The Language of the Unheard
Last week, as part of a year-long parish program on race and racism at our predominantly
white church, one of the facilitators, a beloved African-American parishioner and retired dean at Northeastern University, shared with us a powerful quote. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, once said to the noted feminist Bella Abzug on the topic of racism, “Until you really feel as angry about this as I do, ain’t nothing gonna change.”
|Photo by Brooke Bartletta|
I know we are all hurting and frustrated and angry about the injustices that have been revealed, once again, in the lives of our sisters and brothers of color. If you are a person of decency and conscious, let alone faith, this has been a heartbreaking moment in our common life.
Unfortunately, none of this is new. Racism is deeply embedded in the very foundations upon which this nation was built. This isn’t to belittle a country we all love, rather it’s simply stating objective fact. From the genocide of indigenous people to slavery to segregation, the injustice and indignity with which people of color have been treated is well documented. It has also mostly been ignored by those who’ve written the history books and thereby relegated to the ghetto of white consciousness.
But this past week, the curtain that hides so much racism and violence and degradation and inequality from the eyes of many white people has been torn apart for all the world to see. Between the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the rising death toll of this pandemic unduly felt in communities of color, white Americans are witnessing something of the reality that people of color live with each and every day.
The inevitable and righteous bubbling over of emotion reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr. once proclaimed that, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” For too long, so many of us have been deaf to the cries for justice that emanate from the voiceless. The act of protest, of agitating for change, is the language of the oppressed. And it is being spoken right now loudly and passionately and with profound clarity.
Of course, the destructive violence that has, in some cases, accompanied peaceful protests in cities around the country must be condemned. But the greater condemnation must be reserved for the sin of the systemic and insidious racism that continues to plague this nation leading to inequalities in education, employment, health care, housing, wealth, and government representation.
All of which is to say that I encourage your anger. We may not be able to feel it at such a visceral level as our friends of color who fear for the very safety of their children and grandchildren every time they leave the house. But for those of us who are white, we must speak out when we see and encounter racism. It’s not easy; it’s uncomfortable; it won’t make us popular in certain circles; we may lose friends on Facebook; it may make for awkward family dinners. But this is a tiny cost when weighed against the burdens of those whose entire existence is defined by discomfort.
When we do stand up for racial justice, when we say no to treating others as ‘less than,’ when we start to incorporate some of that anger into our very souls, we can slowly, if haltingly, begin to exact real change. A change that must begin within ourselves, before it can spread into the bloodstream of our community, our nation, and our world.