I think I'm a good person. Most people think that, in my experience, but I have always worked really hard to make sure it's true. My core beliefs center around empathy and love, beauty and service, respect and inclusion. My parents and grandparents taught me everyone is equal, everyone should be treated as if they are a beloved child of God, a human being worthy of respect. I had a black baby doll when I was young. She was my favorite. I named her Carla. I have black friends. In my years of youth ministry, I've mentored several young black guys--even had one crashing on my couch for several months when he was in high school and his living situation went awry. I would never consider myself a racist. I can't think of a single specific situation in which I behaved in a way that would be viewed by the outside world as racist.
Imagine my confusion, then, when I realized a truth which I wrote about in a recent blog post:
I'm afraid of black men.
My immediate reaction to making this confession again is to quantify it. Not all black men...I don't let this keep me from talking to black guys...this doesn't mean I treat them different than anyone else...this doesn't make me a racist...I would never assume that someone is a criminal just because they're black... And on and on and on the string of explanations in my head go. We get really defensive when we discover uncomfortable truths within us, don't we?
Noticing What We Don't Want to Notice
Like many in our nation, I've been thinking a lot about race the last few years. I was homeschooling my daughter when the Ferguson "riots" broke out, after the death of Michael Brown. We were studying Civics and Government, and as an aware, social-justice advocate, parent and educator, I knew that what was happening was important for her to understand. But in order for her to understand, I had to have a better grasp of what was going on, myself. So I started researching, and I started learning, and I started listening to the voices and stories of people of color, in my own back yard and around the nation.
At work, I found myself in classrooms where discussions on the history of race in American society, literature and film were happening, along with many, many discussions around race relations and civil rights as the University of Missouri protests of the Concerned Student 1950 group were disrupting the comfortable bubble of campus-stability we were used to.
I listened to cruel and insensitive comments be made without any awareness of the impact, I saw hatred spewed, and watched news stories continue to develop as one young black man after another was killed by police officers, and officer after officer was acquitted of murder because they "felt threatened".
And I was grateful at least I don't have those beliefs. At least I am not like them.
Then I watched The Legend of Tarzan.
Fear is the Mind Killer
I love Tarzan. Always have, for as long as I can remember. Problematic though the story is in many ways, I find the wildness and the romance enchanting. Plus, I like shirtless long-haired, tan guys on horses (I'm looking at you, Lord Greystoke). So, of course I was going to see The Legend of Tarzan.
This film fascinated me, for several reasons (none of which have to do with it being a great piece of cinema, which it's really not). I was especially interested in how the film-makers used skin tone to differentiate between characters. Our hero and heroine are white, of course (this is the premise of Tarzan, so we can excuse that), the villagers who have given Jane a home are our American image of "good" Africans. Their skin isn't TOO dark, they wear clothes we're pretty comfortable with, live in houses in a peaceful community, speak some English, and help the European colonizers out when they can.
But as the movie progresses, and we move deeper into the jungle, the filmmakers begin to build on our fear. Fear of the other, fear of the African savage, fear of the black man whose skin is dark as night, who wears animal skins and doesn't speak our language and is out to get us.
And it worked. By the time we reached the confrontation the film was building toward, I was terrified of the black men and rooting for the one white guy who, of course (spoiler alert) wins the day and saves the girl. I was also acutely aware of how my emotions had been played, and how the filmmakers had capitalized on an unconscious, lurking fear that I hadn't recognized. I knew that I found the antagonists in the story scary not because they were well-armed or skilled at combat or capable of superhuman feats, but because they were black. Not just kind-of black, but black in a way that is so foreign to me that it's terrifying on this level that is positively primal.
I thought I knew myself. I never would have said I was scared of any race. But once I realized that this film was not creating a fear, it was tapping into a fear, I knew I had to examine that fear more deeply.
Entering a Brave Space Alone
Micky ScottBey Jones, who describes herself as a "Justice Doula" wrote a poem called Invitation to Brave Space, which I find unspeakably beautiful:
Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side
This poem is designed to serve as a welcome to gatherings where people come together into intentional "brave spaces", but it has settled into my soul as part of the work I have to do within myself, that I may examine what I think I know, about myself and my way of being in the world.
I enter into myself bravely.
I recognize my scars.
I listen to those inner voices that sometimes fight to be heard.
I call myself to more truth and love.
I remind myself that I have the right and responsibility to start where I am and continue to grow.
I am not perfect.
I will be gentle with myself, and I will be brave.
I will examine what I think I know about myself, and I will use what I find to grow myself and how I am in the world.
And then I will invite others into my space, to be brave beside me.