We were hiding from the heat, sisters in solidarity against vacations on the surface of the sun. While most of our friends lounged by the pool, living their best lives with umbrella drinks and beach reads, the four of us sought refuge in the blessed air-conditioned hotel room. In the privacy of that room, we could finally admit that we were melting and a little bit hangry about it (hangry = hot + angry).
As we commiserated and cooled off, our conversation quickly turned to deeper topics.
I can still see us in that room, two of us on each of the two beds, facing each other and slowly getting comfortable. I’m not sure how we got from “I cannot deal with this heat” to “Some spaces aren’t safe for people who look like me,” but we did. Of the four of us, one of my friends was African-American and one was Asian-American. As they began to share their lived experiences in the world and on the internet, I was shocked.
Listening to their stories, I was shocked both by what I was hearing and learning and by my own reaction. At one point, I sat on my hands in an attempt to remind myself to stay quiet and listen. I’d never before taken the phrase “bite your tongue” as literal advice, but as I felt protests rattling in my throat, I wondered if I would need to actually bite my tongue.
“But I’m not like that!” I screamed internally. “I would never treat you like that — and I’m so mad anyone ever did!” I longed to say. Words of encouragement and empathy tend to be my friendship superpower, but somehow I knew this wasn’t the time. Somehow, I sensed that expressed rage on my friends’ behalf wasn’t what was needed. It wasn’t what would help and it might even hurt.
I sat in that hotel room in the summer of 2017, listening to my friends talk and carefully asking follow-up questions. It took restraint that I don’t normally exercise, discernment and discipline that can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit. And not only did God make it clear that I should talk less and listen more, but He also helped me hear something new, something heart-changing.
When I heard my friends say that they didn’t feel welcome in communities that included very few people of color, my gut reaction was to yell, “But you ARE welcome! I promise! I want you there! You SHOULD feel welcome there!” I don’t think that reaction was completely wrong, but it was coming from a place of ignorance. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but from that conversation and many more that have followed, I began to learn.
I’ve learned that I really don’t understand what it’s like to be a person of color in the United States. And as much as I’ve wanted to say, “We’re all the same!” and move on, glossing over our differences erases the pain and struggle and the beauty of those very differences. I’ve learned that just because I’m not overtly racist, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have beliefs and benefit from a system that is rooted in racist and wrong assumptions and misunderstandings about people who are different from me.
I’ve learned that I have a lot to learn, and I won’t be able to do that if I open my mouth and shout, “Not me!” and “Not every . . . !” each time the issue of race comes up. I’ve learned that feeling things in my heart is a good start, but it doesn’t actually help my sisters and brothers of color. Well-intentioned emotions aren’t enough. Understanding is just the first step — and a steeper one than I’d previously imagined. Because of my friends’ honesty and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I’ve come to understand that I can and should take action in creating a world that’s welcoming and safe for all.
That day opened my eyes to the struggles and pain my friends (and others) were facing, to issues I had not understood, and problems I had not considered. Our conversation changed me — and continues to change me still. It was the beginning of my realization that simply feeling sad about racism or shouting supportive words aren’t enough to make a difference. It’s a privilege to listen and hold my friends’ stories, and I’m grateful that in His love, God revealed the ways my posture, my beliefs, and my actions needed to change so I can truly love others as He does.
Fast forward to today, and God has been faithfully persistent in teaching me that embracing and celebrating the diversity of His people is how I can see Him more fully. Through reading books, watching movies, and listening to the stories shared by my fellow (in)courage sisters here, I’m being humbled and keeping my heart soft. I’m learning to sit in the discomfort of challenging my long-held perspectives and knee-jerk reactions, having hard but good conversations with my kids, and doing the long-term work of justice in my everyday life.
I don’t always get it right, but that’s part of the process of growing. We learn. We mess up. We do our best to make things right. And we keep going.