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Monday, January 16, 2017

Small Great Things

A famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote served as the inspiration for Jodi Picoult's book, Small Great Things. "If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way." Picoult's book was a fictional account of a white supremacist who encounters an African American nurse seeking to care for his wife and newborn child. The story unfolds from a series of events that ensued from the strained relationship and the complications that came along with the birth. I have read many of Picoult's books and enjoy them 3/4 of the way. I rarely like the way she ends a book, feeling that she is far too compelled to tidy up the very complex and often painful issues she is seeking to portray. Small Great Things was no different. Even so, I would fully recommend this book for a group of friends to read together and for a book club setting where there is a high level of trust amongst the participants. As for me, I read it as part of my new book club here in the desert where a high level of trust has not been established and I was pretty nervous going into the discussion. But a rich and layered discussion ensued and I decided that I would just be honest and bold and if it meant that I would no longer be a part of this book club, so be it. Last I checked, they still want me back next month, even changing the date to accommodate some traveling I need to do.
But on this day that commemorates the great Martin Luther King Jr. I feel compelled to write a little bit about this book and all that it invoked within me. The characters are a bit extreme, author's intent in my humble view, so that as the book seeks to help white people confront our own racism and privilege we will have the comfort of knowing that at least we aren't THAT bad. And that's the genius of the book. Because in many ways the unknown racism that lurks within each of us and the lack of understanding regarding white privilege and inherent bias is actually more dangerous to healing the racial wounds in our society than the white supremacist. The extremists are easy to dismiss. It's the shades of darkness that lurk within our hearts that are harder to overcome. It's really hard to accept that we are racist and yet one quote from the book jumped off the page and hit me smack in the face. The dialogue between and African American and a white person went something like this. The white asks, "Do you think we'll always have racism?" And the African American answers, "Yes. Because it's almost impossible for a person with power to willfully let go of it in order to level the racial playing field." Why would anyone with inherent privilege and power let go of that in order to create a more just society? Because it's the right thing to do. But it's also one of the hardest things to do. And therein lies the depth of systemic racism that is hard to name and overcome.
The book allows good white people to consider their own racist attitudes, how hurtful it is to people of color to hear white people say I don't see color, to ponder the ways in which a racist society actually serves to benefit them. I was deeply impressed with the way the women in my new book club, who I know very little of, who are all from a very wealthy, upper class economic profile, considered carefully and painfully where in their own lives they are indeed biased, if not down right racist.
I am not perfect in this journey by any means, but I have sought to intentionally grow more and more aware of the ways in which I contribute to racial bias. One of the first things I learned early on in my journey was that I do benefit from a racist society. The more bias that is shown to people of color, the more easily things will go my way. It takes a conscious effort to decide that that favor is less valuable than seeking liberty and justice for all. Early in my journey I read a book with an African American sister entitled "Divided Sister." This is still a great book to read in order to learn. And isn't that mostly what white people need to do, is learn? This book confronts the reality of how differently white and black women experience the world of dating, hair, shopping, dressing for success, clothing and accessories, to name a few. Reading it alongside of a black sister who graciously entered into conversations with me, patiently and sometimes not so patiently confronting me with my own naïveté has proven to be one of the most deeply shaping events in my life. Becoming aware of the subtle bias in our world is the first step in taking bigger steps towards liberty and justice for all.  Admittedly, Alexandra was one of my first, close African American friends. I had a black friend in high school but I was terribly unaware of what it meant for her to 1 of 3 black kids in our school and we saw her as an Oreo...black on the outside but white on the inside, which I've come to learn is a very offensive way to describe someone. So, Alex changed my world view. Instead of reading in a book that people of color are followed around in stores, I listened as she told me about her experiences of shopping in the neighborhood of the university where we worked. She helped me understand that she thinks about her skin color every second of every day when I never did. She helped me begin to own my own bias, my own privilege and I will be forever grateful.
Now, years later, I have had the privilege of serving a deeply multi-cultural church in Stockholm where most of my deepest friendships were forged with people who did not look like me. It remains the most satisfying experience of my life and pushed me to continue to learn and grow in my own understanding of what it truly means to fight for liberty and justice for all. Which is a great thing and one I will never accomplish but the small great thing that I can and will continue to do is to build relationships with people who don't look like me and listen. Listen as I learn about their experiences in our world. Listen as I seek to understand without opinion the kind of bias they are up against. Listen as I deeply try to see things from a totally different point of view.
Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr and the legacy that he left behind. Important as his quotes are, far more important is to take a step, no matter how small, towards understanding the inherent bias you may enjoy as a white person. The key to truly living a life that is committed to racial healing is to enter into relationships with the very people who are deeply oppressed. And listen.
At the end of Picoult's book is a lengthy afterword from the author that chronicles her journey as she wrote this book. That is perhaps one of the most valuable parts of the entire book because there she admits her own racist instincts and reveals how she began to come to grips with the darkness in her own heart. I found it profoundly honest and moving.
And so today on MLK day here in the US rather than simply post moving photographs with some of his greatest quotes, quotes that are worthy and important, I'm just going to urge us all to find a way to build a relationship with someone this year who doesn't look like you. And rather than judge them, or make assumptions about who they are, listen. Listen to their stories of how it is for them to live in this world. You will learn. And you will gain deeper understanding. And you will confront your own dark corners and it will be painful but worth it. It is indeed the one small thing we can do that will truly be great.