Crashing into Whiteness

There is a scene in the 2013 Martin Scorsese movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” that depicts Jordan Belfort, the film’s main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, so high from a dangerously dosed and expired super drug that his body is completely shut down. The problem is, Belfort now has to get home to stop his associate from unknowingly sharing incriminating information with law enforcement. Belfort literally crawls to his expensive, white sports car and, using his years of experience of living under the influence, carefully makes his way down the road. In what appears to be a miracle, he makes it all the way home without damaging himself, any other property, or his beautiful car. Or so he thought.

The Wolf of Wall Street Wrecked Car GIF

Once he is arrested, the police take him outside where Belfort sees his car mangled and covered with foliage and debris. The film then shows that Belfort didn’t get home safe and sound but hit nearly everything he possibly could from the moment he started the car. It’s a comedic beat in the movie, but I have been thinking about this scene a lot as I’ve somberly reflected on our current moment in the world. The shock that Belfort was experiencing as he reflected on his tumultuous ride home is, in a small way, what many white people are feeling in this very moment. For many, their lives up to this point, all of the working, earning, and relating they’ve been doing, are suddenly being called into question as the scales of privilege fall from their eyes.

The world seems to be, at least right now, seeing through a different lens on the state of race in America and the world. The pain felt by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery is being met with a new level of compassion and empathy that wasn’t as present as our black brothers and sisters grieved the murders of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many more. Compassion and empathy are powerful tools, but as they pull white people into the lives of their neighbors it brings new awareness to the fears and trials people of color experience in America every day. It doesn’t take long as white people examine the lives of people of color around them, before they begin to examine the systems around them as well. Then it doesn’t take long as they examine the systems before they begin examining themselves. All of a sudden, you’re standing on your steps staring at your dismantled sports car.

This is a feeling I am very familiar with. There have been many moments in recent history when I realized I had not been navigating the world, and, particularly, issues of race flawlessly. I hadn’t been zipping around these twisty turns with great expertise, but I was banging down the road high on woke arrogance and oblivious to my racial blind spots. The shock I was feeling comes from having to reevaluate so many aspects of my life and identity. How many friends and neighbors had I blindly hurt with insensitivity and ignorance? Was I taking the hardships they had shared with me seriously? Would they ever forgive me? How do I even pursue that reconciliation? Did I really earn any of the achievements I held deep-seated pride in or was there some level of advantage based on my skin color? Questions like these were not in short supply but it all led to one big question. Have I failed?

Have I failed to do so many of the things I believe in as a follower of Christ? Have I been denying the image of Christ in others? Have I failed to love my neighbor? Have I failed to care for the widows and the orphans? Have I failed to help Jesus usher in the Kingdom of God and participate in the restoration of creation? These questions were disorienting and painful. Thankfully, because of my faith, I already had rhythms of humbly seeking wisdom and then honestly practicing repentance, but now I had to apply that rhythm to my role in pursing racial reconciliation. I don’t know if you’ve ever repented before, but it’s not easy.

Sometimes it feels like your conscience has turned you into a punching bag throwing haymakers of guilt. This experience is similar to that described in Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s seminal work on white fragility. “Via this discourse [on issues of race], whites position themselves as victimized, slammed, blamed, attacked, and being used as “punching bag[s].” The way Dr. DiAngelo describes white fragility sounds to me like any instance of sin being revealed I’ve ever felt or heard about. Defenses go up and blame goes everywhere but where it belongs. Look at how quickly Adam’s fingers point to Eve and God when asked about the original sin. If you are feeling like a punching bag, I would encourage you to ask yourself if it’s actually your conscience doing the punching?

This process is long and nuanced. It involves the complete reevaluation and reordering of our lives. In the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes of a time immediately following his conversion when he went to Arabia. Some see this time as a season for Paul to learn the Gospel directly from Jesus, but I like to think it was more than that. Paul, who was Saul, had a worldview driven by completely different motivations than the life he would live with Jesus. Paul had to look through his life and bit by bit seek forgiveness for the atrocities he committed and redirect every area of his life so that he could now reach out to the very people he had been hurting. This season lasted three years and, even then, Paul had work to do. It is a hard process, but is the only way we are ever going to change the world. One by one the scales need to fall and hearts need to soften. So if you’re in that moment of shock right now, that is a great place to be. Maybe you won’t be able to repair all the damage you’ve done but you’ll do better next time if you just keep driving.

Taylor Swift and the struggles of white repentance

“My entire moral code has been based on the need to be perceived as good.”

So says Taylor Swift in the recent Netflix documentary about her career and the recording process of her latest album, Lover. The doc weaves in footage of her early career, but focuses primarily on her reflections of what shaped her as a young artist, and how she has been driven ever since. Swift has a remarkable and unparalleled career. Starting out as a 14-year-old in Nashville, she has always been in the public eye and grew up with her entire personhood on display. She has always written her own songs, and has logged 7 chart-topping studio albums, an unusual sustained success for any artist. Swift was coming of age along with her fans and leveraged social media in a way that was ground-breaking at the time, giving fans glimpses into her personal life and making them feel like they were her friends. A major part of her persona has been her accessibility and transparency, bringing herself into her songwriting and into her connections with fans. But that has come at a cost.

Swift is exceptionally successful but largely because she is a perfectionist who struggles with anxiety, disordered eating, loneliness, and the belief that to be good one must be flawless. To be in the public eye means to be criticized, and Swift internalized negative feedback into believing that if she tried harder and became better, she would find the acceptance and approval she longed for. She talks candidly about the performance treadmill she was perpetually on, trying to conform to what others wanted her to be so that she could finally feel that she was enough.

In the past two years she has tried to confront the constraints she was allowing to be placed upon her. That has included becoming more politically active around causes she cares about and speaking out about sexual harassment and assault. In the doc we watch her share a public Instagram post about the 2018 mid-term Senate race in Tennessee (her home state), which was a major risk for her. The moment when she hits “share” on her Instagram account is one of deep anxiety and dread, knowing what would come next. She received intense backlash as well as death threats and the potential for physical harm.

These themes are where Miss Americana turns from being about Taylor Swift specifically to being about what it means to be a young woman in society. Speaking for young white women at least, we are socialized to be agreeable and approval-seeking. To accommodate the needs and comfort of others regardless of what we are experiencing. To conform to the expectations of others, particularly men, and not be contentious or opinionated. We are taught that we should strive for perfection. Perfection in attaining impossible body and beauty ideals, and perfection in our studies and careers. We should not attempt something unless we know we can complete it with excellence and are wracked with shame and embarrassment over every perceived failure. If the ideal is to be “good”, then anything that makes us feel “bad” is to be avoided at all costs.

t swift

I believe these dynamics have contributed significantly to white feminism’s failure to partner authentically with women of color. It should be named first that in various stages of the women’s movement, women of color have intentionally been excluded for no other reason than prejudice and selfishness. That needs to be named and contended with, along with multiple other factors. For now, and in this area, I think the way white women are socialized is blocking our current ability to move forward in a healthier and more equitable way. Because to join with women of color has to start with admitting failure and flaws. It has to involve pressing into the ways that we have lived in blindness and being willing to make mistakes as we move towards understanding. We have to admit that we are not perfect, and from there we have to take risks that will make some angry and offended.

I had to wrestle with this firsthand when I moved to Memphis, TN three years ago from the Northeast. Before moving I would have described myself as concerned about racial reconciliation and issues of justice. I had a strong Biblical conviction that God is concerned with the poor and marginalized, and that as Christians we are called to enter into those same concerns. But it wasn’t until I came to the Deep South that all my blindness and selfishness and disbelief were exposed. I had no idea the extent to which racism has corrupted our society, and my unintentional role in perpetuating it. And as a result, I spent the first year in this new city in a perpetual state of anxiety. Every day I was realizing new things about the on-going impact of systemic racism, and every day I felt like a failure and a “bad” person. As a white woman, that triggered all my defensiveness and instinctive need to preserve my identity as a “good” person and to downplay and dismiss and withdraw. There was an intense war waging within me, one that could have easily derailed me and prompted me to give up.

That is a war we will all have to face if we are serious about addressing the failures and exclusions of white feminism. Because the truth is, we have failed, and we have been doing it wrong. We have been staying in what is comfortable and known. We have taken some genuine risks to address toxic patterns in society but have stopped short of acknowledging where we have contributed to patterns of systemic inequality. We have kept others at a distance in order to prevent confronting things that could make us feel inadequate. And that has kept us prisoners to fear, anxiety, and lies. We are more concerned with being perceived as good than we are about doing what is right.

If we are to move forward, we need to cling to Jesus who promises that the truth sets us free. Who promises that He is not surprised by our sin and failure, but offers us mercy and forgiveness. Who gives us the Holy Spirit to rewire and change us from the inside out. In my journey of contending with racism, the Lord was able to work out more than my prejudice and biases. I was finally giving God room to deal with my idols of approval and perfection, and finding freedom in embracing my weakness in order to step into humility and equity. I have been profoundly blessed and changed by Memphis, and Jesus has used this place to disciple me and transform me. That would never have happened if I had not made my peace with being imperfect. It is time for us to seek the Spirit’s help in releasing our need to be perfect and repent at the foot of the cross, knowing that renewal and hope are waiting for us.

 

Resources for next steps: If racial equity is something that you want to pursue more, here are two simple places to start.

  • Bryan Stevenson – This podcast interview with the lawyer and author of Just Mercy is a beautiful exposition on why it is important to still be talking about the history of race in America. Stevenson is a Christian and his faith is a clear motivator in the way he talks about racial healing with hope and purpose
  • White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White by Daniel Hill. From IVP, this is a faith-based discussion of white culture and seven stages to expect on your own path to cultural awakening.