness can grow too large and become a disdain for anyone deemed not white. Another truth is that we can end up coddling each other and ourselves, or even expecting our emotional safety to trump the emotional and physical safety of others.

These are truths with which I agree. But there is another truth I cannot avoid. And that is the reality that we will not make progress with shrinking circles of good people amid expanding circles of bad people. If anxiety is distorting the message in the audience’s ears and all they hear is that anti-racism or White supremacy are vague concepts meant to make white people feel bad, guilty, shameful, or if anxiety distorts the danger people see themselves in and they think they are losing access to goods and services they have enjoyed their entire life, and they think the White race is threatened, and they think equality equals oppression, we have a problem. We have a major problem.

A recalibration is needed. It is akin to my own mental adjustments when I begin feeling shame and regret at my propensity for worry. Shame and regret does nothing to calm an overactive mind.  Instead, it is when I love myself and give myself grace, when I treat myself with the tenderness I treat a friend in a difficult time, that I am able to ride the waves of worry. I am able to see this rise and fall of water as a natural part of the human condition, even if my waves are more exaggerated than others.

A similar re-calibration is needed in the White community. And that recalibration hinges on radical love. It is the love that James Baldwin identified when he wrote:

“White people…have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”


“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of  grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

I receive both quotes as challenges and encouragements. I want to prove Baldwin wrong. I want to show him, that as White people, we are capable. That we can dare to grow. Yes, we are broken and imperfect. Yes, we may grow uncertain about the operation of our moral compass. But as Will Campbell, the White southern minister and a grassroots leader in the Civil Rights movement, once said, “We’re all bastards. God loves us anyway.”

If God loves us, we can love ourselves too.


The second tool of value I have found in countering the distortion of worry is vision and creativity. When I want to curl up and crawl into a corner, afraid of the dangers of the world, I talk to myself about the life I want to live. I imagine a life not bound to an ever shrinking radius of safety. I imagine seeking new sights and new smells. New experiences and new relationships.

One of my frustrations attempting to organize tangible institutional change in response to our insidious White supremacy, a frustration I admit I could handle much better, is the sense that far too often we become stuck in the minutiae. Too myopic to see the entire forest. Too afraid to imagine and explore. Clinging to a smaller and smaller corner of supposed safety. Waiting for someone to provide the answers. To tell us exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to start.

As best I can tell we do not have a complex plan which gives society as a whole, step by step instructions on how to repent and be forgiven and rebuild after the past. Or rebuild after the present. This fact itself can create more anxiety. It is easy to grow apathetic and see no point in trying.

But in addition to love as antidote to worry, vision is needed to motivate us and give us a destination to work toward. In order for this to occur, we have to think bigger than perhaps we have ever thought before. Then multiply our scale by ten. And then by another ten.

When I think of examples of this kind of large scale thinking, one that is prominent in my mind is the imaginative marine biologists in the late 1970’s that discovered hydrothermal vents deep on the ocean floor. Despite the harsh conditions of 700 hundred degree water, immense water pressure and no sunlight, new lifeforms were found. New species of tube worms, fish, shrimp, and more.

When these scientists engaged in that process of discovery, they could not bog themselves down with arguments over what name to give to their subterranean exploration vehicle. They could not indefinitely delay the project because they had philosophical disagreements over the nature of water. They had to tackle each challenge as best they could and  move to the next one.

In many ways we are like those scientists. Trying to discover new life. A new tomorrow. A new idea of what Whiteness is. Or could be. Or should be.

We are trying to make a new nation. Trying to do our part to heal wounds from the last 400 years. All in the hope that the next 400 years will not be the same. Yes, there are things we have to get as precise as possible or the endeavor will not succeed. Yes, there can be and should be pressure on our shoulders. Lives are at stake. Livelihoods are at stake. Our nation’s health is at stake. Peace is at stake.

But how blessed and fortunate are we to do be able to do something.

And with each act of doing, of pushing the rock before us, the hope is – my faith proclaims that –  we grow closer to God’s ideal. It is not an ideal we will realize in our lifetime. But this need not diminish our efforts. We are here now and we are a link between the past and the future. And so we work. Because we are obliged.


The upcoming church symposium (September 28-30) is the next effort before us. Not a culminating event. But a continuation to take us further. As we confront and change White Supremacy not just in the lives of our White brothers and sisters waving Rebel flags, but in our own lives, and in our own community, things may grow messy or tense at times. We may have a hard time understanding each other because of the different language we use. We will have disagreements about tangible actions to take. Some of us will get stuck. Some of us will set out on our own, too fast for anyone else to keep up.

It is my request that during this process we refrain from allowing our anxiety to dictate the course. Because if we do, chances increase that our distortions of reality will lead to maladaptive behaviors. Where we will spend most of time finger pointing and blaming. Where we will we compete about which of us,  as White individuals, has hands that are the cleanest. Where an atmosphere of rigid group think, snufs out creative and original thought. Where we bemoan how others do not understand, never bothering to explain things differently so that they can.

I am guilty of committing all of these transgressions above. I do so when I am not in a place of balance. When I allow my ego to become more important than healing. When I allow anxiety to edge out my need to face who I have been and who I am. And with the bitter taste of worry in my mouth, there is little capacity to love all of myself, broken and beautiful, and envision who it is I have not yet become.

Together in community, may we find the radical love and necessary imagination needed to disrupt our individual and collective distorted worry. May we envision who we, as a faith community and pluralistic society have yet to become. And then may we engage in the gritty work of pushing a rock toward God’s ideal of a more human tomorrow. One in which words of equality are not aspirational, but descriptive of reality.

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1 Response to Racial response ability

  1. pip1943 says:

    Ruth, this is so timely and poignant. And Joshua — wow, you have put a lot of thoughts and words together. But we need a gifted editor and marketeer to translate that into a bumper sticker, or better yet, an emoji. This is the 21st century and our collective attention span has shortened to match the expected remaining lifespan of the human race. We need thinkers, still, but we need leaders with punchy slogans and acronyms that can fit on ball caps!

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