I have been reading Waking Up White, And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. When a book gets recommended to me three times from different sources, well, it is time to pick it up and read it. And oh my: What a powerful read it has been.
This is the first-person account of a middle-aged woman who grew up in white suburbia in a fairly affluent family seeking to grow in her understanding of and engagement with the racial divides we find ourselves in our world. She discovers how much white privilege shapes our very existence without us being aware of it and how we contribute to systems of injustice and oppression without intending to do so. It is the air we breathe.
The chapter I am currently ruminating on is titled “Intent and impact.” I like to think of myself as a person of good intent. I try to be kind, gracious, give people the benefit of the doubt, seek after the common good. I am often judicious with the words I use. I have a degree in international relations. I have lived and traveled in countries in which I was not the dominant culture. I have gone through intercultural competency training. In other words, I try to live aware. And yet I still stumble. While I may have good intentions, because I am acting out of my own cultural biases, my impact may not match my intent.
It happens all the time to all of us. I was in spin class. Our instructor is African American. He was, in his usual way, calling out one of the members of the class who happened to be white, pushing him to go faster. At the end of that set, this person responded, good naturedly, “So am I your whipping boy today?” It was offered in the spirit of the kind of back-and-forth teasing that often occurs in this class. I am sure he didn’t even really pause to think about what he was saying and to whom. He meant no harm. After all, it is a just a phrase we use, right? But these particular words caught my attention, and if I noticed, I wonder what the impact was for our instructor, who would hear those words with all the history and residue of slavery that is still deep in our culture. To him, would it be just a phrase?
We tend to use our intent as a shield—“Oh, I didn’t mean that”—in order to not have to take responsibility for our impact. I am trying to be more aware of not only my intent but what my impact might be as I speak and act, knowing full well I won’t always get it right.
But here is what I don’t want to do: I don’t want to become so cautious, so fearful of saying the wrong thing or stepping on someone’s toes, that I won’t put myself out there to engage in true dialogue. We need grow in our mutual understanding and be willing to put ourselves in places of discomfort and awkward conversation if we want to make progress in building the beloved community. Some days, our good intent has to be enough because we will not get it right all the time.
Here is a good word I heard recently from Dr. Scott L. Johnson, speaking at the Board of Ordained Ministry training on cross-cultural competency. He encouraged us to seek to build authentic relationships because when we have relationship, we give grace to one another when it comes to our intent and impact. We are heard differently when there is an authentic relationship because each person knows the other is genuinely seeking his or her well-being. In my spin class, we have a shared bond. We are regulars showing up week after week. We know each other by name. There is relationship, and so an offhand comment gets a pass. We presume good intent.
But what about next time, and the time after that? That is where I was convicted in reading Waking Up White: The world is tilted in my favor, and there’s little I have to put up with or overlook as an educated, middle class, European white woman.
So what I am going to do with that? What opportunity and obligation does that give me, particularly in our world right now? It has to be more than intent. Where am I willing to extend myself for the sake of the impact I can have that makes a real difference? I know God is nudging, stirring, and pulling me out, somewhere, to do something. Otherwise, why would books like Waking Up White come into my life and start messing with me? I don’t know exactly where it all will lead, and that is okay. Being open and having a teachable spirit is a great starting place.
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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